Obituary: Bob Wills, King of Western Swing, 70 (13 May 1975)

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13 May 2018  | Various Sources | Hawkins Bay Dispatch – This Day

“Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys are simply the best band that ever was.”
George Strait

James Robert Wills (March 6, 1905 – May 13, 1975) was an American Western swing musician, songwriter, and bandleader.

Considered by music authorities as the co-founder of Western swing, he was universally known as the King of Western Swing (although Spade Cooley self-promoted the moniker “King Of Western Swing” from 1942 to 1969).

Wills formed several bands and played radio stations around the South and West until he formed the Texas Playboys in 1934 with Wills on fiddle, Tommy Duncan on piano and vocals, rhythm guitarist June Whalin, tenor banjoist Johnnie Lee Wills, and Kermit Whalin, who played steel guitar and bass.

The band played regularly on a Tulsa, Oklahoma radio station and added Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, pianist Al Stricklin, drummer Smokey Dacus, and a horn section that expanded the band’s sound.

Wills favored jazz-like arrangements and the band found national popularity into the 1940s with such hits as “Steel Guitar Rag“, “New San Antonio Rose“, “Smoke On The Water“, “Stars And Stripes On Iwo Jima“, and “New Spanish Two Step“.

Wills and the Texas Playboys recorded with several publishers and companies, including Vocalion, Okeh, Columbia, and MGM, frequently moving. In 1950, he had two Top 10 hits, “Ida Red Likes The Boogie” and “Faded Love“, which were his last hits for a decade.

Throughout the 1950s, he struggled with poor health and tenuous finances, but continued to perform frequently despite the decline in popularity of his earlier music as rock and roll took over. Wills had a heart attack in 1962 and a second one the next year, which forced him to disband the Playboys although Wills continued to perform solo.

The Country Music Hall of Fame inducted Wills in 1968 and the Texas State Legislature honored him for his contribution to American music. [Wikipedia]


 

Bob Wills’s Unique Call

08 April 2001 | Alex Halberstadt | Washington Post

 

Art Satherley, urbane British-born executive of the American Recording Corp., was perplexed. A lifelong fan of Southern music, he had come to Dallas to record a few local string bands — fiddle, bass and guitar outfits that played a mix of breakdowns, pop tunes and blues, with an occasional cowboy song or Mexican number. That’s why he started to fret when a group that had shown up for the session picked up saxophones and trombones.

Horns, after all, were the province of big bands and jazz ensembles, not hillbilly outfits. The band struck up a dance tune, but Satherley lost his patience when Bob Wills, the 30-year-old bandleader and fiddler, started hollering and announcing solos over the music.

“Bob,” he interjected, “you’re covering up the musicians when you talk and holler and do all of these things.”

Wills, notorious for his hot temper, shot back: “You hired Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and Bob Wills hollers any time he feels like it and says whatever he wants to say! Now if you want to accept that, Mr. Satherley, we’ll do it. But if you don’t, we’re going home!”

That exchange, in September 1935, marked the improbable beginning of a 40-year recording career that, in its importance, influence and originality, would rival that of virtually any American musician. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys brought the music of Texas and the Southwest to an unsuspecting mainstream and irrevocably changed the sound of country music, Western films, pop and eventually rock-and-roll.

A few weeks ago, Bear Family Records released the long-awaited “San Antonio Rose,” a sprawling 12-disc set containing Wills’s complete studio recordings from 1935 to 1947, a period that is widely considered his most influential and productive.

Remarkably, the set is the first in-depth retrospective devoted to Wills, who is one of the few musicians inducted into both the Country Music and Rock and Roll halls of fame. Up until now Wills’s music could only be found on a handful of CDs, many of them budget titles and redundant “best-of” compilations.

Despite his achievements, Wills is better known among musicians, historians and collectors than among casual listeners. The reason for this neglect can be traced to the music itself, which confounds most attempts at categorization. Referred to as Western swing, it combined the blazing fiddle sound of traditional country music with the swinging rhythm and hot soloing of jazz, and threw just about everything else into the recipe.

Playing to dance-hall audiences, Wills relied on an enormous repertoire that made use of anything that would go over with the rowdy Saturday-night crowds. As “San Antonio Rose” demonstrates, Wills mined blues, old-time sentimental ballads, cowboy songs, boogie-woogie numbers, Mexican waltzes, jug-band stomps, hokum anthems and even classical music for inspiration. While Wills wasn’t the first to combine music from racially diverse sources — singers like Emmett Miller and Jimmie Rodgers had done it earlier — he was certainly the most adventurous.

“Wills was a visionary,” says country music historian Charles Wolfe. “Like all great American musicians, he was a synthesizer. He brought together every type of vernacular music in a way that made it accessible to the broadest possible public.”

Though he was an excellent if somewhat conventional fiddler, Wills made his greatest contribution as a bandleader. Like the orchestras of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Count Basie, the Texas Playboys spawned soloists who became stars in their own right. Foremost among them was Tommy Duncan, whose pliant baritone became the perfect vehicle for Wills’s wide-ranging material. In an era of bland Caucasian vocalists fronting even blander bands, Duncan created an enormous following by using his voice as one would an instrument, in the style of the jazz singers of the day.

Leon McAuliffe, an 18-year-old prodigy, became the first musician to play an amplified lead guitar on a country record, and was largely responsible for making the steel guitar a staple of country music. According to Rich Kienzle, author of the superbly researched 188-page hardbound book that is included with the Bear Family set, Wills’s band also popularized drums among country musicians and pioneered the use of double lead guitars, which would become a fixture of rock bands in the coming decades.

All through the ’40s, the son of a country fiddler from Turkey, Tex., led one of the most popular bands in the nation. The inevitable decline began in 1948, when Wills fired Tommy Duncan. In the ’50s, the decline of big bands and the advent of rock-and-roll continued to diminish Wills’s popularity. Though he continued to record, the music of the Texas Playboys would never again be as exuberant and influential.

Wills made his final recording — “For the Last Time,” now out of print — in 1973, reuniting with band members from his heyday. After conducting the band from his wheelchair on the session’s first day, he suffered a stroke that left him comatose until his death in 1975. The record was completed without him.

Wills’s most enduring legacy turned out to be his disdain for musical boundaries, and many musicians have followed his lead. Growing up outside Bakersfield, Calif., in the ’40s, Merle Haggard heard Wills’s music on the radio. “He sounded like nobody else,” recalls Haggard.

He credits Wills with broadening his musical horizons beyond the confines of traditional country music, and the influence can be heard in Haggard’s swinging compositions, his Duncan-inflected singing, and the horns he frequently uses to embellish arrangements. In fact, “A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World,” Haggard’s 1970 homage to Wills that featured members of the original Texas Playboys, reignited interest in Western swing and remains one of his finest moments on record.

Listening to Wills “made me realize that being a full-fledged musician meant you could play anything,” says Haggard, who often refers to his music as “country jazz.” “It meant that you could play with Louis Armstrong or Johnny Cash.”

The biggest challenge in assembling a collection on the scale of “San Antonio Rose” was the painstaking task of bringing together more than 300 tracks recorded by Wills during his 17 years with the American Recording Corp., which later became Columbia Records.

Some of the recordings were easily found in Columbia’s vaults, which are now owned by Sony. But many of Wills’s masters, which were cut onto metal discs before the advent of audiotape in the early ’50s, were melted down to make ammunition during World War II.

As a result, reissue producer Bob Pinson, a record collector and longtime researcher at the Country Music Foundation, relied on far-flung private collectors to fill the gaps in the catalogue. Some of the missing recordings came from his own collection, thanks to test pressings Pinson traded for in the ’50s with a friend who worked for Columbia. Pinson says the process took several years to ensure that the best-sounding source could be chosen for every track, and despite some understandable variation, the set’s sound quality is remarkable.

The economic realities of the record business are another factor that makes the release of “San Antonio Rose” somewhat of a marvel. The major labels that dominate the industry become more conservative every year, and mine their vast catalogues for only the most commercially feasible titles.

These days, vintage blues, country and other vernacular recordings receive better treatment from small record companies abroad. “Record companies once felt a responsibility to keep their important historical recordings in print,” says Wolfe. “Today, a record that sells 10,000 copies is considered a failure. In Nashville, 100,000 copies is considered a failure.”

Needless to say, Richard Weize of Germany’s Bear Family Records has a dramatically different approach. His company — which delves into blues, bluegrass and other genres as well as country — has become known for its almost fanatical reissue program, and favors complete career retrospectives over “greatest hits” packages.

Fans of country singer Hank Snow, for example, can choose from six Bear Family box sets comprising almost 1,000 tracks on 39 CDs. As with “San Antonio Rose,” Bear Family includes richly illustrated and annotated books with most releases.

Weize says revenue from the company’s record-distribution business and more commercially viable titles helps pay for the perfectionist reissues. Clearly, however, they are a labor of love. During a recent conversation in New York, Weize mentioned his plan to issue recordings of several hundred television broadcasts by the Sons of the Pioneers, a country and Western vocal group popular in the ’30s and ’40s. Asked about the fiscal wisdom of releasing more than 100 CDs devoted to a half-century-old television program, Weize replied: “When you know you’re doing something good, nothing else matters.”

The final disc of the Wills set is a DVD containing “Take Me Back to Oklahoma,” a 1940 film that paired Wills and the Playboys with singing cowboy Tex Ritter, the first of the 13 fairly low-budget productions Wills appeared in between 1940 and 1946. While it isn’t likely to be counted alongside “The Searchers” or “Rio Bravo” as a classic Western, it contains several wonderful performances by Wills, displaying his over-the-top showmanship and charm. If nothing else, it stands as a reminder of the lost art of conducting a band from atop a moving stagecoach.

It is the music, however, that remains the major attraction of this box set. “San Antonio Rose” is the tribute Wills has deserved all these years, and while it is not inexpensive — about $250 — how does one put a price on a lifetime of brilliance?


 

Bob Wills – Steel Guitar Rag 1936

 

Bob Wills – San Antonio Rose Singalong with Lyrics

This version was shown in movie theatres between double features or before the main feature.

That’s What I Like about the South

 

Bob Wills – Take Me Back To Tulsa(Vocal Luke Wills)


 

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BOB WILLS AND HIS TEXAS PLAYBOYS > The Tiffany Transcriptions

01 March 2009 | Geoffrey Himes | American Songwriter

It’s impossible to get a well-rounded understanding of a musician unless you can hear the artist both in the studio and on the stage-chasing formal perfection in the one and spontaneously engaging an audience on the other.

And because so few decent-sounding live recordings are available from country artists before 1960, it can be difficult to get that full perspective. But there’s a solution to this problem. Most older country acts taped live radio shows in good studios with the off-the-cuff improvisation of a live concert.

When Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings were released last year as a three-CD, 54-song box set, these hi-fi radio shows from 1951 revealed a whole new side of Hank-new songs and a new carefree attitude that hinted at the rock and roll just around the corner. The same revelations can be had from the new box set from another country giant, Bob Wills: The Tiffany Transcriptions. The 150 songs on these 10 CDs were recorded in a San Francisco studio in 1946-47 and sent out to radio stations in an early attempt at syndication. Because these performances were meant to be heard once on the radio and then forgotten, they were done without rehearsals and tight arrangements, as if it were just another date on the bandstand. Unveiling new songs and a proto-rock sound, these tracks are far looser and jokier than the band’s studio work.

Unlike the Williams radio shows, the Wills transcriptions had been released before-first on vinyl by Kaleidoscope Records in 1984 and then on CD by Rhino Records in 1993-but now they come in a box with a 16-page booklet featuring interviews with many of the players.

And once you hear these hard-swinging, freewheeling numbers, you’ll understand why these radio transcriptions meant so much to the members of Merle Haggard & the Strangers, Asleep at the Wheel, Riders in the Sky and Big Sandy & the Fly-Rite Boys, who all add their testimonies to the package.

Wills’ greatest band was the 1935-41 Texas ensemble that featured such virtuosos as fiddler Jesse Ashlock, steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe, guitarist Eldon Shamblin, pianist Al Stricklin, drummer Smokey Dacus and baritone singer Tommy Duncan.

But after the lean years of World War II, Wills regrouped in northern California and assembled a second great band that by 1947 featured steel guitarist Herb Remington, electric mandolinist Tiny Moore, guitarist Junior Barnard, fiddler Joe Holley, a returning Shamblin and a never departed Duncan. It was Wills’ last moment of glory before alcoholism and shifting musical tastes undercut him in the ‘50s.

While Wills’ commercial releases stuck close to the cowboy imagery and sound of his earliest hits, these radio shows reveal just how broad his tastes were. Especially revealing are the adaptations of such African-American hits as Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” where the hillbilly musicians nail the syncopation and the fiddles and steel guitars function like jazz horns.

No wonder Wills’ country songs sounded so different from those coming out of Nashville at the same time.

These were big bands with 11-13 musicians, but they were never cumbersome, for Wills rehearsed the rhythm section incessantly and kept everyone on their toes on stage by shouting out unexpected requests for solos and then testing his soloists and vocalists with wisecracks.

You can hear this process on the transcriptions; Duncan breaks into helpless laughter more than once, but the soloists stretch out longer and more adventurously than they ever did in the studio. When they were cooking, as on “Fat Boy Rag” or “Keep Knockin’ (But You Can’t Come In),” you could hear hints of the rollicking, race-mixing records soon to come from Bill Haley & the Comets and Jerry Lee Lewis.


 

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Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys Elmer Williams/Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum/Getty

100 Greatest Country Artists of All Time

15 June 2017 | Rolling Stone

14. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys

Wills’ visionary role as country’s first master of genre-bridging musical synthesis can hardly be overstated. Channeling jazz, hillbilly music, blues, citified dance styles and Latin rhythms into his brand of “Texas fiddle music,” he proved that country could be as wide-ranging and vibrant as any music on the planet. With ace steel guitar player Leon McAuliffe and the smooth vocals of Tommy Duncan, Wills’ Texas Playboys hit their peak in the 1930s and 1940s with hits like “Steel Guitar Rag” and “San Antonio Rose,” songs that were rollicking yet smooth, downhome yet urbane. His influence extended far beyond country: Chuck Berry used the beat from Wills’ 1983 version of the traditional tune “Ida Red” in writing his classic “Maybelline.” J.D.

Key Tracks: “I’m Sitting on Top of the World,” “Take Me Back to Tulsa”

 

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