Selling the American Dream

 One Square-Inch at a Time

by Don M. Patterson

Betty Jo Bangs isn’t streaming on Spotify, found in the iTunes store, or even included in the minimum record of modern, popular existence: Wikipedia. But Ms. Bangs was unquestionably Tal-Star Record's biggest talent. Bangs wrote and performed a song that told of a father who loved the Bible but a mama who “loved the ways of the world.” The song, promoted vigorously by prolific New Mexico producer Little Richie Johnson, was a minor hit for Tal-Star Records. The trade paper Cash Box reviewed it as a "Novel idea [that] may get this song some spins,” and “could go somewhere for Betty Jo Bangs.” Unfortunately for Ms. Bangs, in a story all too common in the West, someone jumped her claim.

In September 1971, the much larger and more established record label, Decca Records, the same label that famously
rejected the Beatles, released “Daddy Was A Preacher But Mama Was A Go Go Girl,” performed by Joanna Neel. Writing credit was attributed to Joanna and Bob Neel. With the backing of Decca, Neel’s version proved to be a “top spinner” on the jukebox and charted as high as sixty-eight on the Billboard Hot Country Singles. Riding on its success, Joanna Neel charted again in 1972 with the song, “One More Time.”


“Daddy Was A Preacher But Mama Was A Go Go Girl” was such a hit for Decca that Barbara Eden of I Dream of Jeannie fame performed it in a sketch on a Bob Hope TV special (featuring Lee Marvin). Watching that special at his home in Amarillo was Junior Keith, hitherto unaware of the Decca release.


“Well, right away, I knew that it was our song,” Keith told the Amarillo Daily News in March of 1972. “I feel like they - I don’t like to say steal, but they infringed on our song [...] I’m sure Miss Bangs feels the same, like it’s your baby; you love it, and you don’t want someone else getting it.”


The Daily News 
reported that Miss Betty Jo Bangs and the Susill [sic] Publishing Company, yet another entity owned by Keith, filed a complaint in a Nashville federal court alleging Decca Records and 4 Star Music Company had infringed on their copyright. Keith was said to have retained two attorneys, including Johnny Cash’s lawyer, James C. Dale III. Keith would not estimate what damages would be sought. “I’m just going to leave that to them,” he said, referring to his attorneys.


Betty Jo Bangs’ claim to authorship is well supported.  A
copyright registration from 1969 - two years before the Decca release - cites Bangs as the song’s writer. Advertisements for Bangs’ record (including two ads with the unfortunate typo “Bongs”) and the aforementioned review of the single predate the Decca release by several months. Despite the strength of the case, it never reached trial and its resolution, if there was one, is not a matter of public record. There remains only internet comment section speculation of song theft abetted by Nashville industry politics.


Image: Advertisement - STAR-LAN ENTERPRISES, 1972

Comic books bring dreams to life and, in the mid-20th century, the biggest dreams were found not within the colorful panels but rather in the advertisements crammed in the back pages. These ads dreamed of a world where glasses could see through clothes, a nuclear submarine was ready for you to command, Karate could be mastered through the mail, and, if you believed one prominent ad in the 1970s, you could own a real Texas ranch. 

For the low price of $2, including postage, you could own a piece of the American dream, albeit a very small piece - one inch square to be exact. Those daring enough to chance it as a Texas landman received a
warranty deed for the ranch, complete with a detailed description of your ranch’s location and an official stamp from a notary public in the County of Potter, Texas. The deed, which doubled as a wall poster, made it known that, in exchange for $1, STAR-LAN ENTERPRISES, INC. forever quit claim unto the land and assigned its right and title to the lucky deed holder. The signature from STAR-LAN President, O.J. Keith, made it official.

Fifty years since the Texas ranch ad first appeared, tracking down the land and its enigmatic seller reveals a web of shuttered corporate entities, would-be country music stars, copyright infringement, Nashville industry politics, and Texas-sized dreams too big to come true.

Junior “Houndog" Keith

Orville Junior Keith was a man of big dreams and bigger claims. Born in 1929, Keith was brought by his parents to the Texas Panhandle as a boy. After graduating from Phillips High School in 1947, Keith began a career as a musician, playing guitar for Western swing bands in nightclubs across West Texas. He performed and recorded with various acts for over thirty years, including a
purported stint with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. Keith also wrote songs for a handful of country acts, with works produced by the likes of Johnny Paycheck.

In addition to his music career, or perhaps in support of it, Keith worked as a plumber and an entrepreneur. In 1968, Keith formed Star-Lan Enterprises, not as a micro-real estate company, but rather a
distributor for fluid stabilizers, a device designed to prevent corrosion in water pipes.

Keith found synergies between his music and plumbing concerns, once calling on Wendy Dawn, an Amarillo based recording artist to serve as pitch-woman for his line of fluid stabilizers. A 1971
sponsored-content article from the Amarillo Daily News featuring “Pretty Wendy Dawn” contained testimonials for the miracle fluid stabilizer as well as booking information for Ms. Dawn.

AN OR GIVE ME DEATH EXCLUSIVE INVESTIGATION

Junior Keith and Star-Lan Enterprises' most infamous business venture came in 1972. A headline in Billboard that August proclaimed "Realty Sales To Help Firm.” It was reported that Star-Lan Enterprises Inc., "a Texas corporation involved in the music industry" was now selling square inches of land to raise capital for record production. Keith, described as a “long-time producer-writer,” felt he could "exploit talent in the Texas Panhandle with the proper financing." Star-Land Enterprises held enough land to raise $1.5M and would launch its label as soon as it reached the $100,000 level. The ads, which were larger than the ranches, began their run that year and continued to be printed in multiple titles throughout the decade. At one point in the 1970s, a single PO Box in Amarillo, Texas received requests for fluid stabilizer demonstrations, orders for square-inch parcels of land, and inquiries into a fledgling record label.


Keith had been exploiting talent well before devising his land scheme. In 1968, his early label,
Tal-Star Records, produced the peppy Western swing tune "Fire is Gonna Fly" by Little Miss Sabra. A contemporary review in the trade paper Record World described it as a "very country song about a flirting girl." Little Miss Sabra was said to have "a big voice." Tal-Star Records would release only one other record, 1970's "Daddy Was A Preacher, Mama Was a Go Go Girl” by Betty Jo Bangs.


Whatever happened to Betty Jo Bangs?


Amarillo Daily News - October 26, 1971

There is no disclaimer on Junior Keith’s ad, or the novelty deeds he sold, notifying the purchaser that their square-inch of land would continue to be held by Star-Lan Enterprises if not registered with Potter County. If a savvy buyer was aware of this requirement and decided to register their claim, it is unlikely they would have gained any mineral rights. Similar to the Yukon deeds, Keith’s deeds were carefully worded to avoid legal conflicts. The holder of the deed would own the land along with “all privileges and appurtenances thereto in any manner belonging unto the said STAR-LAN ENTERPRISES, INC.” The operative word being “appurtenances,” in this context meaning the rights or restrictions that run with the land. Any easements, restrictions, and mineral rights (or lack thereof) that applied to Star-Lan would carry over to the new deed holder.


Potter County
records suggest no one bothered to register their deed. Star-Lan Enterprises is shown to have owned the land described on the deeds, in its entirety, until it was seized by the county and sold at auction in 2008. The Potter County Appraisal District describes the land as a quarter-acre, undeveloped lot just outside of Amarillo; a good sized plot on which to build a home, but not exactly the King Ranch. There are about 6.2 million square inches in an acre. Selling the entire property for $1 per square-inch would net roughly $1.5 million, just as Keith had claimed. In 2022, the county appraised the property at $200, or about $0.00013 per square-inch.

Having fallen short of its goal, Star-Lan Enterprises foundered, facing a series of tax issues before ultimately folding in 1985. Its promise as a country music label was as illusory as a $1 ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Orville Junior Keith died in 2010, two days short of his 81st birthday. The scant remaining details of his life are limited to a handful of press clippings, obscure liner notes, and an obituary on a defunct page of the Amarillo Globe-News, accessible only through the Internet Archive. The obituary, like his mini-ranch ad, was a mix of the real and the incredible. It contains unverifiable claims, such as him having developed the first dental floss holder; and easily debunkable claims, such as him having been inducted into  the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. Two claims, however much exaggerated, are not in dispute: he produced songs and sold real estate.

Junior “Houndog” Keith, his mini-ranches, Tal-Star Records, and Betty Jo Bangs have all succumbed to the inevitable state of non-existence, the square-inch of the public consciousness they once occupied having been foreclosed upon by time and sold at auction to the ages.

Copyright - Or Give Me Death Industries

2022

The Neels would continue to be credited with authorship, as they were later in 1972 when a cover version was recorded by Miss DeLoius and The Music Men. The song re-emerged in 1992, this time covered by Southern Culture on the Skids. Again, the song was attributed to Neel. Betty Jo Bangs faded from public life, her one obscure hit single subverted by a slightly less obscure hit single.   


Just a few months after Junior Keith discovered the alleged infringement, he began his venture into real estate. In a sad twist of fate and layout,
directly beneath the Billboard article on Keith’s desperate land sales ran the headline “Decca Donates Country Trove.” Decca was donating its recorded country music archives to the Country Music Foundation and Media Center in Nashville. Here, placed in stark contrast, were the stories of two adversarial record labels. One had been reduced to gimmicks in books sold to children in order to stay afloat, the other was giving away its vast treasures for posterity.

"Appurtenances"

So, what happened to the mini-ranches and those who purchased them? It is unknown just how many square-inch ranches Keith sold, but it is unlikely he ever reached his target level of $100,000, let alone sold the entire $1.5M worth of land. Star-Lan Enterprises never launched a new record label and Keith’s earlier label, Tal-Star, had no releases after 1971. The fate of the land can best be determined through historical examples and records available through the Potter County Appraisal District.

Keith may have been an innovator, but he was not the first to pioneer the micro-land scheme, nor would he be the last to try it. Arguably the most famous example of the scheme was done by
Quaker Oats in 1954. Capitalizing on the Klondike gold rush, Quaker purchased a 19.11-acre piece of the Yukon Territory for $1000 USD. Quaker could not legally sell the land in the US without a license to sell foreign land, so the deeds became cereal prizes stuffed inside boxes of Quaker Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice. The giveaway became a cultural phenomenon, inspiring a Scrooge McDuck comic in 1956 (which presciently relocated the land to the Texas Panhandle). Some people collected hundreds of the official-looking deeds then attempted to claim their piece of land and extract the gold beneath. Unfortunately for the would-be prospectors, the deeds did not include mineral rights and, most damning, were not registered with the local government. 


Herein lies the crucial detail for the square-inch ranch deed: although signed and notarized, a deed in Texas is meaningless if not registered with the county, typically for a fee. A
2004 iteration of the micro-ranch scheme, perhaps motivated by more modern truth in advertising standards, made clear in its offer that the deeds were unregistered. If a buyer of the egregiously inflated $24.95 per square-inch ranch chose not to pay the $15 registration fee to the county, the seller promised to continue paying the taxes and maintain the land. Or, in other words, the seller would continue to own the land.


How a struggling West Texas record label's ambitious plan to raise funds resulted in a classic comic book advertisement