Al Dexter
April 4, 2014 | by Texas Music Magazine
Story Behind The Song: “Pistol Packin’ Mama”

The biggest-selling record of World War II was a hit for Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra — and inspired by an eyebrow-raising bar conversation.
BY COY PRATHER

Drinking beer in a cabaret and was I havin’ fun!

Until one night, she caught me right 

And now I’m on the run!

Lay that pistol down, babe, lay that pistol down

Pistol packin’ mama, lay that pistol down!

She kicked out my windshield

She hit me over the head

She cussed and cried, and said I’d lied

And wished I was dead.

Lay that pistol down, babe, lay that pistol down

Pistol packin’ mama, lay that pistol down!

Overwhelmed by news of bloody conflict, Americans in early 1943 just wanted to forget the war and laugh. Reprieve came in the form of Al Dexter’s jukebox favorite about spurned love and ladies with guns — “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” The song became the first country crossover hit of World War II, encouraging pop fans to expand their musical palettes, and paving the way for future southern superstars like Gene Autry, Bob Wills and Ray Price.

Born Clarence Albert Poindexter in Jacksonville, Texas, in 1902, Al Dexter spent his early years as a house painter, but his first love was music. He taught himself to play harmonica and built his first guitar from a washboard, which he played at Square Dances every chance he could. His first recordings were gospel music, but after record execs told him “gospel doesn’t sell,” he switched to country and quickly made a name for himself playing small East Texas clubs. His first big hit was “Honky Tonk Blues” in 1936, which is widely credited as the first song to use the term “honky tonk.” Fittingly, Dexter used the money he earned to buy several honky-tonks himself, including the Round-up Club and Palm Isle in Turnertown and Longview, respectively.

Dexter signed a deal with Okeh, the country division of Columbia Records, and enjoyed additional regional hits, but by the early 1940s his record sales had hit a lull. A Columbia exec urged producer Art Satherley to drop Dexter, who, now nearing the age of 40, desperately needed a hit, but Satherley refused.

A conversation Dexter had with a waitress in a roadhouse he owned finally led to success. The woman was chased through a barbed-wire fence by the gun-toting wife of the man she was seeing, and Dexter began to muse about what he’d say to a gun-toting lady, writing on a paper napkin, “Lay that pistol down, babe, lay that pistol down.”

On March 18, 1942, Al Dexter and his Troopers recorded “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” The record enjoyed brisk sales, building steam month by month. It was common in that era for a song to be recorded and released by multiple artists — in fact, different versions of the same song would often make the charts simultaneously — and Dexter hit a home run when “Pistol Packin’ Mama” was covered by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. Wartime America couldn’t get enough of it. It was funny and easy to sing, with an unforgettable chorus you could be certain to find someone humming in jukeboxes and roadhouses across the country. In 1943, the New York Yankees sang the song in the locker room after defeating the Cardinals in the World Series. Dour film star Gary Cooper sang it on a USO tour overseas. Marines on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands shared the song with natives. Hundreds of fighter planes, bombers, tanks and cannons were painted with cowgirls and labeled “Pistol Packin’ Mama.”

It was the Billboard No. 1 hit on Oct. 30, 1943, as well as the top song on the most popular radio show of the day, The Lucky Strike Hit Parade. It was also the first No. 1 record on the new Juke Box Folk Song Records Chart that later became the Hot Country Songs Chart. The first No. 1 version to chart was sung by Bing Crosby, followed by Dexter’s original and interpretations by Frank Sinatra and Tex Ritter. Republic Pictures even made a movie named after the song three months later, which did a brisk business.

“Pistol Packin’ Mama” sold over three million copies to become the largest selling record of World War II, and one of the best sellers of that entire decade. Dexter, who called his guitar his “starvation box,” made $250,000 from the song — over $3.5 million in today’s currency. He’d go on to be the first country singer to play on Broadway, and he enjoyed six additional No. 1 recordings, including “Guitar Polka,” which topped the country charts for 15 weeks in 1946. Dexter had 12 gold records in the ‘40s, and he continued to record until the mid-1950s before he officially retired from music in the early 1960s.

Always an astute businessman, realizing early on the importance of owning his own copyrights, Dexter became a wealthy man. He bought and sold real estate and owned clubs in Dallas and a motel in Lufkin.

All the while, “Pistol Packin’ Mama” continued to earn him money. Gene Vincent and Lloyd Price recorded rock ’n’ roll versions of the song, while the Hurricanes shared an R&B take. In the 1970s, the song was used in English candy advertisements, and it later appeared on an episode of Seinfeld, sung by Kramer. Willie Nelson covered the song on his 2010 album, Country Music.

Al Dexter was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1971 and the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010. He died in Lewisville, Texas, in 1984.

Originally published in Winter 2014, Issue 57.
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