James Robert "Jim Rob" (Bob) Wills (March 6, 1905 - May 13, 1975) was born the first of 10 children to Emma Lee Foley and John Tompkins Wills in the small central Texas farming community of Kosse. His father was a fiddle player who along with his grandfather, taught the young Wills to play the fiddle and the mandolin. The family soon moved to Hall County in the West Texas Panhandle in 1913, where young Bob began picking cotton "down between the rivers" (Little Red River and Prairie Dog Town Fork), halfway between Lakeview and Turkey, Texas. He enjoyed listening to the black cotton pickers singing the blues as they moved up and down the cotton rows. Wills once told Charles Townsend, author of San Antonio Rose: The Life and Times of Bob Wills, "They sang blues you never heard before".
At the young age of 10 Wills played his very first ranch dance. He played for countless West Texas house parties and ranch dances over the next 14 years, where his life and career were greatly influenced by that frontier fiddle environment. He also importantly learned the blues and jazz from his black playmates and coworkers who sang and picked blues on their guitar. He learned to play fiddle and sing with the heat of blues and the swing of jazz; his fusion of music could as properly have been called Western Jazz as Western Swing.
After several years of drifting, "Jim Rob", then in his 20s, attended barber school, got married, and moved first to Roy, New Mexico then back to Turkey, Texas to be a barber. He alternated barbering and fiddling even after he settled in Fort Worth, Texas in 1929 to pursue a career in music. It was there that while performing blackface in a medicine show, he learned comic timing and some of the famous "patter" he later delivered on his records. The minstrel show's owner gave him the nickname "Bob".
The irony that Wills made his professional debut in blackface is not lost on 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".
EARLY WESTERN SWING:
In Fort Worth, Wills soon met Herman Arnspiger and formed the Wills Fiddle Band. In 1930 Wills and Arnspiger met Milton Brown while playing at a small house party, and were quite impressed with Brown's talented blues & swing style of singing, and immediately invited him to join the group as lead vocalist. Brown brought a sense of innovation, experimentation and versatility to the soon to be named Light Crust Doughboys due to a radio sponsorship by the makers of Light Crust Flour. Brown's little brother played rhythm guitar and soon joined the band together with banjoist Clifton "Sleepy" Johnson.
Brown and his little brother eventually left the band in 1932 to form the Musical Brownies, the first true Western Swing band. Brown added twin fiddles, tenor banjo, standup slap bass, jazz piano and the first ever amplified steel guitar, pointing the music in the direction of swing, which they played to great success on local Fort Worth radio and also at the birthplace of Western Swing - Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion, as well as numerous other dance halls throughout Texas and Oklahoma.
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. "Pappy" Lee 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 wasn't tryin' to take credit for swingin' it". Speaking of Milton 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 "It all started with me and Milton at Fort Worth's Crystal Springs Dance Hall. We'd pull these tunes down an set 'em in a dance category. It wouldn't be a runaway, we'd just lay them in a real nice groove beat, and the people would begin 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' and not have to repeat so much".
After leaving the Doughboys, Wills along with a nucleus of his former band, started "Bob Wills & His Playboys", relocating to Waco, Texas. They 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 12:30-1:15pm Mon-Fri broadcasts became a veritable institution in the region. Nearly all of the daily 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. 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 (something he learned clowning in those earlier medicine shows), the band became the first superstars of the genre. Milton Brown's tragic and untimely death in 1936 had cleared the way for the Texas Playboys.
Wills' 1938 recording of "Ida Red" served as a huge inspiration for Chuck Berry's similar sounding song decades later - Maybellene. In 1940 "New San Antonio Rose" sold over 1 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 popular swing and pop hits as well as Dixieland.
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.
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 World War II.
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. In 1944 the Wills band at their height of popularity included twenty-three members. While on his first cross-country tour, he appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and was able to defy that conservative show's ban on having drums and electric steel guitar onstage.
In 1945 Wills' dances were amazingly out drawing those of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman , and he had moved to Fresno, California then in 1947, where he opened the Wills Point nightclub in Sacramento and continued touring the Southwest and Pacific Northwest from Texas to Washington State.
During the postwar period, KGO radio in San Francisco syndicated a Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys show recording 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 fiddler Joe Holley, 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.
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 what was later revealed as dishonest managers who left Wills in desperate financial straits with heavy debts to the IRS for back taxes that caused him to sell many of his assets including, sadly, the rights to "New San Antonio Rose", which wrecked him financially.
In 1950 Wills had two Top Ten hits, "Ida Red Likes the Boogie" and "Faded Love". 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. 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 kept the band on the road into the 1960s. He eventually moved back to where it all started in Fort Worth in 1961 to perform a grand reunion Texas Playboy performance at Crystal Springs. 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 label, he was largely a forgotten figure - even though he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968.
In 1969 the Governor and Legislature of Texas honored Wills for his contribution of Western Swing to American music, one of the few original music forms Texas and the Southwest has produced. The day after the ceremonies in Austin, Wills had the first in a series of crippling strokes that left his right side paralyzed, ending his active career.
By 1971, Wills recovered sufficiently to travel occasionally and appear in a wheelchair at tribute concerts. In 1973 he participated in a final recording session with members of the original Texas Playboys from the 1930s to the 1960s. Merle Haggard was invited to play on this historic reunion album. The session, scheduled for two days, took place in December of 1973, with the album titled: "Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys For the Last Time". Wills appeared on some of the tracks from the first day's session but suffered another stroke overnight. He had a more severe one a few days later. His beloved musicians completed the album without him. Wills by then was comatose. He lingered until his death in Fort Worth on May 13, 1975.
Wills' musical legacy has endured, bridging the gap from the race music of the 1930s and 40s to be-bop, rockabilly and rock & roll. His style of music and innovation influenced performers as vast as Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and Jimmy Hendrix. He heavily influenced Buck Owens and Merle Haggard 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 Bob Wills tribute album by Haggard directed a wider audience to Wills' music, as did the appearance of younger "revival" bands like Asleep At The Wheel and the growing popularity of longtime Wills disciple and fan Willie Nelson. Before his own death, Waylon Jennings recorded a hit song that payed tribute to his hero: "Bob Wills is Still the King". Today, George Strait performs Bob Wills music live on tours and also records songs greatly reflecting the magic of Bob Wills and his Texas style Western Swing.
The King of Western Swing was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968 and also the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. He has continued to receive accolades after his death with "New San Antonio Rose" being honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998. On March 15, 1999, at Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Bob Wills was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under the category "Early Influence". His plaque is near those he influenced and those who loved his music - Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, and others. He is one of only a handful of people to be inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
In addition to the 1940 film Take Me Back to Oklahoma, Wills appeared in a total of 19 films, including: 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), Lawless Empire (1945) and his wonderful 1945 Warner Brothers biographical film Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys (video below).