The swing band era that began in the 1930s was echoed by a similar process in country music, when some of the groups then around began to perform in a style that came to be known as Western Swing. It would prove to be a ticket to stardom for guys like Bob Wills and Spade Cooley, but the path for some was a little more haphazard. In the case of singer/guitarist Leon Chappelear it added up to a roller coaster career with a sad and tragic end.
Horace Leon Chappelear was a Texan who first began drawing attention on local radio in the late 1920s as the leader of his own country combo, the Lone Star Cowboys. By the early 1930s the group was rising in popularity and also working on radio in Shreveport, Louisiana, where the legendary Jimmie Davis helped steer them to a recording contract. That soon led to a number of popular records on songs like “Deep Elm Blues” and “Just Because,” showing a style that would later be familiar to fans of Bob Wills and other Western Swing stars.
Chappelear continued to find success for several years, selling a lot of records while working with his band or with Davis and others, but an auto accident in 1935 slowed him down. And even though he began working again within six months and subsequently tried a number of different lineups and styles with his band, his popularity began to decline as World War II approached.
Chappelear seemed to disappear for almost a decade, by some reports becoming a lawman (one story even had him going to prison as a crooked cop) or a pipefitter, but he resurfaced during the post-war years, again helped by his old mentor Jimmie Davis. This time around he’d shortened his name to Leon Chappell, and he seemed to lean more and more to a country blues, or honky-tonk style. He had several successful records, including “Slow Down Sweet Mama,” “I’m a Do-Right Daddy,” and “True Blue Papa,” but ill health and depression continued to follow him and by the late 1950s he was hitting bottom. He was just 53 when he took his own life in 1962.