Bob Wills - Biography

By Scott Feemster

Country, jazz and rhythm & blues were all emerging from their regional birthplaces during the early part of the 20th century. Local strains of music started to travel across the United States and cross-pollinate with each other, as evident in the rise of swing, which mixed traditional jazz with the simpler melodies and back-beat of rhythm & blues. Swing became popular in the 1930s in part because mostly urban audiences could hear a swing orchestra and dance to it, thus turning a concert into both a social event as well as a musical treat. A few musicians in the Southern High Plains took this cross-pollination one step further, creating a mixture of not only jazz and rhythm & blues, but also cowboy and folk songs. This music came to be known as Western Swing. Many consider Texas native Bob Wills to have been one of the fathers of the genre, and to this day he is still called the “King of Western Swing”.


            James Robert Wills was born March 6, 1905 (the first child of ten children) near Kosse, Texas into a musical family. Both his father and grandfather were fiddle players, playing at community and church get-togethers in between supporting their family by farming and picking cotton. In the early 20th century, there were very few who could make a living from playing music, but many people played music for entertainment in a time before radios and televisions. Young Bob, or “Jim Rob” as he was called then, picked up both the fiddle and mandolin and started playing out at ranch dances with his family starting in 1915. The young Wills not only soaked up the music handed down to him by his family, but also developed a love of the jazz and rhythm & blues he heard on the then-new radio as well as from performances he saw when in town. At the ripe old age of 17, Wills decided the farm life wasn't for him and jumped a freight train. He spent the next few years drifting around the Southwest, playing music when he could. Eventually Wills married his first wife, Edna, and decided he needed to settle down and find a real job. He learned barbering and settled first in Roy, New Mexico and then in Turkey, Texas. Wills alternated between playing fiddle and cutting people's hair, eventually deciding that if he was going to make something of himself in music, he would have to move someplace a little bigger where he could find more work and make a bigger impact. Fort Worth, Texas seemed to fit the bill.

            In Fort Worth, Wills joined a medicine show, or minstrel show, and performed for a time in blackface. While minstrel shows seem shockingly racist in hindsight, for Wills it was a chance to earn a paycheck and to play the rhythm & blues that he had developed a real love for. It was during this time that young Bob first appeared on a recording, cutting a Bessie Smith tune for the Brunswick label. Soon afterward, Wills put together his own first band, the Wills Fiddle Band, and quickly recruited Milton Brown as vocalist in 1930. Brown, like Wills, appreciated other forms of music and helped to push the new band beyond the strict confines of traditional music. Soon, the band was gigging regularly in West Texas and playing on local radio stations KBAP and KFJZ. Wills even won a fiddling contest in front of a live audience of seven thousand people (and a radio audience of even more). The Wills Fiddle Band soon became popular not only in Texas, but all over the Southwest.


            In 1931, the manufacturers of Light Crust Flour saw in Wills’ band the potential to spread the word about their product. They convinced the band to accept their sponsorship and change their name to the Light Crust Doughboys. The company had a popular regular radio show hosted by future Texas governor W. Lee “Pappy” O'Daniel. Wills and Brown made the Doughboys and their product even more popular, but had differences with each other and the show's host, who wouldn’t let the band play anywhere else. Brown was the first to leave in 1932, subsequently forming his own band, the Musical Brownies (who’re often considered to be the first true Western Swing band). Wills soldiered on with the Doughboys with a new singer, Tommy Duncan.  Wills’ problems with O'Daniel continued; a fact not helped by Will's temperament which was exacerbated by his periodic drinking binges. In 1933, both Wills and Duncan left the band to strike out on their own.


            Wills and Duncan left Fort Worth for Waco and formed a new band called The Playboys. Their popularity was such that Waco seemed too small a market, so the band moved to Oklahoma City in 1934. Wills renamed the band Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys and got a radio show on local WKY. One of the station's main advertisers was none other than Burris Mill, the makers of Light Crust Flour and now run by Will's nemesis, Pappy O'Daniel. Pappy raised hell with the station management and got Wills and the band fired after only 5 performances so the band packed up again and moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. There they got another radio program on local station KVOO, a powerhouse station of the Southwest that broadcast at 50,000 watts. Their radio show was wildly popular.  Soon the band was attracting regular crowds of over 2000 to Cain's Ballroom every Thursday and Saturday evening in addition to other performances in the region. By 1935, The Playboys were moving from a scrappy country dance band to a true Western Swing orchestra. Wills added a trombonist, saxophonist and drummer as  well as two instrumentalists that would make The Playboys legends; Al Stricklin on the piano, and Leon McAuliffe on the steel guitar. The addition of McAuliffe also added another vocalist to the band.


            Wills’ former bandmate Milton Brown died an untimely death in 1936, allowing Wills to take up the mantel of the King of Western Swing. His band's recordings of “Steel Guitar Rag” and “Trouble In Mind” became the biggest selling songs on the Brunswick label, and led to the band signing with the much bigger Columbia label in 1938. It's hard to see how with all of the radio shows, gigs and recording sessions Bob Wills would have had any time for a social life, but during this time he divorced his first wife, married second wife Ruth McMaster, and then divorced her three months later. Then he dated Milton Brown's widow Mary Helen, married and then divorced her soon after. It seems Wills was not easy to be married to. During this time, Wills got the band to set up in what was called the “Big House” in Tulsa, a large house the band all lived and rehearsed in together. The band even went so far as to purchase horses together so they could make appearances at rodeos. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys were now about as big as you could be in the Southwest of the 1930s, playing hundreds of gigs, appearing regularly on the radio and even playing the Inaugural Ball for the Governor of Oklahoma in 1939. Demand for performances by Wills was so great that he even formed a splinter band, the Johnnie Lee Bob Wills Band, to satisfy fans that couldn't make it to regular Playboys dates.


            Wills was now ready to move on to something bigger, and the biggest-of-the-big in the late 1930s was Hollywood. Bob Wills and his band appeared in the 1940 film “Take Me Back To Oklahoma” with Western star Tex Ritter. It was the first of many films the band would appear in over the next few years and Wills signed an eight-picture contract with Columbia. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys probably would have continued their upward march if it weren't for the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941 that drew the U.S. into World War II. Wills lost most of the Playboys to the draft, and in 1942 he enlisted himself. Wills also got married again, this time to Betty Anderson. Wills’ career in the military was short, and in 1943 he received a medical discharge and decided to start a new version of the Playboys, this time based out of California. California in the early 1940s was a prime place for Wills’ music to be appreciated. Both the Depression and Dust Bowl conditions of the 1930s as well as the surplus of war-time jobs had led to a mass exodus of residents from the Midwest, Southwest and West to migrate to California in search of better opportunities. The new version of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys was bigger in size than the old one, at one time including twenty-three members. It was also louder due to Wills’ increased use of electric guitars replacing some of the lines horns had played in earlier incarnations of the band. Wills’ concerts were outdrawing even the big swing bands of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, and the band left California and set out on their first cross-country tour in 1944, including a stop at the Grand Ole Opry.


            The Playboys continued touring heavily through the 1940s, appearing in films and on the radio, including their own syndicated show originating on San Francisco station KGO. Many of these shows were recorded and were released many years later on several volumes of CDs as the Tiffany Transcriptions (Rhino). The shows highlighted not only Wills’ by-then signature hollers and shuck-and-jive comments with his band members, but also some of the superb instrumentalists the Playboys now boasted, including mandolinist/fiddler Tiny Moore, guitarists Eldon Shamblin and Junior Barnard, fiddler Joe Holley and steel guitarists Herb Remington and Noel Boggs. With the Playboys at the top of their game, a new wife (and son and daughter), and two residences (one in Santa Monica and a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley), life seemed to be good and limitless for Bob Wills –but dark clouds were on the horizon. Wills had always had problems with alcohol abuse, but now it was starting to affect his work and he was starting to miss gigs, forcing Tommy Duncan take the brunt of the abuse thrown at the band in Wills’ absence. By 1948, Duncan had had enough and quit, afterward forming his own band. The following year, Wills moved himself and the band back to Oklahoma City. The year after that he moved to Dallas and opened his own venue, the Bob Wills Ranch House. This settling down and having a hall to play and rehearse in was, on one hand great, for the band. They cut a couple of their biggest hits, “Faded Love” and “Ida Red Likes The Boogie” in 1950. It also proved to be a disaster for Wills. By the end of the year, Wills discovered that dishonest lawyers and accountants had ripped him off.  By 1951 Wills had sold the Ranch House, most of his properties, and even the rights to one of his biggest hits, “San Antonio Rose”, in order to pay off massive back taxes owed to the IRS.


            Wills spent the rest of the 1950s and early 1960s touring and trying to make a living, splitting his time between Texas and California and even hosting his own TV show in Los Angeles. Western Swing, however, was not as popular as it had once been, and by the end of the 1950s Wills was playing showcases in Las Vegas with former vocalist Tommy Duncan as nostalgic relics of a bygone era. After a couple of minor hits on the country charts for the Liberty label in the early ‘60s, Bob Wills moved back to Fort Worth. He sold the rights to the Texas Playboy name for $10,000 in 1963. Wills suffered a series of heart attacks, the first in 1962 followed by another in 1964. He still kept up a busy schedule of touring, playing with pick-up bands throughout the Southwest and West in any place that would have him. By 1968, a new generation of musicians began to recognize the importance of Wills and the Playboys, helping to raise his stature. Bob Wills was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame that year and received their Lifetime Achievement Award.  All the same, time and the wear of the road were taking their toll on the King of Western Swing. In May of 1969, Bob Wills suffered a stroke that left the right side of his body paralyzed, effectively ending his performing career.


            One of Bob Wills’ biggest admirers was a Bakersfield ex-con named Merle Haggard. In 1971, Haggard gathered together many of the surviving members of the Texas Playboys along with their stricken leader, and Wills had recovered enough to appear on stage to holler and introduce band members though his fiddling days were behind him. In 1973 the band recorded a final album together (with Haggard playing fiddle) called For The Last Time (United Artists). Even though Wills was in poor health, he insisted on sitting in on the sessions, catching up with his old friends and doing his trademark hollers and intros as best he could. The night of the first session, Wills suffered another stroke, and then another a few days after that. The Playboys finished the sessions in tribute to the fallen King of Western Swing, who was by then comatose. Bob Wills finally hung up his spurs for the last time on May 13, 1975.


            In the years since Wills’ death, his influence has grown as his work had gained a wider audience. Admirers such as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard have often included Wills numbers in their sets. Texas' Asleep At The Wheel have made a career out of keeping Western Swing alive and newer  artists such as Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum and Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys have kept elements of the Western Swing sound from disappearing. Wills is surely somewhere, cowboy hat cocked rakishly to the side and fiddle in hand, saying, “Aaah-Haaa!” as he flashes one of his trademark, crooked grins.

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