James Robert Wills (March 6, 1905 – May 13, 1975), better known as Bob Wills, was an American Western swing musician, songwriter, and bandleader, considered by many music authorities one of the fathers of Western swing and called the King of Western Swing by his fans.
Bob Wills was the driving force behind Western Swing, a form of country & western that was broader in scope than the parent genre. A master at synthesizing styles, Wills brought jazz, hillbilly, boogie, blues, big-band swing, rhumba, mariachi, jitterbug music and more under his ecumenical umbrella. He has been called “the King of Western Swing” and “the first great amalgamator of American music.”
Wills grew up in a part of Texas where diverse cultures and forms of music overlapped. His enthusiasm and mastery were such that he assimilated disparate genres into what might best be termed American music. (Wills called it “Texas fiddle music.") “We’re the most versatile band in America,” Wills forthrightly asserted in 1944. He might’ve added that they were most innovative band as well. Certainly, they forced country music to open up in its acceptance of electric instruments. Even rock and roll’s freewheeling spirit of stylistic recombination has antecedents in the work of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
Wills was born into a family of fiddlers that included his father, John Wills, who regularly won Texas fiddling competitions. Bob Wills learned how to play fiddle and mandolin from his father. As a young man, Wills performed at house dances, medicine shows and on the radio. With commercial sponsorship, Wills’ bands performed on radio in the early Thirties as the Aladdin Laddies (for the Aladdin Lamp Co.) and the Light Crust Doughboys (for Light Crust Flour). Following a salary dispute, Wills renamed his band the Texas Playboys and relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he had a live radio show. This exposure led to a contract with American Recording Corp. (later absorbed into Columbia Records).
In 1935, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys laid down 24 tunes during their historic first session at a makeshift recording studio in Dallas. The group recorded prolifically in the late Thirties and early Forties, laying down such classics as “Steel Guitar Rag” (written by Leon McAuliffe, the Texas Playboys’ long-time steel guitar player), “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and Wills’ signature song, “New San Antonio Rose.”
Their biggest hit, “New Spanish Two Step,” topped the country charts for 16 weeks in 1946. Wills’ mix of horns, fiddles and steel guitar made for a uniquely swinging sound that grabbed the public’s ear at mid-century. The Texas Playboys always had fine singers like Tommy Duncan and Leon McAuliffe, and Wills punctuated the tunes with jive talking, falsetto asides and cries of “ah-ha!” He’d call out soloists by name and instrument, good-naturedly goading them on to rollicking performances.
In terms of personnel, the Texas Playboys expanded and contracted like an accordion over the years, according to Wills’ desires and the whims of the market. At one point the Texas Playboys were 22 pieces strong, although the band more typically numbered between 9 and 18 members. There were personnel changes and musical shifts as Wills struggled to adapt to the changing face of America in the post-war era. Nonetheless, there was always a solid core of loyal regulars in the Texas Playboys. After leaving Columbia in 1947, Wills continued to record prolifically for such labels as MGM, Decca, Longhorn and Kapp. The group also toured the country and often performed at a Wills-owned dancehall in Sacramento, California.
In 1968, Wills was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. A year later, he suffered a debilitating stroke. There were reunions and recording sessions with many of the old Texas Playboys in 1971 and 1973. Wills’ final stroke came in his sleep following the first day of recording for a December 1973 session that resulted in the double album For the Last Time. Confined to a wheelchair, he’d reprised his role as bandleader that day with a group of musicians that included former Texas Playboys. He never regained consciousness and died 18 months later.
Wills has been revered by such country-music legends as Merle Haggard (whose band, the Strangers, was configured in the style of the Texas Playboys) and Willie Nelson (who covered Wills’ “Stay a Little Longer"). The contemporary Western Swing group Asleep at the Wheel cut a pair of tribute albums that have kept Wills’ name before the public: the star-studded Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys (1994) and Ride With Bob (1999). Every year, Bob Wills Day is celebrated on the last Saturday in April in Turkey, Texas. (Info mainly RockHall)