About James Robert "Bob" Wills
James Robert Wills (March 6, 1905 – May 13, 1975), better known as Bob Wills, was an American Western Swing musician, songwriter, and bandleader, considered by music authorities as the co-founder of Western Swing and universally known as the pioneering King of Western Swing. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as an early influence).
Bob Wills' name will forever be associated with Western Swing. Although he did not invent the genre single-handedly (he and his old Fort Worth friend, Milton Brown, co-created Western Swing), Wills truly popularized the genre and changed its rules. In the process, he reinvented the rules of popular music. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were a dance band with a country string section that played pop songs as if they were jazz numbers. Their music expanded and erased boundaries between genres. It was also some of the most popular music of its era. Throughout the '40s, the band was one of the most popular groups in the country and the musicians in the Playboys were among the finest of their era. As the popularity of Western Swing declined, so did Wills' popularity, but his influence is immeasurable. From the first honky tonkers to Western Swing revivalists, generations of country artists owe him a significant debt, as do certain rock and jazz musicians. Wills was a maverick and his spirit infused American popular music of the 20th century with a renegade, virtuosic flair.
Wills was born outside of Kosse, Texas, in 1905. From his father and grandfather, he learned how to play mandolin, guitar, and eventually fiddle, and he regularly played local dances in his teens. In 1929, he joined a medicine show in Fort Worth, where he played fiddle and did blackface comedy. At one performance, he met guitarist Herman Arnspiger and the duo formed the Wills Fiddle Band. Within a year, they were playing dances and radio stations around Fort Worth. During one of their local dance performances, the pair met a vocalist, Milton Brown, who joined the band. Soon, Brown's guitarist brother Derwood joined the group, as did Clifton "Sleepy" Johnson, a tenor banjo player. The Wills Fiddle Band was soon hired by Fort Worth's Aladdin Lamp Company, and changed their name to the "Aladdin Laddies".
In early 1931, the band landed their own radio show, which was sponsored by the Burris Mill and Elevator Company, the manufacturers of Light Crust Flour. The group rechristened themselves the Light Crust Doughboys and their show was being broadcast throughout Texas, hosted and organized by W. Lee O'Daniel, the manager of Burris Mill. By 1932, the band became quite famous playing dances throughout Texas, but there was some trouble behind the scenes; O'Daniel wasn't allowing the band to play at dances, and wanted them to only perform for the radio show. This situation led to the departure of Brown; Wills eventually replaced Brown with vocalist Tommy Duncan, whom he would work with for the next 16 years. By late summer 1933, Wills, aggravated by a series of fights with O'Daniel, left the Light Crust Doughboys and Tommy Duncan left with him.
Wills relocated to Waco, Texas, and formed the new band, The Playboys, which featured Wills on fiddle, Duncan on piano and vocals, rhythm guitarist June Whalin, tenor banjoist Johnnie Lee Wills, and Kermit Whalin, who played steel guitar and bass. For the next year, The Playboys moved through a number of radio stations, as O'Daniel tried to force them off the air. Finally, the group renamed themselves "Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys" and settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they had a job at KVOO.
Tulsa is where Wills and His Texas Playboys began to refine their sound. Wills added an 18-year-old electric steel guitarist called Leon McAuliffe, pianist Al Stricklin, drummer Smokey Dacus, and a horn section to the band's lineup. Meanwhile, Herman Arnspiger & Sleepy Johnson left the Light Crust Doughboys to join Wills' Texas Playboys in Tulsa. Soon, the Texas Playboys were the most popular band in Oklahoma and Texas. The band made their first record in 1935 for the American Recording Company, which would later become part of Columbia Records. At ARC, they were produced by Uncle Art Satherley, who would wind up as Wills' producer for the next 12 years. The bandleader had his way and they cut a number of tracks that were released on a series of 78s. The singles were successful enough that Wills could demand that McAuliffe be featured on the Playboys' next record, 1936's "Steel Guitar Rag." The song became a pioneering standard for steel guitar, and a major inspiration to Country Music for decades to come. Also released from that session was the very successful single "Right or Wrong," which featured Duncan on lead vocals.
Toward the end of the decade, big bands were dominating popular music and Wills wanted a band capable of playing complex, jazz-inspired arrangements. To help him achieve his sound, he hired arranger and guitarist Eldon Shamblin, who wrote charts that fused country with big band music for the Texas Playboys. By 1940, he had replaced some of the weaker musicians in the lineup, winding up with a full 18-piece band. The Texas Playboys were breaking concert attendance records across the country, filling out venues from Tulsa to California, and they also had their first genuine national hit with "New San Antonio Rose", which climbed to number 11 in 1940. Throughout 1941 and 1942, Wills and His Texas Playboys continued to record and perform and they were one of the most popular bands in the country. However, their popularity was quickly derailed by the arrival of World War II. Duncan enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor and Stricklin became a defense plant worker. Late in 1942, McAuliffe and Shamblin both left the group. Wills enlisted in the Army at Fort Sill late in 1942, but he was discharged as being unfit for service in the summer of 1943, primarily because he was out of shape and disagreeable. Duncan was discharged around the same time and the pair moved to California by the end of 1943. Wills revamped the sound of the Texas Playboys after World War II, cutting out the horn section and relying on acoustic and amplified string instruments.
During the '40s, Art Satherley had moved from ARC to OKeh Records and Wills followed him to the new label. His first single for OKeh was a new version of "New San Antonio Rose" and it became a Top Ten hit early in 1944, crossing over into the Top 20 on the pop charts. Wills stayed with OKeh for about year, having several Top Ten hits, as well as the number ones "Smoke on the Water" and "Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima." After he left OKeh, he signed with Columbia Records, releasing his first single for the label, "Texas Playboy Rag," toward the end of 1945.
In 1946, the Texas Playboys began recording a series of transcriptions for Oakland, CA's Tiffany Music Corporation. Tiffany's plan was to syndicate the transcriptions throughout the Southwest, but their goal was never fulfilled. Nevertheless, the Texas Playboys made a number of transcriptions in 1946 and 1947, and these are the only recordings of the band playing extended jams. Consequently, they are close approximations of the group's live sound. Though the Tiffany transcriptions would turn out to be important historical items, the recordings that kept Wills and His Texas Playboys in the charts were their singles for Columbia, which were consistently reaching the Top Five between 1945 and 1948; in the summer of 1946, they had their biggest hit, "New Spanish Two Step," which spent 16 weeks at number one.
Guitarist Eldon Shamblin returned to the Playboys in 1947, the final year Wills recorded for Columbia Records. Beginning in late 1947, Wills was signed to MGM. His first single for the label, "Bubbles in My Beer," was a Top Ten hit early in 1948, as was its follow-up, "Keeper of My Heart." Though the Texas Playboys were one of the most popular bands in the nation, they were beginning to fight internally, mainly because Wills had developed a drinking problem that caused him to behave erratically and occasionally cancel performance engagements. Furthermore, Wills came to believe Duncan was demanding too much attention and asking for too much money. By the end of 1948, he had fired the singer.
Duncan's departure couldn't have come at a worse time. Western swing was beginning to fall out of public favor, and Wills' recordings weren't as consistently successful as they had been before; he had no hits at all in 1949. That year, he relocated to Oklahoma, beginning a 15-year stretch of frequent moves, all designed to find a thriving market for the band. In 1950, he had two Top Ten hits, "Ida Red Likes the Boogie" and "Faded Love," which would become a legendary country song and standard; they would be his last hits for a decade. Throughout the '50s, he struggled with poor health and poor finances, but he continued to perform frequently. However, his audience continued to shrink, despite his attempts to hold on to it. Wills moved throughout the Southwest during the decade, without ever finding a new home base. Audiences at dance halls plummeted with the advent of television and rock & roll. The Texas Playboys made some records for Decca that went unnoticed in the mid-'50s. In 1959, Wills signed with Liberty Records, where he was produced by Tommy Allsup, a former Playboy. Before recording his first sessions with Liberty, Wills expanded the lineup of the band again and reunited with Duncan. The results were a success, with "Heart to Heart Talk" climbing into the Top Ten during the summer of 1960. Again, the Texas Playboys were drawing sizable crowds and selling a respectable amount of records.
In 1962, Wills had a heart attack that temporarily debilitated him, but by 1963 he was making an album for Kapp Records. The following year, he had a second heart attack, which forced him to disband the Playboys. After the second heart attack, he performed and recorded as a solo performer. His solo recordings for Kapp were made in Nashville with studio musicians and were generally ignored, though he continued to be successful playing in national concert performances and shows.
In 1968, the Country Music Hall of Fame inducted Wills and the following year the Texas State Legislature honored him for his contribution to American music. The day after he appeared in both houses of the Texas state government, Wills suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed his right side. During his recovery, Merle Haggard -- the most popular country singer of the late '60s—recorded an album dedicated to Wills, "A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player", which helped return Wills to public consciousness and spark a widespread Western Swing revival. In 1972, Wills was well enough to accept a citation from ASCAP in Nashville, as well as appear at several Texas Playboy reunions, which attracted thousands of fans and were extremely popular. In the fall of 1973, Wills and Haggard began planning a Texas Playboys reunion album, featuring most of the original Texas Playboys: McAuliffe, Stricklin, Shamblin, and Dacus, among others. The first session was held on December 3, 1973, with Wills leading the band from his wheelchair. That night, he suffered another massive stroke in his sleep; the stroke left him comatose. The next day, the Texas Playboys finished the album with out him, appropriately titled "Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys ... For the Last Time". Wills never regained consciousness and died in a nursing home on May 15, 1975 in Fort Worth, the city where his iconic music career first began in 1929. He was buried in Tulsa, Oklahoma where he had enjoyed his most successful years as The King of Western Swing.
He was born on a farm near Kosse, Texas, in Limestone County near Groesbeck, to Emma Lee Foley and John Tompkins Wills. His father was a statewide champion fiddle player and the Wills family was either playing music, or someone was "always wanting us to play for them," in addition to raising cotton on their farm.
In addition to picking cotton, the young Jim Bob learned to play the fiddle and the mandolin. Both a sister and several brothers played musical instruments, while another sister played piano. The Wills family frequently held country dances in their home, and there was dancing in all four rooms While living in Hall County, Texas,they also played at 'ranch dances' which were popular in both West Texas and eastern New Mexico.
Wills not only learned traditional music from his family, he learned some Negro songs directly from African Americans in the cotton fields near Lakeview, Texas and said that he did not play with many white children other than his siblings, until he was seven or eight years old. African Americans were his playmates, and his father enjoyed watching him jig dance with black children.
"I don't know whether they made them up as they moved down the cotton rows or not," Wills once told Charles Townsend, author of San Antonio Rose: The Life and Times of Bob Wills, "but they sang blues you never heard before."
New Mexico and Texas
The family moved to Hall County in the Texas Panhandle in 1913, and in 1919 they bought a farm between the towns of Lakeview and Turkey. At the age of 16 Wills left the family and hopped a freight train. "Jim Rob", as he became known, drifted for several years, traveling from town to town to try and earn a living, at one point almost losing his life when he nearly fell from a moving train, and later being chased by railroad police. In his 20s he attended barber school, got married, and moved first to Roy, New Mexico then returned to Turkey in Hall County (now considered his home town) to work as a barber at Hamm's Barber Shop. He alternated barbering and fiddling even when he moved to Fort Worth after leaving Hall County in 1929. There he played in minstrel and medicine shows, and, as with other Texas musicians such as Ocie Stockard, continued to earn money as a barber. He wore blackface makeup to appear in comedy routines, something that was common at the time. "He was playing his violin and singing." There were two guitars and a banjo player with him. "Bob was in blackface and was the comic; he cracked jokes, sang, and did an amazing jig dance." Since there was already a "Jim" on the show, the manager began calling him "Bob." However, it was as "Jim Rob Wills", paired with Herman Arnspiger, that he made his first commercial (though unissued) recordings in November 1929 for Brunswick/Vocalion.
Wills was known for his hollering and wisecracking. One source for this was when, as a very young boy, he would hear his father, grandfather, and cowboys give out loud cries when the music moved them. When asked if his wisecracking and talking on the bandstand came from his medicine show experience, he said it did not. Rather, he said that it came directly from playing and living close to Negroes, and that he never did it necessarily as show, but more as a way to express his feelings.
While in Fort Worth, Wills added the "rowdy city blues" of Bessie Smith and Emmett Miller to a repertoire of mainly waltzes and breakdowns he had learned from his father, and patterned his vocal style after that of Miller and other performers such as Al Bernard. Wills acknowledged that he idolized Miller. Furthermore, his 1935 version of "St. Louis Blues" is nearly a word-for-word copy of Al Bernard's patter on his 1928 recording of the same song.
The fact that Wills made his professional debut in blackface was commented on by Wills' daughter, Rosetta: "He had a lot of respect for the musicians and music of his black friends," Rosetta is quoted as saying on the Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys Web site. She remembers that her father was such a fan of Bessie Smith, "he once rode 50 miles on horseback just to see her perform live." (Wills is quoted as saying, "I rode horeseback from the place between the rivers to Childress to see Bessie Smith...She was about the greatest thing I had ever heard. In fact, there was no doubt about it. She was the greatest thing I ever heard."
In Fort Worth, Wills met Herman Arnspinger and formed The Wills Fiddle Band. In 1930 Milton Brown joined the group as lead vocalist and brought a sense of innovation and experimentation to the band, now called the Light Crust Doughboys due to radio sponsorship by the makers of Light Crust Flour. Brown left the band in 1932 to form the Musical Brownies, the first true Western swing band. Brown added twin fiddles, tenor banjo and slap bass, pointing the music in the direction of swing, which they played on local radio and at dancehalls.
Wills remained with the Doughboys and replaced Brown with new singer Tommy Duncan in 1932. He found himself unable to get along with future Texas Governor W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, the authoritarian host of the Light Crust Doughboy radio show. O'Daniel had parlayed the show's popularity into growing power within Light Crust Flour's parent company, Burrus Mill and Elevator Company and wound up as General Manager, though he despised what he considered "hillbilly music." Wills and Duncan left the Doughboys in 1933 after Wills had missed one show too many due to his sporadic drinking.
Wills recalled the early days of what became known as Western swing music in a 1949 interview. "Here's the way I figure it. We sure not tryin' to take credit for swingin' it." Speaking of Milt Brown and himself working with songs done by Jimmie Davis, the Skillet Lickers, Jimmie Rodgers, and others, and songs he'd learned from his father, he said that "We'd pull these tunes down an set 'em in a dance category. It wouldn't be a runaway, and just lay a real nice beat behind it an the people would get to really like it. It was nobody intended to start anything in the world. We was just tryin' to find enough tunes to keep 'em dancin' to not have to repeat so much."
Wills is also quoted as saying, "You can change the name of an old song, rearrange it and make it a swing. "One Star Rag", "Rat Cheese under the Hill", "Take Me Back to Tulsa", "Basin Street Blues", "Steel Guitar Rag", and "Trouble in Mind" were some of the songs in his extensive repertory."
The Texas Playboys
After forming a new band, The Playboys, and relocating to Waco, Wills found enough popularity there to decide on a bigger market. They left Waco in January of 1934 for Oklahoma City. Wills soon settled the renamed Texas Playboys in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and began broadcasting noontime shows over the 50,000 watt KVOO radio station. Their 12:30-1:15 p.m. Monday–Friday broadcasts became a veritable institution in the region.
Nearly all of the daily (except Sunday) shows originated from the stage of Cain's Ballroom. In addition, they played dances in the evenings, including regular ones at the ballroom on Thursdays and Saturdays.
Wills added a trumpet to the band inadvertently when he hired Everet Stover as an announcer, not knowing that he had played with the New Orleans symphony and had directed the governor's band in Austin. Stover, thinking he had been hired as a trumpeter began playing with the band with no comment from Wills. Young sax player Zeb McNally was allowed to play with the band, although Wills initially discouraged it. With two horns in the band Wills realized he would have to add a drummer to balance things and create a fuller sound. He hired the young, "modern style musician" Smokey Ducas. By 1935 Wills had added horn, reed players and drums to the Playboys. The addition of steel guitar whiz Leon McAuliffe in March, 1935 added not only a formidable instrumentalist but a second engaging vocalist. Wills himself largely sang blues and sentimental ballads.
With its jazz sophistication, pop music and blues influence, plus improvised scats and wisecrack commentary by Wills, the band became the first superstars of the genre. Milton Brown's tragic and untimely death in 1936 had cleared the way for the Playboys.
Session rosters from 1938 show both "lead guitar" and "electric guitar" in addition to guitar and steel guitar in the Texas Playboys recordings. Wills' 1938 recording of "Ida Red" served as a model for Chuck Berry's decades later version of the same song - "Maybellene".
About this time Wills purchased and performed with an old Guadagnini violin that had once fetched $7,600 for $1,600, the equivalent of about $24,000 in 2009.
In 1940 "New San Antonio Rose" sold a million records and became the signature song of The Texas Playboys. The song's title referred to the fact that Wills had recorded it as a fiddle instrumental in 1938 as "San Antonio Rose". By then, the Texas Playboys were virtually two bands: one a fiddle-guitar-steel band with rhythm section and the second a first-rate big band able to play the day's swing and pop hits as well as Dixieland.
The "front line" of Wills' orchestra consisted of either fiddles or guitars after 1944.
In 1940 Wills, along with the Texas Playboys, co-starred with Tex Ritter in Take Me Back to Oklahoma. Other films would follow. In late 1942 after several band members had left the group, and as World War II raged, Wills joined the Army, but received a medical discharge in 1943.
Wills also appeared in The Lone Prairie (1942), Riders of the Northwest Mounted (1943), Saddles and Sagebrush (1943), The Vigilantes Ride (1943), The Last Horseman (1944), Rhythm Round-Up (1945), Blazing the Western Trail (1945), and Lawless Empire (1945). According to one source, he appeared in a total of 19 films.
After leaving the Army in 1943 Wills moved to Hollywood and began to reorganize the Texas Playboys. He became an enormous draw in Los Angeles, where many of his Texas, Oklahoma and regional fans had also relocated during the Great Depression and World War II in search of jobs. Monday through Friday the band broadcast from 12:01 to 1:00 p.m. over KMTR-AM (now KLAC) in LA. They also played regularly every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night at the Mission Beach Ballroom in San Diego.
He commanded enormous fees playing dances there, and began to make more creative use of electric guitars to replace the big horn sections the Tulsa band had boasted. For a very brief period in 1944 the Wills band included 23 members., and around mid year he toured Northern California and the Pacific Northwest with 21 pieces in the orchestra. Billboard reported that Wills outgrossed Harry James, Benny Goodman, "both Dorsies, et al." at Civic Auditorium in Oakland, California, in January 1944.
While on his first cross-country tour, he appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and defied that conservative show's ban on using drums of any sort.
In 1945 Wills' dances were outdrawing those of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, and he had moved to Fresno, California. Then in 1947 he opened the Wills Point nightclub in Sacramento and continued touring the Southwest and Pacific Northwest from Texas to Washington State. While based in Sacramento his radio broadcasts over 50,000 watt KFBK were heard all over the West.
Famous swing orchestras in California realized that many of their followers were leaving to dance to Bob Will's Western swing. Because he was in such demand, some places booked Wills any time he had an opening, regardless of how undesirable the date. The manager of a popular auditorium in the LA Basin town of Wilmington, California: "Although Monday night dancing is frankly an experiment it was the only night of the week on which this outstanding band could be secured."
During the postwar period, KGO radio in San Francisco syndicated a Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys show recorded at the Fairmont Hotel. Many of these recordings survive today as the Tiffany Transcriptions, and are available on CD. They show off the band's strengths significantly, in part because the group was not confined to the three-minute limits of 78 RPM discs. They featured superb instrumental work from fiddlers Joe Holley and Louis Tierney, steel guitarists Noel Boggs and Herb Remington, guitarists Eldon Shamblin and Junior Barnard and electric mandolinist-fiddler Tiny Moore. The original recorded version of Wills' "Faded Love", appeared on the Tiffanys as a fairly swinging instrumental unlike the ballad it became when lyrics were added in 1950.
Wills and the Texas Playboys played dances throughout the West to more than 10,000 people every week. They held dance attendance records at Jantzen Beach in Portland, Oregon; Santa Monica, California, and at the Oakland (California) Auditorium, where they drew 19,000 people in two nights. Wills also broke an attendance record of 2,100 previously held by Jan Garbner at the Armory in Klamath Falls, Oregon, by attracting 2,514 dancers.
Actor Clint Eastwood recalled seeing Wills when he was 18 or 19 (1948 or 1949) and working at a pulp mill in Springfield, Oregon.
Appearances at the Bostonia Ballroom in San Diego continued throughout the 1950s.
Still a binge drinker, Wills became increasingly unreliable in the late 1940s, causing a rift with Tommy Duncan (who bore the brunt of audience anger when Wills's binges prevented him from appearing). It ended when he fired Duncan in the fall of 1948.
Having lived a lavish lifestyle in California, in 1949 Wills moved back to Oklahoma City, then went back on the road to maintain his payroll and Wills Point. An even more disastrous business decision came when he opened a second club, the Bob Wills Ranch House in Dallas, Texas. Turning the club over to managers later revealed to be dishonest left Wills in desperate financial straits with heavy debts to the IRS for back taxes that caused him to sell many assets including, mistakenly, the rights to "New San Antonio Rose." It wrecked him financially.
In 1950 Wills had two Top Ten hits, "Ida Red Likes the Boogie" and "Faded Love". After 1950 radio stations began to increasingly specialize in one form or another of commercially popular music. Wills did not fit into the popular Nashville country and western stations, although he was usually labeled "country and western". Neither did he fit into the pop or middle of the road stations, although he played a good deal of pop music, and was not accepted in the pop music world.
He continued to tour and record through the 1950s into the early 1960s, despite the fact that Western swing's popularity, even in the Southwest, had greatly diminished. Bob could draw "a thousand people on Monday night between 1950 and 1952, but he could not do that by 1956. Entertainment habits had changed."
On Wills' return to Tulsa late in 1957, Jim Downing of the Tulsa Tribune wrote an article headlined "Wills Brothers Together Again — Bob Back with Heavy Beat". The article quotes Wills as saying, "Rock and Roll? Why, man, that's the same kind of music we've been playin' since 1928!...We didn't call it rock and roll back when we introduced it as our style back in 1928, and we don't call it rock and roll the way we play it now. But it's just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of different names in my time. It's the same, whether you just follow a drum beat like in Africa or surround it with a lot of instruments. The rhythm's what's important."
Even a 1958 return to KVOO, where his younger brother Johnnie Lee Wills had maintained the family's presence, did not produce the success he hoped for. He appeared twice on ABC-TV's Jubilee USA and kept the band on the road into the 1960s. After two heart attacks, in 1965 he dissolved the Texas Playboys (who briefly continued as an independent unit) to perform solo with house bands. While he did well in Las Vegas and other areas, and made records for the Kapp Records label, he was largely a forgotten figure — even though inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968. A 1969 stroke left his right side paralyzed, ending his active career.
The May 26, 1975 issue of TIME (Milestones section) read: "Died. Bob Wills, 70, "Western Swing" bandleader-composer; of pneumonia; in Fort Worth. Wills turned out dance tunes that are now called country rock, introducing with his Texas Playboys such C & W classics as Take Me Back to Tulsa and New San Antonio Rose".