Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Wills, Bob (James Robert)

Born as James Robert Wills near Kosse, Texas in 1905, the future King of Western Swing was the oldest of ten children. Bob Wills spent his early years picking cotton, and hopping trains from town to town. He trained to be a barber in his 20s, got married, and moved to Turkey, Texas, and then settled in Fort Worth in 1929. At an age when most pop music icons are strutting the stage, Wills was still offering a shave and haircut for two bits.

 Bob Wills

But he kept up his fiddling, which he had learned at home as a youngster. Wills’ father, John Tompkins Wills, had been statewide champion fiddler, and the family had its own band that held dances in their home. "I've seen them move the furniture out of these four rooms into the kitchen and onto the porch," a neighbor told Wills's biographer Charles R. Townsend as she took him on a tour of the former family hone, "and dance in all four rooms."

Wills heard black music at a very early age and developed a taste for jazz and blues that clearly shaped his later work as a bandleader. Wills once rode fifty miles on horseback in order to see Bessie Smith perform. “She was about the greatest thing that I ever heard,” Wills would later enthuse. “In fact, there is no doubt about it. She was the greatest thing I ever heard.” Wills also was a fan of dixieland jazz, and the key elements of this style—syncopation, improvisation, swing, and a marked informality and exuberance—became essential to his own conception of music.

In Fort Worth, Wills worked in medicine shows, and performed on the radio. Wills’s band won a fiddle competition in front of an audience of 7,000, and he began to make a name for himself—not just for his musical skills, but also for his stage presence, his easy-going banter and sure instincts as an entertainer.

During the 1930s, Wills’ settings changed from time to time—fans would find him with the “Fiddle Boys” or “Light Crust Doughboys” and he eventually settled into a comfortable niche as leader of the “Texas Playboys.” Wills also changed his home base, moving to Waco then to Oklahoma City and Tulsa. As the decade progressed, Wills’s music became even jazzier. He added horns and drums, and paid close attention to the growing popularity of big band jazz. As American popular music got hotter and more swinging, Wills adapted the Playboy's stylings to match the prevailing mood.

Although drums have found their way into all styles of popular music, they were not common in country bands at the time Wills began relying on them in his rhythm section. A few years later he would cause a stir by bringing them to the Grand Ole Opry, where traditionalists were scandalized. The staff even tried to prevent him from bringing the drums on stage. Today country bands have drummers—so you can be the judge of who won that fight.

Wills built a loyal audience during the 1930s, but his big break came when the Playboys recorded “New San Antonio Rose” in 1940. He had recorded “San Antonio Rose” as a fiddle instrumental number in 1938, but this new version grafted a swing jazz sensibility on to the country foundation. This would prove to be the quintessential Western Swing song, and would become a million seller. For a brief moment it seemed as if jazz and country traditions— the United States’ two most distinctive indigenous forms of popular music—were about to merge into some exciting new hybrid that would change the face of popular music.

Those who have spent some time with Wills’ music will hardly be surprised to learn that when Chuck Berry recorded “Maybellene” in 1955, he looked back to a recording by the Texas Playboys for inspiration. Future rocker Bill Haley was also inspired by this style of music, and in the late 1940s led a band called the 4 Aces of Western Swing. And, yes, Bob Wills did make it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but not until he had been dead almost 25 years. But better late than never. And what about the various jazz-oriented halls of fame, at Downbeat and elsewhere? Do they recognize Will's achievements? Maybe, it's better not to ask . . .

Everything was golden for Bob Wills in the early 1940s. He signed an eight-picture movie contract. He was advertised as the “Best Selling Columbia Radio Band.” His biggest hit “New San Antonio Rose” was widely imitated (Bing Crosby’s cover version was an even bigger hit than’ Wills' version), and during this period, Wills recorded many of his most popular songs, including "Time Changes Everything," "Cherokee Maiden," "Maiden's Prayer," and “Take Me Back to Tulsa”—which he performed in the 1940 movie Take Me Back to Oklahoma.

And “Western Swing” was an exciting new style with a growing fan base. This mixture of country music and swing jazz was one of the first crossover styles in modern American music, and it found a receptive audience that reached outside the typical demographics for the hot bands of the day. Except in Hollywood, that is . . . where the movie industry execs wanted Wills to drop the jazz elements of his music (so he could fit more naturally into cowboy films).

How did Wills describe his role in this innovation. He was characteristically low-key in his explanation: “It was nobody intended to start anything in the world. We was just tryin' to find enough tunes to keep 'em dancin' to not have to repeat so much.”

In the postwar years, Wills still was a big draw and a popular recording artist. And his music continued to evolve. In 1949, he took “Ida Red,” an old fiddle tune that had been a hit for him in 1938, and rerecorded it with a boogie woogie beat as “Ida Red Likes the Boogie.” This record spent 22 weeks on the charts, and peaked at number ten. When Chuck Berry recorded “Maybellene” in 1955, fans could hear its derivation from Wills’ original “Ida Red.” The man who had bridged jazz, blues and country showed that he could even get the attention of rockers.

Wills was one of the hottest acts in American music in the 1940s. At the close of World War II, his band was out-drawing Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and other leading Swing Era stars. In 1946, Time magazine reported that Wills annual earnings were $340,000—a fabulous sum considering the minimum wage was forty cents per hour during these post-war years.

Some jazz purists were quick to dismiss this music. "[Wills] is tired of being patronized by swing kings," Time reported, and the bandleader complained about people who said he didn't know what he was doing. Yet back in the 1940s, much like today, money talked and people listened in the music world. As a result, even city slickers were catching on to this countrified music. Deejay Cactus Jack (the colorful radio name adopted by Cliff Johnson) was promoting some of Wills’ appearances on the West Coast, including a two-day engagement at the Oakland Civic Auditorium that drew almost twenty thousand fans. Only a short time before, Jack had paid little attention to Wills's music, but he caught on quickly to the financial potential it represented. Together with songwriter-businessman Clifford Sundin, Johnson plotted a syndicated radio show that would take advantage of Wills’s star power.

The concept was to create a series of pre-recorded, pre-packaged radio shows that stations around the United States could broadcast. These stations would place their own advertisements with the “shows”—a familiar syndication formula nowadays, but far more cumbersome to implement in those days before podcasts, streaming media and satellite networks. Subscribing stations would receive 16-inch vinyl disks which featured five songs per side. The ambiance was similar to a remote broadcast from a ballroom or nightclub (a popular format at the time)—and no doubt many listeners thought they were hearing Wills's band in live performance.

These broadcasts were popular in the west and southwest. In Oklahoma alone, ten stations joined on as subscribers. But Tiffany could not get traction east of the Mississippi, where only one station (in Springfield, Ohio) carried the program. Tiffany would shut down in 1949, around the same time that Western Swing bands—and other types of Swing, for that matter—were falling out of favor.

But while they lasted, the Tiffany broadcasts created some memorable music. The distribution schedule put pressure on Wills to record dozens of songs, and cover a wide range of material beyond his band’s familiar hits. Much of the interest of The Tiffany Transcriptions stems from the variety in the band’s repertoire, and the obvious spontaneity of the proceedings. Wills plays the familiar jazz hits of other bandleaders: “Mission to Moscow” from the Benny Goodman band; “Take the ‘A’ Train” from Duke Ellington; “Jumpin' At Woodside” from Count Basie; "At the Woodchopper's Ball" from Woody Herman. The Texas Playboys also take on old blues, pop standards, country songs, traditional tunes, and of course their own original compositions. Along the way, we get everything from "Red River Valley" to "Sweet Georgia Brown."

Yet Wills remained the only constant among the Texas Playboys. By this time, none of the original members of the band remained except the leader. Singer Tommy Duncan’s departure was an especially big blow. Wills had auditioned 67 singers before hiring Duncan back in 1932. Duncan was singing for tips in front of a root beer stand in Fort Worth, and Wills listened to him late into the night before making a decision—he finally asked Duncan to sing "I Ain't Got Nobody," a tune Wills had enjoyed hearing Bessie Smith sing, and Duncan's performance earned him a job. This choice was a key factor in the band’s success. Duncan’s personable, resonant voice grounded this sometimes frenetic ensemble, and it was hard for fans to hear Wills’ music with anyone else singing lead vocals. Fans were rewarded with occasional reunions, and as late as 1960 Wills and Duncan collaborated on "Heart to Heart Talk" which would reach number 5 on the country charts. This would be Wills' last hit single.

But even under the best of circumstances, Wills glory days were bound to past. Anyone who thought that the future of American popular music would come about through a marriage of jazz and country was sadly mistaken. Jazz itself was in decline, and at the close of the 1940s big bands were an endangered species. The public’s musical tastes are fickle, and the Western Swing sound that had once been fresh and provocative, was soon cast aside by fans in search of the next new thing.

Wills himself ran into financial problems in the early 1950s, the result of double dealings by his lawyers and accountants. He would eventually regroup and his career would continue for another two decades. Wills died from pneumonia at age 70 on May 13, 1975 in Fort Worth but (true to the word of one of his biggest hit songs) he requested that his body be "taken back to Tulsa" for burial. But his legacy lives on, centered mostly on his remarkable work in the 1940s, when the stars were in alignment for this seminal figure in American music.

Contributor: Ted Gioia