close
The Kennedy Center

Jim “Texas Shorty” Chancellor



Biography

I was born in 1943, the war years, in Dallas County, the fourth of five kids born to Bessie Lee and James "Jim Houston" Chancellor. Music was big in our family and "playing" was a regular family event. When I was seven, and my brother, Allen was 12, Daddy, who was a trader of goods, brought home an old Kay mandolin to add to our then modest collection of instruments. He told Allen and me that the first one of us who learned to play that mandolin could have it. As it turned out, Allen wanted to play the guitar, and I liked the mandolin better, so we both got what we wanted - with no contest.
 
Daddy wanted to be in the music "business" in a big way, but in order to make that a reality, he needed the partnership of his kids. That was pretty easy for him to achieve, because, after all, he was the "Dad", and we were the "kids". Daddy recognized that both Allen and I, and later, Robert, had musical ability, and he challenged us endlessly toward that end. As a result, at the young age of nine, I became "Shorty" of "The Texas Al and Shorty Show" on KTER Radio, Terrell, Texas, and my musical career was officially launched. Now Daddy was never anything at heart, if not a musician. In the 1950"s, he composed a number of tunes, many with lyrics. Allen recorded some of them, but his best known work is the beautiful Chancellor Waltz, a fiddle tune that I recorded, and is included in this collection.
 
My first musical era ended when Allen left home at the age of 18, and I met the greatest fiddler I had ever met, Benny Thomasson. The first time I heard about Benny Thomasson was one night when Daddy came home from a trip telling us how he had, by chance, met Benny Thomasson at a gas station in Arlington, Texas. My Daddy was always a big trader of goods. He would buy things, such as irregular socks, and we would go out to West Texas and sell them to field hands. Daddy had an old '50 model station wagon, and it was loaded down that night with goods and instruments. Daddy always had his instruments along because we would go out in little farming towns in West Texas and play music. On this trip I wasn't along, but the instruments were in the car. Benny noticed the instruments and asked Daddy if we were musicians. Daddy recognized Benny because it just so happened that Benny Thomasson had just had his picture in the paper for winning The World Champion Fiddle Contest at Crocett, Texas. Daddy was all excited, and he went home with Benny, who had a body shop on Oakwood Lane, and lived just around the corner from the gas station where they met. Benny played a few tunes and Daddy was blown away. He came home on fire about this fiddle player he had met and immediately went and bought a Web Core tape recorder and went back over to Benny's house. That night began a life long documentation of Benny Thomasson's playing, and a lifelong friendship. I decided then to put away my mandolin and learn to play the fiddle. Benny, being the blue blood musician he was, and a patient and skillful teacher, taught me many tunes note for note. You will hear on my CDs.

My first impression of Bryant Houston's playing was that his sound was really different compared to most fiddle players I had heard, almost like the sound of a concert violinist turned old time fiddler. I later learned that Bryant had been trained as a concert violinist at the urging of his father, Lek Houston. I'm not sure why he turned to fiddle playing, but I know he was part Cherokee Indian, and I think that influenced his playing. It was also clear that he had an affinity to nature's own music. One tune that he was best at was "Listen to the Mockingbird". Bryant would play that tune and make birdcalls on the fiddle. He told us he learned it by sitting alone on the bank of a creek listening to the birds, and then he would do his best to mimic them. Sounded to us like we were sitting on that bank along with him.
There were other tunes Bryant played that he could hardly be beaten at, like "Grey Eagle" and "Lime Rock". I learned Bryant's arrangements of these tunes and blended them with the arrangements I learned from Benny Thommason.

My exposure to Norman and Vernon Soloman and Major Franklin came primarily through participating in week-end fiddling get togethers at Omega Burden's and Norman and Betty Solomon's houses. It was at these sessions that I got to listen and absorb the styles of these incredible musicians, and Robert learned and adopted Omega Burden's legendary rhythm guitar style.

The first time I met Eck Robertson was in Paris. Texas, I believe, in 1956. It was an event called the Red River Valley Expedition, and Eck showed up there to participate in the contest along with Major Franklin, Benny Thomasson, Bryant Houston, and Norman and Vernon Soloman - a convention of all the best Texas fiddlers. As I recall, it lasted several days, and throughout the event Daddy made recordings of Eck Robertson playing, which I still have. Eck was a showman and the crowd responded to his showmanship. Of course, he was a great fiddle player. He launched his career in the twenties and thirties when he recorded on OK Records or Blue Bird Records, which later became RCA Victor.
I learned a tune from Eck Robertson there that had very unusual chord arrangements, and Eck had probably been frustrated in the past because he hadn't found anyone who could accompany him when he played that tune. I remember Eck beginning to play it, and saying, "Put your guitars up, cause I'm going to play a tune that no-one could ever second me on." And so he played the beautiful "Amarillo Waltz".

Daddy had traded for an old Hopf fiddle - it was highly decorated with mother of pearl, a distinctive instrument. When we met Eck and he saw that fiddle, he was quite surprised, and he asked Daddy how we got "Uncle Henry's" fiddle. It turns out this fiddle had belonged to a fellow Eck had recorded with named Henry Gillaland. Some years later John Hartford gave me a picture of Henry Gillaland holding that Hopf fiddle sitting in a chair. It reminded me of the "Red Violin", no telling where it had been, but interestingly, it wound up in the hands of a fiddle player and I still have it.
Jim “Texas Shorty” Chancellor