Bob WillsJames Robert Wills (March 6, 1905 – May 13, 1975) was an American Western swing musician, songwriter, and bandleader. Considered by music authorities as the co-founder of Western swing, he was known widely as the King of Western Swing (although Spade Cooley self-promoted the moniker "King of Western Swing" from 1942 to 1969).
Wills formed several bands and played radio stations around the South and West until he formed the Texas Playboys in 1934 with Wills on fiddle, Tommy Duncan on piano and vocals, rhythm guitarist June Whalin, tenor banjoist Johnnie Lee Wills, and Kermit Whalin, who played steel guitar and bass. The band played regularly on Tulsa, Oklahoma radio station KVOO and added Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, pianist Al Stricklin, drummer Smokey Dacus, and a horn section that expanded the band's sound. Wills favored jazz-like arrangements and the band found national popularity into the 1940s with such hits as "Steel Guitar Rag", "New San Antonio Rose", "Smoke On The Water", "Stars And Stripes On Iwo Jima", and "New Spanish Two Step".
Wills and the Texas Playboys recorded with several publishers and companies, including Vocalion, Okeh, Columbia, and MGM, frequently moving. In 1950, he had two top 10 hits, "Ida Red Likes the Boogie" and "Faded Love", which were his last hits for a decade. Throughout the 1950s, he struggled with poor health and tenuous finances, but continued to perform frequently despite the decline in popularity of his earlier music as rock and roll took over. Wills had a heart attack in 1962 and a second one the next year, which forced him to disband the Playboys, although Wills continued to perform solo.
The Country Music Hall of Fame inducted Wills in 1968 and the Texas State Legislature honored him for his contribution to American music.
In 1972, Wills accepted a citation from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in Nashville. He was recording an album with fan Merle Haggard in 1973 when a stroke left him comatose until his death in 1975. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Wills and the Texas Playboys in 1999.
Early yearsHe was born on a farm in Kosse, Limestone County, Texas to Emma Lee Foley and John Tompkins Wills. His parents were both of primarily English ancestry but they had distant Irish ancestry as well. His father was a statewide champion fiddle player, and either the Wills family was 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, and 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 throughout west Texas.
Wills not only learned traditional music from his family, he learned some blues 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 the black children.
New Mexico and TexasThe family moved to Hall County in the Texas Panhandle in 1913, and in 1919 they bought a farm between the towns of Lakeview, Texas and Turkey, Texas.
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 trying to 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, Texas 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 heard 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.
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 website. She remembers that her father was such a fan of Bessie Smith that "[h]e once rode fifty miles on horseback just to see her perform live." (Wills is quoted as saying, "I rode horseback 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 Arnspiger 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, which became known as the Aladdin Laddies and then soon renamed itself the Light Crust Doughboys because of 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 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, "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 Wills' extensive repertory.
The Texas Playboys
After forming a new band, The Playboys, and relocating to Waco, Texas, Wills found enough popularity there to decide on a bigger market. They left Waco in January 1934 for Oklahoma City. Wills soon settled the renamed Texas Playboys in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and began broadcasting noon shows over the 50,000-watt KVOO radio station. Their 12:30–1:15 pm, 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" Smoky Dacus.By 1935, Wills had added horn and reed players as well as drums to the Playboys. The addition of steel guitar whiz Leon McAuliffe in March 1935 added not only a formidable instrumentalist, but also a second engaging vocalist. Wills largely sang blues and sentimental ballads. Wills and the Texas Playboys did their first recordings on September 23–25, 1935, in Dallas. 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 "front line" of Wills' orchestra consisted of either fiddles or guitars after 1944.
Film careerIn 1940, Wills, along with the Texas Playboys, co-starred with Tex Ritter in Take Me Back to Oklahoma. Other films followed. In December 1942, after several band members had left the group, and as World War II raged, Wills joined the army at the age of 37, but he 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.
Swing eraAfter leaving the Army in 1943, Wills moved to Hollywood, moving into a rented house in September, 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 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. PT over KMTR-AM (now KLAC) in Los Angeles. 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 out-grossed Harry James, Benny Goodman, "both Dorsies, et al." at Civic Auditorium in Oakland, California in January 1944.
Wills and His Texas Playboys began their first cross-country tour in November 1944, and appeared at the Grand Ole Opry on December 30, 1944. According to Opry policy, drums and horns were considered pop instruments, inappropriate to country music. The Opry had two western swing bands on its roster, led by Pee Wee King and Paul Howard. Neither were allowed to use their drummers at the Opry. Wills' band at the time consisted of two fiddlers, two bass fiddles, two electric guitars, electric steel guitar, and a trumpet. Wills's then-drummer was Monte Mountjoy, who played in the Dixieland style. Wills battled Opry officials and refused to perform without his drummer. An attempt to compromise by keeping Mountjoy behind a curtain collapsed when Wills had his drums placed front and center onstage at the last minute.
In 1945, Wills' dances were outdrawing those of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, and he moved to Fresno, California. Then in 1947, he opened the Wills Point nightclub in Sacramento, California 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. On April 3, 1948, Wills and the Texas Playboys appeared for the inaugural broadcast of the Louisiana Hayride on KWKH, broadcasting from the Municipal Auditorium in Shreveport, Louisiana.
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; in 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 Garber at the Armory in Klamath Falls, Oregon, by attracting 2,514 dancers. Wills and the Playboys also played small towns on the West Coast. 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.
Later yearsHaving lived a lavish lifestyle in California, Wills moved back to Oklahoma City in 1949, then went back on the road to maintain his payroll and Wills Point. 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 10 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." The use of amplified guitars accentuates Wills's claim; some Bob Wills recordings from the 1930s and 1940s sound similar to rock and roll records of the 1950s.
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. 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. He did, however, recover sufficiently to appear in a wheelchair at various Wills tributes held in the early 1970s. A revival of interest in his music, spurred by Merle Haggard's 1970 album A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, led to a 1973 reunion album, teaming Wills, who spoke with difficulty, with key members of the early band, as well as Haggard.
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".
LegacyWills' style influenced performers Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and The Strangers and helped to spawn a style of music now known as the Bakersfield Sound. (Bakersfield, California was one of Wills' regular stops in his heyday). A 1970 tribute album by Haggard, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills) directed a wider audience to Wills' music, as did the appearance of younger "revival" bands like Asleep at the Wheel and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen plus the growing popularity of longtime Wills disciple and fan Willie Nelson. By 1971, Wills recovered sufficiently to travel occasionally and appear at tribute concerts. In 1973, he participated in a final reunion session with members of some the Texas Playboys from the 1930s to the 1960s. Merle Haggard was invited to play at this reunion. The session, scheduled for two days, took place in December 1973, with the album to be titled For the Last Time. Wills, speaking or attempting to holler, appeared on a couple tracks from the first day's session but suffered a stroke overnight. He had a more severe one a few days later. The musicians completed the album without him. Wills by then was comatose. He lingered until his death on May 13, 1975.
Reviewing For the Last Time in Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981), Robert Christgau wrote: "This double-LP doesn't represent the band at its peak. But though earlier recordings of most of these classic tunes are at least marginally sharper, it certainly captures the relaxed, playful, eclectic Western swing groove that Wills invited in the '30s."
In addition to being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968, Wills was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Early Influence category along with the Texas Playboys in 1999, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
From 1974 until his 2002 death, Waylon Jennings performed a song he had written called "Bob Wills Is Still the King". Released as the B-side of a single that was a double-sided hit, it went to number one on the country charts. The song has become a staple of classic country radio station formats. In addition, The Rolling Stones performed this song live in Austin, Texas at Zilker Park on their A Bigger Bang Tour, a shout-out to Wills. This performance was included on their subsequent DVD The Biggest Bang. In a 1968 issue of Guitar Player, rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix said of Wills and the Playboys: "I dig them. The Grand Ole Opry used to come on, and I used to watch that. They used to have some pretty heavy cats, some heavy guitar players." In fact, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys only performed on the Opry twice: in 1944 and 1948. Hendrix almost surely referred to Nashville guitarists.
Wills ranked #27 in CMT's 40 Greatest Men in Country Music in 2003.
Wills' upbeat 1938 song Ida Red was Chuck Berry's primary inspiration for creating his first rock-and-roll hit "Maybellene".
Fats Domino once remarked that he patterned his 1960 rhythm section after that of Bob Wills.
During the 49th Grammy Awards in 2007, Carrie Underwood performed his song "San Antonio Rose". Today, George Strait performs Wills' music on concert tours and records songs influenced by Wills and his Texas-style swing.
The Austin-based Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel have honored Wills' music since the band's inception, mostly notably with their continuing performances of the musical drama A Ride with Bob, which debuted in Austin in March 2005 to coincide with celebrations of Wills' 100th birthday.
The Bob Wills Birthday Celebration is held every year in March at the Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma with a Western swing concert and dance.
In 2004, a documentary film about his life and music, titled Fiddlin' Man: The Life and Music of Bob Wills, was released by VIEW Inc.
In 2011, Proper Records released an album by Hot Club of Cowtown titled What Makes Bob Holler: A Tribute to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
In 2011, the Texas Legislature adopted a resolution designating western swing as the official State Music of Texas.
The Greenville Chamber of Commerce hosts an annual Bob Wills Fiddle Festival and Contest in downtown Greenville, Texas in November.
Bob Wills was honored in Episode 2 of Ken Burn's 2019 series on PBS called Country Music.