Born James Robert Wills, March 6, 1905, near Kosse, Limestone County, TX; moved to Hall County, TX, 1913; died May 13, 1975, in Fort Worth, TX; son of John and Emmaline (Foley) Wills; married Edna Posey, 1926 (divorced, 1935); married Ruth McMaster, 1936 (divorced, 1936); married Mary Helen Brown, 1938 (divorced, 1938; remarried, 1938; divorced, 1939); married Mary Louise Parker, 1939 (divorced, 1939); married Betty Anderson, 1942; children: (first marriage) Robbie Jo, (fifth marriage) Rosetta, (sixth marriage) James Robert II, Carolyn, Diane, Cindy. Fiddler, beginning 1915; bandleader, beginning 1929. Formed Wills Fiddle Band, 1929 (later became Aladdin Laddies and then Light Crust Doughboys); formed Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, 1934. Appeared in several movies, 1940-46. Military service: U.S. Army, 1942-43.

Known as "the king of western swing," Bob Wills left an indelible mark on country-and-western music across five decades, and has been an influence to numerous modern country artists. A top-notch fiddler, songwriter, and the bandleader of his Texas Playboys, Wills blazed a trail from the 1920s onward with his innovative style of up-tempo, dance-beat swing music, which combined elements of bluegrass, jazz, blues, and Texas folk music--all tinged with the distinct aura of the American West. A popular performer at dancehalls and concerts across the Southwest and West, and an equally popular recording and radio artist throughout the United States, Wills wrote such classic songs as "San Antonio Rose," "Texas Two Step," "Take Me Back to Tulsa," and "Texas Playboy Rag." Open to whatever music made for good dance rhythms, Wills introduced instruments that had never been used in country-and-western bands before--such as horns, reeds, and drums--and produced a fiddle-based swing sound that brought him national recognition. According to Bill C. Malone in Country Music U.S.A., Wills was "an influence for change that has seldom been equaled in country music history."

Wills, who was born in East Texas and moved to West Texas when he was eight, came from a very musical family. Both his father's and mother's sides had many experienced fiddle players, and as a boy he played backup to his father at local ranch and square dances. Although the mandolin was his first instrument, he became adept at the fiddle, and learned a vast repertoire of songs from his father and other fiddle-playing relatives. He performed solo for the first time when he was fifteen, after his father was late for a dance they were to perform at. Growing up in Texas, Wills was exposed to the various music of the region, including Spanish music, cowhand songs, and the folk music of blacks; he was especially fond of blues and once rode fifty miles on horseback to see the "Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith, perform. In Stars of Country Music, Charles R. Townsend noted that "the blues idiom contributed to the distinctiveness of Wills's fiddle style and helped give his music the 'heat of jazz' that was so necessary in the popular music of his generation."

In 1929 Wills moved to Fort Worth and, with guitarist Herman Arnspiger, formed the Wills Fiddle Band. Vocalist Milton Brown, guitarist Durwood Brown, and banjoist "Sleepy" Johnson joined the following year, and the band became known as Aladdin Laddies after their radio sponsor, Aladdin Lamps. They later were sponsored by Burrus Mills Flour Company and became known as the Light Crust Doughboys. In 1931, the Doughboys appeared on their own radio show on Fort Worth's KFJZ; their announcer, manager, and spokesman at the time was W. Lee Daniel, president of Burrus Mill and later, governor of Texas. The show became extremely popular and was eventually broadcast on stations throughout Texas and Oklahoma. However, after a dispute with Daniel, who did not want the Doughboys to also perform at dances, Brown left the group in 1933 to form his own band--Milton Brown and his Brownies--and was replaced by singer and pianist Tommy Duncan. Wills also left in 1933, and moved to Waco where he began forming the group that would become the renowned Texas Playboys.

Joined by Duncan, trumpeter Everett Stover, guitarist brothers June and Kermit Whalin, and Wills's own banjo-playing brother Johnny Lee, the Texas Playboys were successful performers in Waco, but moved to Oklahoma in 1934 where they got their own radio program on Tulsa's KVOO. Based in Tulsa for the rest of the 1930s and into the early 1940s, Wills and the Texas Playboys reached their greatest popularity. They played an extensive road schedule to packed dancehalls in Texas and Oklahoma, and their radio program became a fixture for music listeners throughout the Southwest. During his Tulsa years, Wills put together what is considered his greatest band. In addition to the previous members, the Playboys were joined by bass player Son Lansford, saxophonist and clarinetist Robert McNally, guitarist Herman Arnspiger, trombonist and fiddler Art Haines, fiddler Jesse Ashlock, guitarist and banjoist Clifton Johnson, drummer William Eschol Dacus, steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe, and pianist Al Stricklin. With this large set-up--which would see various musicians come and go over the years--Wills popularized what came to be known as western swing, combining, as Townsend describes, "traditional jazz instruments with string instruments, and all of them performing in a jazz or swing style.... A key to Bob Wills's success was the fact that he felt free to add instruments, songs, and stylistic innovations that were foreign to traditional string bands."

"The second half of the 1930s and the early 1940s amounted to a golden era for the Playboys," noted Irwin Stambler and Grelun Landon in the Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music. They played to sold-out concerts throughout the Southwest and as far away as California. Wills became famous for his entertaining performances, playing his fast-paced fiddle as he skirted around the stage, smoking a cigar, engaging the audience and his band members in playful banter, and letting out his trademark cries of "Ah, ha, San Antone!" or "Take it away, Leon!" The Playboys' radio program was broadcast across the United States, and by the 1940s their recordings appeared on jukeboxes nationally. They had their biggest hit single in 1938 with Wills's composition, "San Antonio Rose"; however, a subsequent 1940 version entitled "New San Antonio Rose," with lyrics cowritten by Wills and vocals by Duncan, became an even bigger hit for the Playboys, and earned them a gold record. "New San Antonio Rose" remains Wills's best-known song and has been recorded by numerous other artists, including Bing Crosby who also had a hit with it in the 1940s. Other hits by Wills during this time included "Texas Playboy Rag," "Mexicali Rose," "Take Me Back to Tulsa," and "Faded Love," the latter cowritten with his father. Also in the 1940s, Wills and the Playboys began a movie career, and performed their songs in several western films.

After World War II, the demand waned for dance music by swing bands, and Wills moved to California in 1943 where he formed a new, smaller Playboys band. (He enlisted in the army in 1942, but was discharged shortly thereafter for health reasons.) During the rest of the 1940s and 1950s, Wills and the Playboys never reached their previous level of popularity, yet they continued to command sold-out concerts of loyal fans and sell many records. Heart attacks suffered by Wills in 1962 and 1964, in addition to other health problems, seriously reduced his output during the 1960s, yet his earlier recordings were released as sets by various record companies.

Wills's influence was beginning to show during the early 1960s on a new generation of country performers. Emerging artists such as Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard all cited Bob Wills as the primary influence in their country careers. Later, in the 1970s and into the 1980s, the "Austin musicians," comprised of folk and country musicians centered in Austin, Texas, and featured on the music program "Austin City Limits," frequently referred to Wills as their figurehead. Malone wrote that "the Texas mystique clearly affected the imagery that Austin musicians used to describe themselves. The name and music of Bob Wills were often invoked because they supposedly embodied the spirit of liberation and innovation that Texas had contributed to music and on which the Austin musicians now drew."

In 1968, Wills was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame for his lifelong contributions to country music. Among other honors late in his life Wills received a special citation from the American society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1973 for his lifelong contributions to American country music. In 1973, Wills and several of the Playboys were reunited for what would be his last recording session, a collection of 27 selections of Wills's standards which were released in the mid-1970s by United Artists as a multi-disc set, For the Last Time. Wills suffered a stroke in 1973, from which he never recovered, and died in 1975 in Fort Worth, where he had lived for the last 12 years.

by Michael E. Mueller

Bob Wills's Career

Bob Wills's Awards

Gold record, 1940, for "New San Antonio Rose"; elected to Country Music Hall of Fame, 1968; Pioneer Award, Academy of Country and Western Music, 1969; recognized by the Texas state legislature for his contributions to American music, May 30, 1969; inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Association, 1970; citation from American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), 1973, for lifelong contributions to American music.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Sources

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 8 years ago

A wonderfully informative bio, for which sincerest thanks. I'd change one detail--Bob Wills never incorporated bluegrass elements into his music since just about all of his recording preceded the emergence of bluegrass after WWII. The irony is that a lot of the early bluegrass fiddlers were Texans, so that particular idiom got to be closely identified with bluegrass. The result is that people here the sound in Texas fiddling and mistakenly assign the influence to run in the opposite way, from bluegrass to Texas fiddle. And of course the popularity of Bob Wills had a lot to do with the Texas guys playing bluegrass anyway! Thanks again.