Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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WILLS, Bob

(b James Robert Wills, 6 March 1905, on a farm near Kosse TX; d 13 May 1975, Fort Worth TX) Fiddler, bandleader, composer; King of Western Swing. The fiddle had been a favourite instrument of the American frontier; his grandfathers, his father and most of his uncles were good fiddlers. The family was poor and picked cotton alongside blacks, where he heard the blues first hand, played on horns and guitars. He made music his career with no prejudices against horns, drums or any other instruments, and demanded a good beat from his band because he began playing rhythm and served his apprenticeship at farmhouse dances: he played his first dance at 15 when his father didn't show up and played them for decades, still breaking attendance records in California in 1969.

His fiddle style broke with tradition, including both the frontier style and more modern dance music; at first his sound was unique, but its blues feeling was later much imitated. He encouraged, indeed insisted on hot solos and improvisation. The violin had been used in early jazz, but was being abandoned by the time western swing came along: his music could have been called western jazz, but by the time it had a label the Swing Era had been born. Almost all his records were made in Texas until 1941; his first, for Brunswick in 1929, were unissued duos with Herman Arnspiger on guitar. He won a fiddling contest on the radio in 1930, already the best-known fiddler in Texas; his quartet broadcast for the Aladdin Lamp Company that year as the Aladdin Laddies, then for Burrus Mills & Elevator Company's Light Crust Flour as the Light Crust Doughboys from 1931 on KFJZ, Fort Worth: Burrus president Wilbert Lee 'Pappy' O'Daniel, future governor of Texas and United States Senator, hated their music at first and paid them as little as possible, but when he realized how popular they were, he bought them a car to tour in, appeared regularly on the show and wrote songs for them, promoting himself along with the band.

Vocalist Milton Brown wrote and sang Victor sides in 1932 billed as the the Light Crust Doughboys. O'Daniel tried to stop them playing dances, where they could make more money; Brown quit, partly because he also wanted to run the band He took his brother Durwood Brown from Wills on rhythm guitar, hired Jesse Ashlock on fiddle, also hired a banjo, bass and piano and was successful as Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies until killed in a car crash in 1936; friends with Wills until the end, he recorded over 100 sides; the Victors were later sold in the Montgomery Ward mail-order catalogue as Brownies records. Durwood carried on with the Brownies; a younger brother Roy Lee Brown formed his own Brownies in the 1940s.

Meanwhile the Doughboys were carried over other Texas stations and became the most popular radio attraction in the Southwest; Wills hired Tommy Duncan to replace Brown, played few dances and worked at the mill, knuckling under to O'Daniel, but was fired because of his drinking, and half the band left with him. The Doughboys were established, and with changing personnel lasted into the 1950s on TV, but were not as popular without Wills; having fired Wills, O'Daniel sued him for $10,000 (at a time when the band didn't have $40 between them) for advertising his band as 'formerly the Light Crust Doughboys', making Texas case law by taking it all the way to the state supreme court, which refused to hear it. Wills called the band the Playboys, with Duncan on vocals and piano, Kermit Whalin on steel guitar and bass, his brother Johnnie Lee Wills on tenor banjo and June Whalin on rhythm guitar; they broadcast in Waco, then went to KVOO in Tulsa. Always an innovator, Wills bought half an hour of prime midday time and sold it to a sponsor himself, probably the first to do so; he talked a miller into making Play Boy flour, paying a royalty on every barrel; Bob or Johnnie Lee broadcast for General Mills six days a week for 23 years.

In September of 1935 Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were playing packed dance halls six nights a week and began recording for Brunswick/ARC/Columbia through 1947, making over 250 sides, still being reissued. The first records had Duncan, Arnspiger and C. G. 'Sleepy' Johnson on guitars, Ashlock on fiddle, Art Haines doubling on fiddle and trombone, Robert 'Zeb' McNalley on sax, Son Lansford on bass, Al Stricklin on piano, William E. 'Smokey' Dacus on drums and Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar.

(McAuliffe [b 3 January 1917, Houston; d 20 August 1988, Tulsa] had been hired away from the Doughboys. His 'Steel Guitar Rag' was a huge influence on steel playing; Bob Dunn of the Musical Brownies is sometimes credited with introducing the electrified steel to country music, but McAuliffe was more visible at the time. After USAAF service in WWII, he formed his own Cimarron Boys band and recorded for Capitol, a long career as a solo artist and champion of 'Western' as opposed to 'Country' music; his 'Panhandle Rag' was a top ten country hit in 1949 and he made the chart several times in the early '60s, including 'Shape Up Or Ship Out' and 'I Don't Love Nobody' '64. He was active in reviving the Texas Playboys on Capitol, and also had his own Cimarron label.)

The great Wills records were mostly produced by Art Satherley, who was a traditionalist: he told Wills 'We do not want any horns,' and was shocked when Wills threatened not to make any records at all. Wills also had a holler ('Ah-haaa!') which would erupt when the band's swing was particularly hot; he might shout something like 'Take it away, Jesse!' etc during a recording; Satherley was shocked by all this but got used to it. (Years later he asked, 'Where's your ''Ah-haa'', Bob?') Western music did not count for much in NYC where sales were calculated, but relatively poor people bought huge numbers of Wills records; the band had national hits '39-46, including Wills's song 'San Antonio Rose' '39. Editors at Irving Berlin's company had botched the publishing of the original; remade in 1940 as 'New San Antonio Rose' with an 18-piece band including two trumpets and four or five reeds, it was a certified million-seller.

Leon Huff was added on vocals and guitar in 1942 and the band began recording in Hollywood; they made two musical shorts and 13 feature films '40-6 (including Take Me Back To Oklahoma with Tex Ritter and Go West Young Lady with Glenn Ford and Ann Miller). (A lot of the film songs were written by the wonderful Cindy Walker; see her entry.) They recorded jazz, blues, rags and stomps as well as the usual ballads and sentimental songs; the largest band was a 21-piece mid-'44 touring outfit that never recorded. Transcription records were made for the AFRS (Armed Forces Radio Service) '43-4; Tiffany Music 16-inch transcription discs '45-7 were sold to radio stations and totalled 220 selections, the whole breadth and versatility of Wills's repertoire; the Antones, a fan club label, issued 78s and two 10-inch LPs. The band recorded for MGM '47-51, early personnel including Luke and Billy Jack Wills in the rhythm section and Johnny Gimble on fiddle and mandolin. But the war had wrecked the original band and the Big Band Era was over: the last MGM session was with only eight pieces. (Duncan had been fired in 1948 and carried on solo; superb compilations on Bear Family were CDs Texas Moon and Beneath A Neon Star In A Honky Tonk.)

Wills made transcriptions for Snader '51; records for Decca '55-7, mostly with no horns; a Decca version of 'San Antonio Rose' heard on juke boxes from '55 had a vocal by guitarist Kenny Lowrey with Wills's interjections. He recorded for Liberty '60-3, often with Duncan returning; for Longhorn '64 with Stricklin, C.G. Johnson on some sessions; on Kapp '65-9 with larger groups including horns again, sidemen Harold Bradley on guitar, Hargus 'Pig' Robbins on piano, Vassar Clements or Buddy Spicher on fiddle, Pete Drake on steel. Merle Haggard made the album A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World '70, using many original Wills sidemen; unissued tracks were made at Haggard's home '71, with Gimble, Hag and Joe Holley on fiddles, also Dacus, McAuliffe, Stricklin, Johnnie Lee and Luke Wills, Alex Brashear on trumpet and several others. Tommy Duncan had died '67 and his brother Glyn filled in: Wills had suffered a stroke and could not play, but he was still the leader. A similar group recorded two-disc For The Last Time '73 on UA, instrumentals with Hag's fiddle on some tracks. Liberty and UA tracks now belong to EMI, Decca and Kapp to MCA, MGM to Polydor; there are many compilation CDs including Columbia and Rhino; The Longhorn Recordings '64 on Bear Family; The Tiffany Transcriptions filled several CDs on Kaleidoscope (on Edsel in the UK), but see below; The King Of Lone Star Swing on a President CD compiled 28 hot tracks by a classic Wills lineup. San Antonio Rose: The Life And Music Of Bob Wills '76 by Charles R. Townsend is an excellent biography with full discography and filmography.

Johnnie Lee Wills (b 2 September 1912; d 25 October 1984) wrote and had a hit with 'Rag Mop' in 1950 on Bullet; it was considered a novelty, with several hit versions, and was later called the first rock'n'roll record, but it was just a good old country stomp. Johnnie Lee's albums included Tulsa Swing on Rounder, Reunion on Flying Fish, Rompin', Stompin', Singing, Swinging on Bear Family.

In the 21st century, the four-CD Columbia Legacy compilation Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys (2006) had 105 tracks of original stomping good time. Meanwhile the Tiffany transcriptions had never been easy to find, and were remastered for a new ten-CD set on Collectors Choice available in early 2008. Barry Mazor wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the new transfers were better than ever. Steel player Herb Remington, the only man left from those recording dates, said that for the transcription sessions they recorded Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman tunes as well as the Wills classics, because they had just come in off the road, and wanted to play stuff that they'd whipped up in the back of the bus, because 'these tunes were in our minds and bodies' from listening to the great swing bands. 'We'd be finished with a two-month tour [...] and then, instead of going home, we'd go right to the studio in San Francisco to do the Tiffany recordings -- with our eyes crossed from being tired. Bob was convinced that we played better when we were pooped! After a tour playing every night, seven days a week, we were loose, so he was probably right.'