By Gary E. McKee
Almost 40 years ago, a group of four young men from Port Lavaca decided to try their hand at making traditional country music with a little rock and roll flavoring. Bobby Lee, Bill Elliott, Donnie Hons, and Joel Nava formed a band known as The Bobby Lee Nightriders. Their ages were rather interesting. Bobby was almost 40 and Bill was 33, while Donnie and Joel were still in high school. This age split proved fruitful as the older two were very familiar with the 1950s country music and rockabilly sound, and the two “kids” brought a fresh sound to the band and broadened the fan base.
Always a Singer
Bobby can remember always singing. As a child in the pre-seatbelt days, he remembers standing on the car seat going down the road singing along with his parents. Bobby’s other music lesson involved him and his uncle riding horses through the pastures singing duets.
In 1955, Bobby enrolled at the University of Texas. The first day he walked into his dorm room he spied a guitar leaning against the wall. It was love at first sight, “I’m gonna learn to play that guitar,” he thought. His new roommate, the owner of the guitar, taught him some chords and Bobby spent all his spare time humming On Top of Old Smokey and playing chords.
After becoming confident in the basics of guitar, his roommate, who was from Bermuda, suggested that they form a calypso group. This was during the calypso craze that was sweeping the country; Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song (Day O!) was high on the charts. With the name Calypso Islanders they sharpened their chops by playing continuously on campus and nearby clubs. In 1957, an opportunity to audition to appear on Arthur Godfrey’s national talent show arose and they won. The Calypso Islanders loaded themselves into a car and took off for New York City. It was a great road trip, to say the least. They came in second place losing to a sound effects guy.
Bobby put his dreams of being a musician aside as he pursued the almighty dollar by working at a refinery in Port Lavaca. At a wedding reception a friend asked him to get up on stage and sing with the band. He did a Hank Williams song, and then was urged to do several more. The next day at work he mentioned it to his co-worker Bill Elliott. Bill said he played electric guitar and suggested that maybe they should start a band. However, they didn’t know any other working musicians. Then Bill remembered this guy, Donnie Hons, who played bass in his church band. Donnie agreed and then enlisted his buddy, Joel Nava who could play drums.
After a few months of rehearsals and getting to know each other musically, they scored a gig at Bea’s Keg Room in Port Lavaca that held approximately 30 people. Setting up in a corner, Bobby Lee’s Nightriders began playing Thursday nights, passing the tip jar around.
Performing to a small audience helped them work out the kinks in the band that would only happen when playing live. Their sound kept getting better and the audience was bringing friends to hear them. Soon they had built a following as an up-and-coming band. Offers to play at public events such as street dances, weddings, fundraisers, grand opening, etc., were soon pouring in and the band played frequently. Donnie and Joel were still in high school, which Donnie said made it difficult to stay awake during first period English class on Mondays. He must have learned something in that English class as he can write a heck of a song.
Somewhere along the way local dancehall promoters took notice of the popularity of the Nightriders, particularly when they hired a piano player, which greatly enhanced and broadened their set list. By 1978, with Bobby Lee on acoustic rhythm guitar and lead vocals, Bill on lead electric guitar, Donnie on bass, Joel on drums, and Bobby Smith on piano; the Bobby Lee Nightriders took the reins as the country band to hire in the Gulf Coast area.
An ad in the Victoria Advocate in 1978, announced a dance sponsored by the Young Homemakers of Calhoun County with the Bobby Lee Night Riders at the KC Hall in Port Lavaca, $2.50 admission. The Music Box at Six Mile (between Victoria and Port Lavaca) was a honky tonk where the Nightriders played regularly along with area polka bands. The Country Inn and the Sons of Herman Hall in Da Costa were frequent venues for the band. The Silver Wings Ballroom in El Campo hosted 1500 folks scooting their boots to the band, which played both country and rock and roll. In the first two years, the band managed to squeeze out two records between playing every weekend.
By 1980, family obligations forced Bill Elliott to retire from the constant touring. Bobby Jay Vickery, an ace guitarist, stepped in with some electronics that mimicked a pedal steel guitar which sweetened the band’s sound and they continued on wracking up large attendance figures. Soon they were able to afford (Mickey) Gilley’s Recording Studio to produce their third album.
In the beginning of 1982, Donnie and Joel had decided to splinter off and form their own band, The Nightriders.
Bobby Lee changed his band’s name to Country Touch and kept on playing for 18 more years before retiring to focus on his day job.
Donnie has continued playing with numerous bands in the area, recording and pitching his songs to record companies. He recently recorded the Church Picnic Polka that has received favorable airplay in Central Texas.
Joel Nava came from behind the drums to be signed as a vocalist for the Arista Texas Country/Latin label. Releasing several critically acclaimed albums, he now focuses on producing and writing while periodically performing with his band, The Border.
In 2013, all members of the band reunited at the Da Costa hall for a reunion show. The crowd was so enthusiastic and the “ retired” musicians had such a great time that they have had quarterly reunion performances since then.
This Is Where the Cowboy Rides Away
Bobby Lee said that his final gig will be at Da Costa Hall, December 31, 2015, however, the remaining original members have vowed to continue performing in 2016, and carry on the legacy that Bobby created four decades ago. The original journey is coming to an end. But, no one has to ask, is another journey beginning? As for this writer, I sincerely hope so.
I would like to thank Donnie Hons for his assistance in this article.