Personalities | Bob Wills | Cowboys & Playboys | Country
Observers who saw him in his prime have likened the charisma of the ‘king of western swing’ Bob Wills to that of latter-day superstars such as Elvis and The Beatles. The Texas fiddler, with his trademark high-pitched folk hollers and jivey, medicine-show asides, was an irresistible force of nature.
Although he was, in the earliest days of his band-leading career, in the shadow of Milton Brown – who left Fort Worth’s Light Crust Doughboys a year ahead of him – Wills soon came into his own. He was musically open-minded, daring and innovative, and his Texas Playboys evolved from a rag-tag crew that was more spirited than skilled into perhaps the most talented, influential group in country-music history, while Wills became a living legend.
James Robert Wills was born in east-central Texas in 1905 and was reared in West Texas. His father ‘Uncle’ John was a highly revered fiddler and Bob, the oldest of 10, was one of four brothers who became professional musicians and bandleaders. Johnnie Lee, Luther Jay and Billy Jack all began their careers as Texas Playboys.
In addition to the fiddle music of his father, Wills was from childhood affected by the music of black field workers. His deliberate mixing of white and black musical styles would give his music much of its vibrancy, and lend his fiddle playing a haunting, vocal quality. Fiddling from age 10, Wills reached maturity at the height of the Jazz Age. The music of that era – from the hopped-up hillbilly of The Skillet Lickers, to the classic blues of Bessie Smith and the southern minstrel jazz of Emmett Miller – shaped his musical vision.
After gaining experience in medicine shows, Wills formed the Wills Fiddle Band, which would eventually become The Light Crust Doughboys. He left the band in 1933 and after a stop in Waco took his Texas Playboys to Oklahoma in early 1934. The band caught on at Tulsa’s 50,000-watt KVOO and soon virtually owned Oklahoma. Wills expanded upon Milton Brown’s model, adding horns and drums to his string band – his early 1940s band boasted a full horn section. Among many early important band members were vocalist Tommy Duncan, steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe and guitarist Eldon Shamblin.
The Playboys began recording for ARC-Brunswick in 1935 and immediately scored hits like ‘Spanish Two-Step’, ‘Steel Guitar Rag’ and ‘San Antonio Rose’. Wills’ development as a songwriter culminated in 1940 with the all-time classic ‘New San Antonio Rose’, when he added lyrics to his 1938 hit fiddle instrumental.
In 1943, Wills turned the Tulsa territory over to brother Johnnie Lee and left for California, where western swing was riding the crest of a wartime boom. Before long he had become one of the most popular bandleaders in the country in any genre. Further hits followed and Wills led excellent, innovative bands. The Playboys’ dynamic use of electric guitars and mandolins was particularly influential in this era. Wills and The Playboys...
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