Creator: Vernon E. Gray
Dates: 1900, 1930s, 1953
Quantity: 1 inch
This collection is made up of 14 photographs and a piece of letterhead for Otto Gray’s Oklahoma Cowboys Band. Most of the images are publicity shots between 1926 and 1930.
Otto Gray was a cowboy, originally from South Dakota, who was a part-time musician and full-time band organizer. Gray, born March 2, 1884, moved to the Stillwater, Oklahoma area with his parents in 1899. When he was young, he learned to rope, a skill he would display across the nation. First a stockman, then a cowboy on the ranges of Wyoming and South Dakota, he married the daughter of a rancher and together they launched a career as trick and fancy ropers.
“In 1918 I started ranching on my own,” Gray said in a 1959 interview, “then I got the idea for the band. We actually started a fiddlin’, singing and dancing unit for local gatherings and programs in nearby towns.” His wife, who became known in his band as “Mommie,” was a talented singer and Gray sang and played the guitar. Gray left most of the guitar picking to his son, Owen and other talented musicians like Dave Cutrell. Nevertheless, his cowboy band, known by various names, became one of the most popular musical groups in the Midwest and toured the country from 1925 to 1936.
The precursor to Otto Gray’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band was Billy McGinty’s Cowboy Band formed in 1921 before McGinty was involved. The group was first called “The Old Time Fiddlers” and then “The Ripley Cowboy band.” In 1922 they played at a dance in Pawhuska. It was made up from musicians that liked to play the old-time tunes. When the group was invited to perform on radio station KFRU in 1925 George Youngblood, a local businessman, thought the group should have a more prestigious name. He selected Billy McGinty’s.
In 1925 they also played at WKJF in Oklahoma City, where McGinty later met his friend Will Rogers. After repeated broadcasts on KFRU the McGinty Band’s fame reached Chicago and they were invited to perform at radio stations across the mid-west. One of the other local stations the Band played was KVOO in Tulsa. Otto Gray and his wife were members the band by Dec. 1925 when they played a weeklong performance in Hominy Theatre and earned $200. Sensing the potential of the group, Gray became the manager and he planned bigger performances.
After McGinty’s departure around 1926, Gray with his wife and son changed the name to Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys Band. Within three years they were known from coast to coast. As he became famous, Otto bought a fleet of Cadillacs, all decorated, including some with living quarters. The group became a success on the theatre circuits of the era due to their showmanship (with whip and rope tricks,) in addition to the music, their flashy costumes and visual humor, and the wide variety of their musical material. Rope tricks were done by Otto and Mommie plus a knife throwing act by Jack Edwards. Otto never planned a program in advance “we just ad-libbed our way through” each performance.
After breaking box office records at many theaters around the country, the band broke up in 1936. Gray said, “I just got tired of traveling.” The Grays moved to Springdale, Ark., where he died in 1967.
Scope & Content Note
This collection is made up of 14 photographs and a piece of letterhead. Most of the images are publicity shots of the band between 1926 and 1930.
Gray, Otto (1884-1967)
Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys Band
The Otto Gray Photographs was donated to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in 1998 by Vernon Gray.
There are more photographs and documents from the Band and Otto Gray, as well as Billy McGinty, in the Glenn Shirley Western Americana Collection.
This is a small collection.
The Otto Gray and His Oklahoma Cowboys Band Photographs is the property of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Materials, even if owned by the NCWHM, may be protected under third party copyright. It is the patron’s responsibility to research and secure any such additional copyright and pay any required fees or royalties. It is not the intention of the NCWHM to impede upon any third party rights, and the NCWHM cannot be held responsible if the patron is involved in legal action due to violation of third party copyright claims.
Restrictions on Access
The Otto Gray and His Oklahoma Cowboys Band Photographs has no restrictions and is available for research. If you are interested in researching the materials, please contact the Dickinson Research Center to make an appointment.
Otto Gray and His Oklahoma Cowboys Band Photographs, Box ##, Folder ##. Dickinson Research Center, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.