Although he didn’t invent Western swing single handedly, Bob Wills will forever be associated with it. He did popularize it and change its rules, and 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. The expansion of their music eradicated the boarders between genres. Some of their music are also the most popular music of its era. All through the ’40s, the musicians were among the finest of its era and the band was one of the most popular groups in country music. Wills’ influence was great and extensive even though his popularity and the popularity of swing declined. Being one of the first honky tonkers to western revivalists, generations of country artists owe him significantly, as do the rock and jazz musicians. He was a maverick and his spirit infused American popular music of 20th century with renegade, virtuosic flair.
Wills was born in 1905 outside of Kosse, Texas. He learned how to play guitar, mandolin and fiddle from his father and grandfather. Also, he played regularly on local dance in his teens. He joined a medicine show in Fort Worth in 1929 where he played fiddle and did blackface comedy. In one of his performances, He met Herman Arnspiger and they become the Wills Fiddle Band. Within a year in performing dances and in radio stations around Fort Worth, they were paired with a vocalist named Milton Brown who joined the band. Soon, Brown’s guitarist brother, Durwood also joined the group, as did Clifton “Sleepy” Johnson, a tenor banjo player.
The band landed a their own radio show in 1931. The radio show was sponsored by Burris mill and an elevator company that manufactured Light Crust Flour. Then they rechristened themselves the Light Crust Doughboys. They recorded for Victor in 1932, Brown leaving soon after, to be replaced by Tommy Duncan. Wills was fired from the Doughboys in 1933, due to his excessive drinking. He took Duncan and his banjo-playing brother, Johnnie Lee Wills with him to form his own outfit, Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys.
Wills and Texas Playboys were moved from station to station, during the era of radio and local sponsorship. As they were moved, they picked up sponsorships and new listeners all the time they were playing dances. Wills’ strengths include being a good bandleader and songwriter and his musical arrangements. His recordings flouted the ideal of pure country that attached itself to the likes of the Carter Family, who made their first recordings at about the time Wills began working as a dancehall fiddler. He went fully electric years before anybody else, and helped make the steel guitar a standard instrument for country music.
Tommy Duncan was the one who handled most of the vocals for the early days of the Playboys. He has a fluid baritone voice that was equally at home with smooth ballads and blues tunes. The blending of reeds, brass and twin fiddles gave the Playboys a full rich sound. A vocal version of San Antonio Rose, Recorded in 1940, brought wills and the band national acclaim that lead to film appearances in “Take Me Back to Oklahoma” and “Go West Young Lady.” The Playboys were outselling the top swing band such as those of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman in the late 1940’s.
He was honored in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968 was honored in the State of Texas on May 20, 1969. If his band had not consisted of extraordinary individuals like Jesse Ashlock, Sleepy Johnson, Leon McAuliffe, Eldon Shamblin, Noel Boggs, Johnny Gimble, Jimmie Widener, Herb Remington, etc., then his legacy would be less memorable and less distinguished. Listening to Bob Wills’ classic recordings, you will fully understand why our great-grandparents eyes twinkled when they reminisced their dancing days to such classics as Faded Love, Stay All Night and St. Louis Blues. It is timeless music that just cannot be equalled. What was so great about Bob Wills was the diversity of his music. He did a great job of combining country, swing, jazz and blues into a musical blend with across-the-board appeal.
Watch the video below and enjoy one of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys greatest hits. Don’t forget to share the experience with other country fans!