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Friday, June 3, 2011

RHINESTONE COWBOYS

Jamie Nudie and Mary Lynn
Story by Roger Edison

In early 1962, the rising country legend Porter Wagoner was setting the stage at the Grand Ole Opry.  He had been entertaining audiences at the Opry since 1957 and began the syndicated "Porter Wagoner Show" in 1960.  Talking with his long time friend and business manager, Don Warden who also played steel guitar with Porter's band, Wagoner said, "Don, I think I need to build a new look." 

Porter was working on a new release “Misery Loves Company.”  After giving Porter's comments some thought. Don suggested, "Porter, maybe you just need to do some nudies."  There was a long pause between to two men when Don continued, "NUDIE COHN, you know, that Rhinestone tailor in Hollywood." The two laughed for a moment, then Porter replied, "Yes, I think I'm gonna fluster some of those feathers on Minnie Pearl and tell her I'm doing the show in the Nudie."  

Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton
Porter contacted Nudie Cohn about purchasing a suit. Nudie offered the suit to Wagoner for free, confident that the popular performer would serve, in effect, as a billboard for his clothing line.  After several weeks of hand stitching, the western suit was finished featuring eccentric embroidery of Wagon Wheels, Covered Wagons and Cactus scenery where Rhinestones glittered under the stage lights. The suit was flashy by any Cowboy standards yet set well on stage.   His TV Show aired to nearly two hundred markets and seen by an estimated 3.5 million viewers that set the stage of the Rhinestone Cowboys.  

Wagoner over the next two decades wore a huge collection of custom made suits by Nudie. As Wagoner introduced many new country music artists through his TV Show, many of these artist would also became music legends who frequently turned to Nudie for their custom tailoring.

The Porter Wagoner Show popularized country music and gospel tunes across the United States. His flashy apparel promoted the fashion of  Rhinestone Cowboys, though the greatest credits perhaps should go to the tailor Nudie Cohn who's innovated designs create such appeal that influence the bling in modern western attire.  The Nudie designs have been worn by many early Hollywood western stars like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans along with hundreds of other celebrities through the years including Ronald Reagan. Like Porter Wagoner, Elvis, ZZ Top, Gram Parsons, Cher, Elton John, Michael Landon, Glenn Campbell and Hank Williams are also amongst the many names who wore Nudie's creations.

Nudie was born in 1902 as Nuta Kotlyarenko from Kiev, Russia. At age 11, his parents sent him and his brother Julius to the United States to avoid the pogrom violence against Jews by Czarist Russians.  It was rumored; Nuta's name change to Nudie Cohn came about when an Irish Immigration Officer at Ellis Island, NY spelled his name incorrectly. 

Nudie first worked many odd jobs including shoe shine boy living in Brooklyn, NY before venturing out.  Hopping freight trains and hitchhiking, he headed west to California at 16 years old to becoming a boxer. By 19, Nudie had even received some minor rolls in silent movies. Though, not reaching stardom and to earn extra money, he began making costumes for such clients as actress Gloria Swanson, who was the first-ever nominee with the Academy Awards for Best Actress.

Not finding the success he had hope for, along with being broke, Nudie returned to Brooklyn to visit family in 1928. Shortly after his return, he got mixed up with the wrong influences and did time in Leavenworth for trafficking in drugs. After being released from prison, Nudie moved to Mankato, Minnesota in 1934 living in a boardinghouse. There, Nudie met and built a relationship with the boarding house owner’s daughter, Helen Barbara Kruger.  The two moved to Manhattan, but returned to Minnesota shortly later to get married.  After the wedding, they returned to the bright lights of the big apple.  Nudie began working and designing clothes with his wife Helen who was now known as "Bobbie Nudie." They opened up their first shop "Nudie's for the Ladies" in Manhattan selling custom made undergarments, consisting of G-strings and lingerie for the showgirls of Broadway.

In an interview before Bobbie's death in 2006, she stated “We lived at a hotel frequented by gamblers and the gangster Pretty Boy Floyd, with whom they struck up a friendship." After several years struggling in New York, they returned to Mankato to open a dry-cleaning and tailoring shop. As they hitchhiking back to Minnesota, a large white Cadillac flew past them as Nudie realized the driver was Tom Mix, a huge Hollywood Cowboy movie star.  "Someday, they are going to eat my dust," Nudie said to Bobbie.  Several years after their move, they had their only child, Barbara.  

As the great depression came to an end, the movie industry had grown. Nudie who was fascinated with the Cowboys of the motion pictures wanted a change of direction. Selling their business for $2,700 during early 1940 they headed for California.

They first worked from their garage creating colorful garments of gabardine suits, satin shirts with exquisite works of embroidered chain-stitching. Perhaps influenced by the creative Nathan Turk or Rodeo Ben who where two separate tailors but well established working with the Hollywood Cowboys. Nudie pushed the limits further being first to add Rhinestones to his designs. 

In 1947, Nudie met with a struggling country music artist purposing if the singer would purchase him a new sewing machine, he'd make the singer custom clothes. The artist provided a horse and a saddle they auctions for $150 and Nudie purchased his needed sewing machine. The country music artist was Tex Williams. Shortly after having the custom suits made for him and his band by Nudie, they performed at the Palace Barn.  Opening night of their performance may have been mediocre, the second night sold out crediting Nudie for the extravagant suits. Tex recorded that same year, "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette" which sat as Billboard number one song for six weeks and was the Number 5 song on the Billboard's Top 100. The song also was the number one country song of the year.  Soon, other artist including Lefty Frizzell along with Cliffie Stone gave Nudie the chance that set him on his way to success. 

Bobbie decided before they do any more business, they needed to open a new shop and with the help of friends, they moved the business from their garage to North Hollywood.  At the corner of Vineland and Victory Street dealing exclusively in western wear, they open "Nudies of Hollywood" which featured a "Naked Cowgirl" on the clothing label.  Soon, Nudie was creating amazing rhinestone-studded, hand-embroidered suits for Hank Williams and western shirts and outfits for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.  Nudie became Roy and Dale's exclusive tailor creating every garment for their personal appearances along with building a strong life long personal friendship with them. 
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans

Throughout the 1950's, Nudies success grew along with the list of celebrity clientele.  Frequently contracted for movie sets, Nudie made clothing for many western's attracting John Wayne into his line up of celebrities. Although, John Wayne stuck to traditional ranch wear. He liked the conservative wardrobe where others came for the flash. 

Alan Hanson, author of Elvis '57: The Final Fifties Tours wrote; Colonel Parker who was Elvis Presley's manager approached Nudie to have a suit made for Elvis. The suit would become nearly as famous, featuring rhinestones with 24K gold lame jacket, pants with matching shirt and bow tie.  Elvis too, remained a loyal Nudie customer.  

As the decade entered into the 60's, Nudie had hired Manuel Cuevas who was working for master embroiderer, Viola Grae.  Manuel, born in Mexico had learned to sew by age seven, although he studied at the University of Guadalajara majoring in psychology. Moving to Los Angeles during the 1950's, Manuel began working his sewing skills eventually landing him into the prestigious Sy Devore of Hollywood tailoring custom suits for top celebrities including the Rat Pack featuring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop.  Although, making exceptionally fine suits lacked Manuel's creative cravings which he found teaming with Nudie Cohn. He also soon married Nudie's Daughter Barbara an adopted her daughter Jamie who had been fathered by Jimmy Wilson, the Sun Studio piano player.

Moving the shop to Lankershim Boulevard, Nudie made several changes including the name becoming "Nudies Rodeo Tailors" and clothing the naked cowgirl on their label. Some say Dale Evans convinced Nudie to change the label. Others say it was when Nudie converted to Christianity. Additional changes included hiring Rose Clements, a master embroiderer from England. Rose also brought her own machines along with the knowledge how working a variety of complex stitches.

Nudie's elaborate creations did not stop with just tailoring the fruitful fertility of fine western suits. From unique cowboy boots to electrifying automobiles, his flamboyant style engendered the retro cowboy life style.  Bobbie Cohn was quoted in the New York Times stating, "He loved big cars.  In the early 1950's he hung huge long horns to the grill of his Hudson and was known to hand out Silver Dollars to kids as he drove around Hollywood."

Approached by Art Miller, a car dealer and horseman, Nudie was contracted to transform his style of clothing into a custom convertible to promote the dealership. Mounting gold plated hand guns use as door handles and gear shifts, adding Winchesters along the fenders, too upholstering the custom hand tooled decorated leather interiors adorned with silver dollars, countless hours of turning the average classy machines into a eulogy of enchantment became the status symbol for the Rhinestone Cowboy.  
Nudie Cohn Pontiac Bonneville

These became the billboard of attraction for modern day cowboys who not only wore the clothing, but desire the ride as grand as the Wild West.  Nudie would customize 18 cars in all. Buck Owens, George Jones, Webb Price, along with several oil men and a dozen others owned Nudie custom automobiles. While these unique cars were built from various models, most were Pontiac Bonneville's

Nudie had given one of his cars along with a single axle "Covered Wagon" Camper Trailer to Roy Rogers. He tried to give a 1973 Grand Ville to Elvis, although the handlers would not accept the car perhaps in fear Elvis might purchase a fleet of them, stated Jim Shaw, who was Buck Owens manager. Today that car hangs above the bar at Buck Owens's Crystal Palace, in Bakersfield, California.

Buck Owens's Crystal Palace displays custom Nudie Auto

Most of the cars today are displayed in museums. Although, highly sought after, Kid Rock recently purchased a '64 Pontiac Bonneville that Nudie built. The price tag $225,000.  The white convertible with mounted Texas longhorns on the hood seems to states it's cool to be a cowboy and was featured in Kid Rock's music video "Born Free." The car was previously owned by Hawk Williams Jr. and in 1968 became a display in the Smokey Mountain Car Museum. In 2006, a Texas lawyer and avid car collector, John O'Quinn acquired the car. Upon O'Quinns death, the car went to auctions where Kid Rock made his purchase and photographed as the cover of the "Born Free" album. 

 Son in law Manuel Cuevas would leave the business in the mid 1970's after having a heart breaking affair ending in a divorce from Nudie's daughter Barbara. Manuel opened up his own shop in North Hollywood purchasing a dozen used sewing machines from Nathan Turk who had just retired for health reasons. While Manuel was no longer part of the Nudie business, he carried over the art skill from his Sensei. 

Nudie shamelessly promoted his business strutting around town is his outrageous suits, dazzling automobiles and frequently wearing mismatch boots reminding him of his humble beginnings. The son of a poor cobbler, Nudie carved out his legacy in western fashion. In 1984 at age 81, Nudie died from cancer.  At his funeral, Dale Evans gave his Eulogy while the crowds of celebrities came paying their respect to the man who crossed the barriers of Western Fashion.

Larry Weiss wrote and recorded a song based on Paul Smith; title "Rhinestone Cowboy."  The song was made popular by Glenn Campbell becoming number one on music charts earning Campbell a gold record selling one million copies. He also wore a Rhinestone Nudie Suit during the music video of the title song which perhaps influenced Bob Clark directing in the movie "Rhinestone" featuring Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone.  Nudie made unique one of a kind outfits for many movie sets including the 1979 "Electric Horseman" featuring Robert Redford. 

After his death, his wife Bobbie, her sister Edith, daughter Barbara and grand-daughter Jamie who honored him taking on his name continued to operate Nudie Rodeo Tailors. Bobbie was the backbone of the business. She always greeted every customer at the door in her friendly demeanor ensuring they had a fresh cup of coffee as they would comfortably be waited on. 

In 1989, Manuel would leave Hollywood for Nashville. His ex-wife Barbara shortly later died from cancer at age 52. Although, Bobbie pushed on with the aid of her grand daughter Jamie who was also raising three children, daughters Desiree age 9, Yvette age 7, and a newborn son, Marc Anthony.  The business continued up until Bobbie's retirement in 1994.

The Nudie legacy lives on today. While Manuel Cuevas brings his own creativity to Western fashion, he has been called "the Rhinestone Rembrandt." A style surely cultivated through Nudie.  Cuevas, like Nudie makes every garment in-house and by-hand.  Manuel works from his Nashville studio with his two daughters, Morelia and Jesse-Justin, and son Manuel Jr "Manny" who has also created his own label "Wear it Out - Manuel."

Manny recently created the powerful custom suit worn by American Idol season ten contestant, Paul McDonald. Manny too, brings his own talent to western fashion although the suit created by for McDonald shares a similar appearance of singer song writer Gram Parsons Nudie Suit made in 1969 while Manuel Sr was still Nudie's son in law and working at Nudie's Rodeo tailors.

No doubt, Manuel brings his 53 years of experience as the master of cowboy couture. His son Manny is also an exceptionally talented tailor. While Rhinestones are one medium of their signature designs, their unique embroidery work consummates extravagance.  Manuel has received many awards as a creative designer along with contributions towards the community of Nashville. Also the focal point too many TV shows including a special episode on ABC Network Primetime.  Like Nudie, Manuel and son Manny continue to keep the Rhinestone Cowboy alive.

In 2004, Mary Lynn Cabrall and Nudie's grand daughter Jamie Lee Nudie co-authored the book, "Nudie the Rodeo Tailor: The Life and Times of the Original Rhinestone Cowboy." The book is available through the official web site "Nudies Rodeo Tailor" .

In 2008, a man called on Jamie stating he had a special gift to deliver to her door step. It was Mother's day and the special gift the gentleman had, turned out to be a 1964 Nudie-customized Bonneville Safari Station Wagon with rattlesnake skin interior. The car once belonged to Jamie's grandmother, Bobbie Nudie who had passed on just two years earlier in 2006 at age 92.  The car had later been acquired by Canadian oil man Richard Koestsier of Calgary, Alberta who had purchased two of the Nudie automobiles. After reading the book that Jamie co-authored, he wanted to give back a piece of this legacy. 

Jamie in 2010 would once more have a sense of good luck. The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum had been closed in Branson, Missouri. Christi's had been commissioned to conduct the auction showcasing the fine museum pieces. Many of the items, mostly clothing have been those tailored by Nudie Cohn.  Jamie, Mary Lynn Cabrall and Julie Ann Ream traveled together from Los Angeles in hopes to reclaim a piece of the Nudie history. 

While Rogers stuff horse Trigger rustled up $266,500 it sold too RFD-TV cable network in Omaha, Nebraska. His 1964 silver-dollar encrusted Bonneville convertible which Nudie customize sold for $254,500 during the auction.

As emotions became intense, the three ladies waited patiently to reclaim the Roy Rogers Covered Wagon Trailer which Nudie customized and gifted to Roy several decades prior. To everyone's surprise, at Jamie's $3,000 bid, the auction block hammer closed without a challenge.    

While the Nudie suits would never be worn as normal working ranch wear,  Cowboys world wide have surely admire those Rhinestone Suits as they flash from the center stage of concert halls around the globe. Celebrities by the thousands who have entertained our western spirit, along with many others who share the roots of Rock and Roll have crusade the Nudie suit.  Modern western fashion continues to share wild embroidery and Rhinestones. Modern Cowgirls frequently wear Rhinestones belts, Swarovski crystal sandals or fancy stitched boots. The accents stand out and sparkle. Perhaps with the attitude straight out of the song lyrics of "Rhinestone Cowboy" sung by Campbell "I'm gonna be where the lights are shinin' on me, like a Rhinestone Cowboy."

Jamie, who now enjoys life as a grand mother still finds time working tirelessly to preserve the name her grandfather and Nudie Rodeo Tailors. As she promotes the preservation of Western Heritage and the Nudie legacy across the nation, one does not have to look far to see the stupendous influence of bling which Nudie introduced into the world of the American Cowboy. He was larger than life as his legacy lives on as the Rhinestone Cowboy.


 
"Wear it Out-Manuel"


"KID ROCK - BORN FREE"
Cowgirl Heritage Foundation
Merle Haggard with Nudie Cohn






Gram Parsons-Nudie Suit 1969




Paul McDonald-Manny Cuevas 2011








Nudie custom interior 64 Pontiac Bonneville
Roy Rogers
Jamie Nudie with Bonneville Safari Wagon and Covered Wagon


1 comment:

  1. What a contribution to Hollywood Western history and country music ; the flair, the colors, the designs were excellent !Thank you Nudie, Nathan and /Rodeo Ben for your creativity !

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