BIOGRAPHY OF BOB WILLS, KING OF WESTERN SWING
James Robert (Bob) Wills, one of the originators of western swing music, was born on March 6, 1905 to parents, John and Emma Wills,on a farm near Kosse, Texas. Bob's father, John Wills taught his son to play the fiddle and the mandolin at an early age.
After the family moved to Turkey Texas, Wills became a barber, but never stopped playing his fiddle. In 1915 he played at his first dance, and he played for local dances across West Texas for the next fourteen years. In 1923, Bob married Edna and they later moved to New Mexico where he continued his barbering career.
In 1929, Bob and Edna moved to Fort Worth where they had their first child. That year, Bob gave up barbering and decided to go into the music business full time joining a black medicine band. The following year, Bob Wills formed "The Wills Fiddle Band"
LIGHTCRUST DOUGH BOYS
A short time later, the band started performing on the radio under the name the Light Crust Doughboys.
The Playboys usually appeared in cowboy dress attire. Bob's appearance was that of a well-dressed bandleader, but one from Texas. His cowboy hat, cigar, and fiddle were all part of his trademark appearance.
Bob was a stylish, western rogue,' says Ray Benson, leader of Asleep At The Wheel, Western Swinging Bob Wills disciples for the past quarter century. 'He danced onstage, he was outrageous. He strutted like a peacock, unheard of back in those days.' In all other respects, he led a Big Band just like Tommy Dorsey, in a presentation that was downright orchestral - except Bob conducted with a fiddle bow.
From 1934 to 1942, the Bob Wills Band went over the airways of Radio Station KVOO. The band travelled around the country playing for dances but coming back to the radio station for a live noon broadcast every week day, and a gospel radio show on the weekend. The band also played every Thursday and Saturday night at Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa. Despite such restrictions, they managed to play throughout Texas and other Midwestern states, and their grassroots popularity was spread far and wide.
Wills hired the most talented musicians in the field and gave them plenty of room to develop the western swing sound. Bob added his own fiddle, vocals and most notably, his trademark “hollers,” injecting comments and outbursts of appreciation throughout the vocals and solos. Duncan's voice fit the band like a glove and his touch of class wouldn't take them too far away from country music. Bob and his fiddle made sure of that. And Bob wasn't just the leader and arranger, he was also a vocalist himself, but not in any conventional way. His running commentary during songs was as much a part of a Playboy arrangement as anything else in the mix. Bob's cheerful, nasal voice could be heard in nearly every song, as he threw hollers like 'Play it, boys!,' 'Ahh, now!,' 'That's what I said!,' and any imaginable thought that might (or might not) pertain to the words of the song at hand.
Bob's own personality was a musical instrument. It was the hook, the thing that put a smile on any listener's face. He'd sometimes sing whole songs himself, but he was hardly a stage hog. The hollering gave all of the Playboys a moment in the spotlight during a dance or radio show.
Band members' names were as important as Bob's, even as the lineup changed. It was hard for any audience not to feel connected with the Texas Playboys, with Bob's constant reminders of just exactly who was playing the swingin' solo in progress: 'Here's the man who'll tell you about it, Tommy!,' 'that man they call Kelso, piano!,' 'the biggest little instrument in the world, mandolin! Tiny Moore!,' 'All right, Herbie! Herb Remington and that little ol' steel guitar!'
Big Hit-New San Antonio Rose (1940)
In 1940, Bob Wills and his band recorded "New San Antonio Rose" which became a huge hit, sending Wills into the national spotlight.
That same year, Wills went to Hollywood and made the first of his nineteen western musical movies (“Take Me Back To Oklahoma” Monogram Picture with Tex Ritter).
Wills Joins the Army (1942)
In August 10, of 1942, Bob married his second wife Betty Anderson with whom he stayed married the rest of his life.
Wills Joins the Army (1942)
In December of 1942, Bob Wills joined the army but received a medical discharge less than a year later.
Bob's brother, Johnnie Lee Wills kept the radio show going during those years, and wound up keeping that daily noon broadcast on the air until 1958. Johnnie Lee had his own swing band by that time based right there in Tulsa, though members of his band and Playboys often overlapped, as players would float back and forth between them.
Bob set up Johnnie Lee's band for him, just as he later did for brothers Billy Jack and Luke. All the Wills brothers were musically talented, and all were Playboys at various times, but Bob was the clear business leader behind every offspring group. There was always a pool of musicians to mix and match as the size and sound of the Texas Playboys evolved over the years. Bob was the central figure, the creative genius behind a Western Swing empire. 'Johnnie Lee was always kind of in the shadows,' says Rosetta. 'He was a sweetheart, nicest man in the world. Uncle Billy Jack was a good musician, Luke, all of them. But Bob was the star.'
Bob and Barbara
relocated to California - first to Los Angeles, then to Fresno and finally to Sacramento where his enormous ranch and nightclub was known as “Wills Point.” He downsized his band into a smaller combo, and became an enormous draw in Los Angeles, where many of his Texas, Oklahoma and regional fans had relocated during World War II. During this era, he recorded the “Tiffany Transcriptions,” radio transcriptions that many feel comprise his most exciting and best work.
Wills Placed in the Country Music Hall of Fame (1968)
Wills was married and divorced several times between 1935 and 1941. On August 10, 1942, he was married to Betty Anderson, and they remained married until his death; they had four children. In 1945 Bob Wills and Betty have son, Jim.
By 1945, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys had achieved enough notoriety that they were invited to play at the prestigious home of country music at the Grand Ole Opry performance. A drum set was a natural, integral part of the Playboys' music, but it was unheard of in the world of country music back then. When the Opry staff told Bob that his drummer couldn't play, he angrily declared that he would not leave a band member out. It was all the Texas Playboys or none. Bob did agree, however, to let the drums be set up behind the curtains. That is, until time to play, when he hollered, 'Move those things out on stage!' In that moment, Bob Wills had left a permanent mark: there would forever be a beat in country music.
Throughout most of the '60s, Bob just lined up the gig, and local players would be rounded up before his arrival (often under the billing, 'Bob Wills And His Boys'). The basics of country music and Western Swing were somewhat universal (just as they are for rock and roll; Chuck Berry's toured this way for years). All they needed to know was how to play; all he needed was his smile and his fiddle. He'd sometimes hook up along the road with friends like Hoyle Nix, singing and playing with his band. The Playboys split wouldn't remain permanent, however, and Bob and the band would still sometimes travel together.
Bob and his band played at the Broken Spoke bar and dance hall in Austin. After telling the joint's regulars that the one and only Bob Wills was coming to play, they simply didn't believe him, or at least they were certain that he wouldn't show up. 'About that time, the door opened. Bob Wills opened it up, he had his cigar in his mouth, he had his fiddle in his hand, and a cowboy hat on, and all those drunks at the bar and at a table, there was just a complete hush. That night, it was Bob and The Playboys.
During those years, Bob had continued a recording career, releasing numerous albums with session musicians and several that reunited him with Tommy Duncan, one album title referring to them as Mr. Words and Mr. Music.
In 1957, Wills was elected to the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, and in 1968 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1969 the governor and legislature of Texas honored Wills for his contribution to American music, one of the few original music forms Texas and the Southwest have produced. The day after the ceremonies in Austin, Wills had the first in a series of crippling strokes.
By the early 1970s, Bob Wills' poor health had caught up with him for good. Several strokes and heart attacks had left him paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair. In 1973, some of the Playboys got together, with the help of country music star and Wills fan Merle Haggard, to try to put together one last album while Bob still had the strength to participate. It was eventually released as Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys For The Last Time.
They brought Bob Wills over in a wheelchair. That night, Bob had a massive stroke and never got out of bed again after that night.
Bob Wills died on May 13, 1975 at the age of 70. The headstone of his grave bears the epitaph, 'Deep Within My Heart Lies A Melody.'
Bob Wills was buried in Memorial Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
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