03/06/1905 - 05/13/1975
|Bob Wills' name will forever be associated with Western swing.
Although he did not invent the genre single-handedly, he did
popularize 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, TX, 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 the performances, the pair met a vocalist called Milton
Brown, who joined the band. Soon, Brown's guitarist brother
Durwood joined the group, as did Clifton "Sleepy" Johnson, a tenor
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 was stars in
Texas but there was some trouble behind the scenes; O'Daniel
wasn't allowing the band to play anything but the radio show. This
situation led to the departure of Brown; Wills eventually replaced
Brown with Tommy Duncan, who 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 Duncan left with
Wills and Duncan relocated to Waco, TX, and formed 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 settled in Tulsa,
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. 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 -- who wasn't on the first sessions due to ARC's
abundance of steel players under contract -- was featured on the
Playboys' next record, 1936's "Steel Guitar Rag." The song became
a standard for steel guitar. Also released from that session was
"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 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 amplified string
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. 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 country
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 in concert.
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 were all very
popular. In the fall of 1973, Wills and Haggard began planning a
Texas Playboys reunion album, featuring 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 Texas Playboys finished the album
without him. Wills never regained consciousness and died on May
15, 1975, in a nursing home. He was buried in Tulsa, the place where
his legend began.
The following was published in the Tulsa World on May 16, 1975
The cigar-smoking ebullient father of Western Swing is dead.
Bob Wills, a former Tulsan and country music legend, died Tuesday
at Fort Worth, Texas. He was 70.
Wills, the author of “San Antonio Rose,” and “Maiden’s Prayer,” had
been in fragile health since 1969, when a stroke left him partially
paralyzed and confined to a wheel-chair.
The end for the country music giant came at 1:05 p.m. at the Kent
Nursing Home at Fort Worth. The immediate cause of death was
reported to be bronchial pneumonia.
Only last July he was readmitted to a Fort Worth hospital and his
condition was for a time listed as critical.
Tulsa funeral arrangements are pending with the Moore Funeral
Home. A spokesman said services are tentatively scheduled here
Friday at a location to be announced.
The man Time Magazine dubbed a “backwoods Guy Lombardo”
had a career spanning 50 years in music and film.
He was in 26 films, produced records that sold 20 million copies,
wrote and recorded 470 tunes and at one time was reportedly the
highest paid bandleader in the U.S., with an annual income in the
1940s estimated $350,000.
It was a stunning life for the son and grandson of champion Texas
fiddle players, a boy who once rode 50 miles on horseback to hear
blues singer Bessie Smith.
Born James Robert Wills on March 6, 1905, near Turkey, Texas,
Wills was one of 10 children who grew up on a 500-acre cotton farm
owned by their father, John.
Young Wills learned to play guitar, mandolin and fiddle from his
father and grandfather, and played with John Wills at “kitchen
Wills at various times was a barber, a lay preacher, a blackface
medicine show entertainer and zinc smelter worker.
In 1931 he joined W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, then a Fort Worth flour
mill executive, and the two formed the Lightcrust Doughboys. O’
Daniel later used the band to campaign for governor and U.S.
Wills left in 1932, taking the original band to Waco, where the
musicians became the “Texas Playboys.”
A major impetus to his career came in 1934, when he got a one-time
tryout spot on Tulsa radio station KVOO, the first in a series of noon
broadcasts that lasted 25 years.
Wills’ band broadcast from Cain’s Ballroom, where a plaque on the
wall, “Nothing forced or fancy,” succinctly expressed the music
That was the start of his fame across the Southwest and ultimately
the country. The man whose first violin cost $2 once paid cash for a
$5,000 violin from a Hollywood shop.
Wills eventually moved to California, although he always considered
Tulsa his home and once boasted “10,000 people in Oklahoma”
wanted him to run for governor or senator.
Wills declined, saying, “I don’t know anything about these politics. I’
m a fiddler.”
When World War II started the bandleader joined the Army and after
his discharge he led his group on bond drive tours. On one tour
crooner Bing Crosby sang “San Antonio Rose” with the band when
a bidder offered to buy $50,000 worth of bonds to hear it.
Hollywood also beckoned, and Wills made 26 films, the first of
which, “Take Me Back to Oklahoma,” featured a Wills composition,
“Take Me Back to Tulsa.”
His band, which included his brother, Johnnie Lee Wills, Tommy
Duncan, steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe and Eldon Shamblin, was
largest in 1944, when it included 22 men. During his career, Wills
hired more than 600 musicians.
Wills was nationally famous, and fans, whether Western Swing buffs
or not, recognized the omnipresent smile, cigar and fiddle, the
Stetson hat, and the cries of “Aaaah-haah!” and “Take it away,
Leon,” an urging to McAuliffe that became his own motto as a
In the 1950s, Wills returned to his native Texas, but moved to
Oklahoma City for a short period before making his home at Fort
His health started to fail about 1964, when he suffered liver ailments,
diabetes and a heart attack. But he kept working.
The big band he fronted eventually broke up, and Wills led a smaller
group until suffering a crippling stroke in May 1969.
Some of Wills’ perennial compositions included “San Antonio
Rose,” “Faded Love,” “Maiden’s Prayer,” “Spanish Two-Step” and
“Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer).”
In 1970 a benefit program staged at the Tulsa Fairgrounds raised
$24,400 for Wills’ medical expenses, and one week was set aside as
Bob Wills Week. That same year the Oklahoma House passed a
resolution expressing “commendation, admiration and
appreciation” to the bandleader.
Wills in 1968 was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in
Nashville and was made a lifetime member of the National Cowboy
Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
In 1973, as a special guest at the annual banquet in Nashville of the
American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Wills was
given a plaque for his “unequaled leadership” in music. Leading
music figures gave Wills a standing ovation when the
announcement was read.
The plaque said ASCAP “honors our member Bob Wills for his long,
productive and creative association with country music and his
unequaled leadership as a musician and as a man.”
Wills’ work recently enjoyed renewed popularity. Country artist
Merle Haggard recorded an album of Wills standards that sold over
245,000 copies, and two years ago Wills himself and Haggard joined
with some of the old Texas Playboys for a recording session that
produced a two-disc album, “For the Last Time.”
Even though partially paralyzed, Wills helped supervise a five-hour
session before suffering another stroke. The album subsequently
received an award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Music critics have noted how Wills’ band effectively fused jazz,
country and western and blues into a melodious, swinging
package, but Wills always brushed aside theorization about his
Asked about rock and roll several years ago, Wills chuckled, “Why
man, that’s the same kind of music we’ve been playing since 1928.”
Anecdotes about Wills’ leadership abound. One newly hired steel
guitarist was told by Wills to “do something exciting” during his
solo. The tyro musician found to his horror there was a short circuit
in his instrument and finally in desperation kicked it off the stage
after his cue to solo. Afterward Wills whispered to him, “I knew you’
d so something exciting.”
Wills’ lingering fealty to Tulsa was once expressed in a film
conversation he had. Asked if he’d ever been to Oklahoma, Wills
quipped, “I had a meal in Tulsa one night.” Asked how long he’d
been away from the city and the state, Wills smiled, and said: “I
Survivors include the widow, Betty; four daughters, all of Fort
Worth, including Mrs. Robbie Calhoun; a son, James Robert Wills, a
student at the University of Oklahoma; three sisters, Ruby Sullivan,
Eloise House and Olga Kerr, all of Tulsa; three brothers, Johnnie
Lee Wills; Tulsa, Luther J. Wills, Las Vegas, Nev., and Billy J. Wills,
Shawnee, and eight grandchildren.
The following was a Tulsa World editorial published on May 15, 1975.
Music For the People
For want of a better name they called it “Western Swing,” even
though it wasn’t exclusively Western and it wasn’t exactly Swing. It
was rooted in the tastes and experiences of plain people, workers
and farmers of a predominantly small town and rural America of the
1930s. It could be described as a latter day version of American folk
music except for the fact that it was created by a single talented
musician – Bob Wills.
By any name, the music of Bob Wills had something about it that
people like. His records sold 20 million copies. He made 26 films and
wrote and recorded 470 tunes, many of which are still standard in
the recording and broadcasting industries. In the 1940s, his
estimated annual income reached $350,000, the highest of any band
leader in the country.
Wills was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville
in 1968. He was made a lifetime member of the Cowboy Hall of Fame
in Oklahoma City. The American Society of Composers, Authors
and Publishers honored him for “unequalled leadership” in music.
But the greatest tribute came from the public. It is a tribute that will
last as long as songs like “San Antonio Rose” are heard and
In the old days, monarchs honored artists and musicians “by
appointment” to their courts. Bob Wills was, by appointment,
musician and composer to the common man of America.
The following was published in the Tulsa World on May 16, 1975.
Composer’s Songs Played at Service
About 500 Attend Final Rites for Bob Wills
About 500 persons paid final respects Thursday to the musical
father of millions.
Bob Wills, 70, the man who developed western swing and sold 20
million copies of those developments, was eulogized at Eastwood
Baptist Church as the Oklahoma House unanimously passed a
citation in his memory.
About 50 wreaths, some designed in the shape of a fiddle,
surrounded Wills’ closed casket. Mourners from throughout the
Southwest were seated in the sanctuary two hours before the
Much of the gathering was comprised of original members of Wills’
band, “The Texas Playboys.”
Wills’ classics included “Faded Love,” “Maiden’s Prayer,” and “San
Antonio Rose,” were played by a quartet consisting of guitarist
Eldon Shamblin and fiddle men, Johnny Gimble, Curley Lewis and
Ernest Tubb, pioneer country singer whose career knew its greatest
celebration during the 1940s when Wills’ name was a household
word, was present along with Tulsa broadcast personalities and
reporters from the National Enquirer, Newsweek magazine, Rolling
Stones magazine and Dallas, Houston and Kansas City
The funeral had tentatively been scheduled for Friday. The time
change was blamed for the absence of many show business
luminaries whose presence had been expected.
Former Rep. Clem McSpadden delivered the eulogy, recalling Wills’
noon broadcasts from Cain’s Ballroom here.
McSpadden said his wife was 5 years old when she attended a Wills
dance. The bandleader let the child put her feet atop his boots so
she could better dance with him, McSpadden said, adding that
“things have changed with musicians today. Not many of Bob Wills’
stature would do such a thing.”
McSpadden said his ninth birthday was noted by Wills during a
radio show. He said he could recall boyhood excitement at the
McSpadden talked of the recent revival in Wills’ popularity, citing his
last album recorded in 1973 entitled, “Bob Wills and His Texas
Playboys – For the Last Time.”
During the recording session, Wills suffered a stroke that put him
back in a Fort Worth nursing home where he spent his final days in
and out of a coma as his record sales skyrocketed.
The crowd, with vacant pew space between parts of it, sat silently
with little notice of blue jeaned-teenagers who intermittently entered
the service, often sitting by older folks wearing dress attire that
probably fit better when worn to a Wills’ dance 30 years ago.
Wills’ fifth wife, Mrs. Betty Wills, was seated at the front of the
church along with five daughters, a son, three brothers, four sisters
and 10 grandchildren.
The coffin was removed to the church foyer and opened as
mourners filed past the man who was once the nation’s highest
paid and most sought after bandleader.
“He did more to put Tulsa, his home, on the map than anybody,”
one man wept. “And today he came home like his album said,
‘…For the Last Time.’ ”