Arts & Entertainment

Only touring Black invitational rodeo rides into Southland

The Bull-Dogger (c 1921) 
Starring Bill Pickett
Movie Poster
The Bull-Dogger (c 1921) Starring Bill Pickett Movie Poster
Image courtesy Autry National Center, Museum of the American West Collection

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The country’s only touring African-American rodeo rides into the Southland this weekend. The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo promotes itself as the “Greatest Show on Dirt.” KPCC’s Brian Watt says it’s celebrating 25 years.

[Howard Johnson’s “Bill Pickett Rodeo”: "And if my baby is around, I’m the fastest roper in town. That’s all part of the show / At the Bill Pickett Rodeo."]

Brian Watt: The Bill Pickett Rodeo thunders into Atlanta, Denver, D.C., Bakersfield – 10 towns in all on its cross-country tour.

Margo Wade LaDrew: We rodeo with soul. Because of the sweat and tears on the black cowboy’s back. The soul from our gut and our music, so we put everything into it.

Watt: Margo Wade LaDrew has coordinated the tour’s Southland stop for 13 years. To accommodate its growing audience, the rodeo’s moved this year from the Equestrian Center in Griffith Park to the Industry Hills Expo Center. LaDrew expects at least 7,500 people to show up for family entertainment and living lessons about African-Americans in the Old West.

LaDrew: And always at the start of the rodeo, there’s some type of a skit, where some of them might be dressed like Deadwood Dick or Stagecoach Mary, who was the black female who actually took the mail across the West.

Watt: Then, there’s the tour’s namesake. The most famous black cowboy, Bill Pickett, was born in Texas in 1870. Jeffrey Richardson, a curator at the Autry National Center, says cowboys credit Pickett with inventing a technique called “bull-dogging” for wrestling a steer to the ground.

Jeffrey Richardson: He would go up on the steer, grab them by the horns, and bite the top lip of the bull, just like a bulldog would actually do it.

Watt: Steer wrestling is still a rodeo event, but the biting stopped with Bill Pickett. His technique made Pickett a star in the 101 Wild West Show and in a silent film called The Bull-Dogger. But many official rodeo competitions excluded him because of his race. The Autry’s Jeffrey Richardson says the competitive rodeo in Pickett’s honor helps add necessary color to the popular image of the frontier.

Richardson: It’s these kind of stoic John Wayne Marlboro Man white guys on horses but it was such a diverse, the West was so diverse at that particular time just as it is today. You just didn’t see that in popular culture unfortunately.

Watt: Music promoter Lu Vason created the Bill Pickett Rodeo after he saw no black cowboys at another roping and riding competition. A quarter-century later, his rodeo attracts talent – including doctors, lawyers, and self-proclaimed “buckle brothers” – from all over. Local coordinator Margo Wade LaDrew says one cowgirl from Oklahoma City, registered nurse Carolyn Carter, has competed in all 25 tours.

LaDrew: So she’s saving lives and then when she gets off and gets in her truck and heads home, she’s out with her horses. And then she’s rodeoing on the weekend and she can actually be hurt by bell-racing and some of the events that they do.

Watt: The rodeo’s Southland stop always includes some celebrities. Actor Glynn Turman, a previous grand marshal, sponsors Camp Giddyup to teach youngsters about rodeo. Blair Underwood greets the crowds with a spin around the arena on his mount, and L.A. Sparks star Lisa Leslie shows up with her own horses.

[“Fool for your lovin'” from Cowboy Soul: "Is it right to tell you I still love you?"]

Watt: Los Angeles-based country-western singer Mike Mann has performed at five Bill Pickett rodeos.

Mike Mann: Someone asked me one time: the group, we call ourselves “Cowboy Soul.” So they said, “Isn’t that an oxymoron? I said, “No, there are really cowboys with soul, and there really were black cowboys.”

Watt: At the Bill Pickett Rodeo, Mann serenades a roundup that celebrates cowboys and cowgirls of every color.