Carl Stuart Hamblen was born October 20, 1908 in Kellyville, Texas to an itinerant Methodist preacher. Young Stuart spend most of his childhood traveling as his father’s work decreed, but as a boy he was exposed to the music and folklore of the black field hands and the cowboys working on the farms and ranches of the region. Stuart thus grew up in the authentic Western cowboy tradition, learning to ride, rope, and sing working the rodeos. It wasn’t long before music became his passion. Hamblen interrupted his education at the age of 18 to become arguably radio’s first “singing cowboy” on KAYO radio in Abilene. Three years later, Hamblen won a talent contest in Dallas and in so doing, earned an audition with the Victor Recording Company(later RCA Victor), and cut four sides for the label that year. Soon, Hamblen headed west for California, landing a job on powerful Los Angeles radio station KFI as “Cowboy Joe”, possibly the first radio cowboy ever to air in Los Angeles.
In 1930, Hamblen joined the “Beverly Hillbillies” (not to be confused with the much-later TV show), a Western singing group that at that time was a close rival of the Sons of the Pioneers. In 1931, Hamblen organized his own Western band, a group that included famous singing cowgirl Patsy Montana, and that group (under various names) was the focus of a radio program on station KFWB that would be a popular show for the next two decades. Along the way, he met and married Suzy Obee…they would go on to have two daughters and a very colorful marriage for the next 55 years.
Hamblen signed in 1934 with a brand new label, Decca Records, and his first record for the company, “Texas Plains”/”Poor Unlucky Cowboy” was only the second record the label issued. Those original songs would become Western classics, and it would begin a recording career that would ensure Hamblen recognition as one of the top country/western singer/songwriters of his day. Eventually he would make records for Columbia, RCA, and Coral.
About that same time Hamblen embarked on a movie career, appearing in a number of Western movies usually cast as a villain alongside stars such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and John Wayne. He also began breeding thoroughbred racehorses as well. In 1945, he became the first person to fly a horse to a race when he sent his prize racer, El Lobo, from Los Angeles to Bay Meadows (near San Francisco) for a race. After winning, El Lobo was flown back home the very same day.
Hamblen, like many others in the acting profession, began to cultivate a wild lifestyle, getting into drinking binges and occasionally landing in jail as a result. It didn’t seem to slow his career down much initially, indeed, two of his most famous original songs of the period (and needless to say, hits) were “I Won’t Go Hunting With You,Jake (But I’ll be Chasing Women)”, and “Remember Me (I’m the One Who Loves You), the latter recorded by artists such as Dean Martin and Johnny Cash.
In the late 1940s, Hamblen’s wife Suzy introduced her husband to a young up and coming evangelist, Billy Graham. Graham’s famous tent revival campaign, which would help make him famous, was being held in downtown Los Angeles. Graham’s preaching convicted Hamblen, who came on his radio program the following day and announced he was giving up drinking and gambling, selling his racehorses, and giving the rest of his life to Christ.
Almost immediately, Hamblen tried writing gospel songs…and although he was satisfied and happy with his change in direction, his career hit a snag. After starting up a radio program called the “Cowboy Church of the Air” in 1951, which was syndicated nationwide, Hamblen refused to do a beer commercial that the show’s sponsors wanted him to do, and for the first time in nearly 25 years, Hamblen had no radio program.
That incident led a political party called the Prohibition Party to ask Hamblen to run for President on their ticket in 1952. Hamblen ran a distant fourth to eventual President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but in so doing convinced many of the strength of his new-found convictions.
Just before all that, though, Hamblen’s friend John Wayne addressed him at a party, and asked Hamblen point blank, “You’ve had it tough ever since you got religion, haven’t you?” Hamblen answered, “Yes.”
Wayne followed with, “Do you have any regrets about doing that?” and Hamblen answered with a firm, “NO”.
Wayne then reportedly said, “It’s still hard to believe that you would be doing this (practicing Christianity).” To which Hamblen is reported to have replied, “Well, it’s no secret what God can do.”
This stopped Wayne in his tracks and made him think. A bit later, he came back up to Hamblen and said, “You know, that sounds like a good idea for a song.”
Hamblen's RCA album "It Is No Secret" from 1956.
Thus, perhaps Hamblen’s most famous song, “It Is No Secret” was born. It became the first religious song to cross over onto the pop charts and become a national hit. Not only for Hamblen, but artists such as Red Foley (backed by the Andrews Sisters), Jo Stafford, Bill Kenny and the Song Spinners, and a young Elvis Presley all charted with the song. It was instrumental in starting a trend of the 1950s of songs with a spiritual bent becoming hits, such as "“I Believe” and “He” in addition to “It Is No Secret”. Needless to say, those songs also found their way into the repertoires of the top gospel singers of the day as well, and for years beyond. A brace of gospel material followed from the pen of Hamblen…songs such as “His Hands”, “He Bought My Soul At Calvary”, “Until Then”, “Open Up Your Heart”, “How Big Is God”, "Teach Me Lord To Wait" and “Known Only To Him”, all of which are known today as classic gospel songs. In so doing, Hamblen, like Ernie Ford, became known primarily for his gospel work from that point on.
Even his huge pop hit of 1954, “This Ole House” (made a #1 hit by Rosemary Clooney) became a standard of gospel singers. The Statesmen sang that song en route to victory that year on CBS’ “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts” TV program. And nearly three decades later, the Cathedral Quartet’s version of the song became one of the most popular songs featuring their popular bass singer, George Younce. So Hamblen became a major contributor to gospel music history with his classic original songs. He would remain a wellspring that gospel singers would tap into for material for many years.
In subsequent years, Hamblen and his wife were featured on TV, toured prisons, reformatories, and youth organizations, and continued to appear as part of Billy Graham’s crusades. His “Cowboy Church of the Air” returned in 1971, this time originating from the Hamblens’ ranch in Southern California. In addition, the Hamblens began raising prize-winning Peruvian Paso horses, which were often featured in national horse shows, and in the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.
Hamblen was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1970, and in 1972 the Academy of Country and Western Music gave him their Pioneer Award for being the first “singing Country and Western Cowboy in the history of broadcasting”.
And the honors kept coming…the Gene Autry Award in 1974 for the enrichment of America’s western musical heritage, and a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame. On February 13, 1976, the City of Los Angeles proclaimed it “Stuart Hamblen Day”. In 1988, Hamblen received a Golden Boot Award…in 1994, he was inducted into the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and he was inducted into the Western Music Hall of Fame in 1999.
Early in 1989, Hamblen underwent surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor, and he died a month after that delicate surgery on March 8, 1989. Hamblen was survived by Suzy, his wife of 55 years (who has since appeared on occasion on the Gaither Homecoming Specials), 10 grandchildren, and 19 great-grandchildren.
And of course, he is survived by his 225 or so songs he wrote, spanning the western, pop, and gospel genres…three areas of music history he was a primary contributor to.
Stuart Hamblen is a major contributor to the history of southern-style gospel music, and the enduring popularity of the songs he contributed to the genre are proof of his immense stature and continuing influence therein.