Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: After reading of Patti Page's unsuccessful revival of Patsy Montana's “I Wanna Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart,” I did a little research on this song.

Turns out Patsy Montana's signature song is widely regarded as the first million-selling single ever by a female!

Hoping to find a 78 rpm of the original version, I scanned eBay, but was surprised and confused by the results.

I found this song on eBay on four or five different labels (Columbia, ARC, Melotone, etc.) and no explanation by anyone as to which is the first issue, or which ones, if any, were recorded years later and would not sound the same as the original hit.

Curiously, one is on the Montgomery Ward label. I didn't know this store also had a record company. I can't imagine competing stores selling records made by them.

Can you guide me through this Montana maze?
—Imogene Chamberlain, Beloit, Wisc.

DEAR IMOGENE: Saddle up, our maze extrication adventure begins August 16, 1935.

That's the day Patsy Montana (née: Ruby Rose Blevins) recorded “I Wanna Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart,” for the Vocalion Record Company.

By January 1936, the track that would become the most famous and recognizable yodel song in history was in the Pop Music Top 10, and headed for unprecedented success.

Shortly after release of the original recording (Vocalion 03010), in what was an extremely common practice for then, the American Record Company (ARC) leased the original master and rights to produce records for their family of budget labels.

Rather than sell to record stores, ARC distributed their pressings to department stores with an area for record sales, and at prices discounted as much as 75% off what the major labels charged.

Music lovers could choose from higher quality records, in this case Vanguard, for about a buck, or an ARC reproduction for 25- to 39-cents, depending on where one shopped.

Though the cut rate companies produced records using lower grade materials, resulting in lower audio fidelity and a shorter playing life, we must not forget the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. In all areas of life, less expensive alternatives were mighty appealing.

That any record sold a million copies under those economic conditions makes the feat even more extraordinary.

By the end of 1935, ARC-produced 78 rpms of “I Wanna Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart” were available on ARC itself, plus at least six other variations:

ARC (5-11-56); Oriole (5-11-56); Romeo (5-11-56); Banner (5-11-56); Melotone (5-11-56); and Perfect (5-11-56).

Notice all of these labels have the same selection number, 5-11-56. The actual record number is really 56, but the 5-11 tells us it came out in 1935, during November.

ARC also made two of the above labels specifically for what were known as dime stores: Romeo for S.H. Kress & Co. 5-10-25 Cent Stores, and Oriole, which proudly states right on the sleeve “Sold only at McCrory's” (Five and Dime Stores).

Another ARC product, with a different name and selection number (Conqueror 8575), was offered exclusively by Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Which leads to your comment about the Montgomery Ward label. Unlike Sears, Roebuck & Co., the Ward stores leased the music directly, eliminating the middleman (ARC). They effectively created their own discount label, active from 1933 to 1941.

Ward did issue two Patsy Montana singles, “When the Flowers of Montana Were Blooming” (MW 4322) and “Montana Plains” (MW 4484). Neither contained “I Wanna Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart.”

The Columbia 78 you found is also the original Vocalion master, but didn't come out until 1947 (Columbia 37602).

For best quality reproduction, you can't go wrong with either the Vocalion or Columbia 78.

IZ ZAT SO? There will never be a better time to identify some of the other record labels manufactured exclusively for nationally known retailers: Macy's (Cameo); McCrory's (Oriole); S.H. Kress (Muse; Romeo; Tremont); Sears, Roebuck & Co. (Challenge; Conqueror; Harvard; Oxford; Silvertone; Supertone); W.T. Grant (Bell; Diva); and Woolworth's (Crown).

Of all versions known, Devon Dawson's energetic live performance of “I Wanna Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart” is my very favorite:

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