His name is synonymous with western swing.
The sound of air brakes exhaling from a big black and white bus emblazoned with the words “Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys” announced my father’s homecoming. It was the early ’60s and my parents, older brother, two younger sisters, and I lived in a two-story red brick home in what was then a Tulsa, Oklahoma, suburb. Our house faced west in the direction of the towns and cities that knew Bob Wills so well. These were the touring years, and fans continued to crowd dance halls eager to see the man and his band, to hear the music, and to dance to favorites like “San Antonio Rose,” “Faded Love,” “Stay All Night,” “Big Beaver,” and “Take Me Back to Tulsa.”
If somehow you’re unfamiliar with Bob Wills or have yet to tap a toe to Western swing, it’s safe to say you’re within inches of someone who has. Today, living west of the Mississippi virtually assures a lifestyle influenced by him. More than a hundred years after his birth and now 35 since his death, Bob Wills and his music remain deep within the heart of America’s West. From a family of fiddlers and cotton pickers, he became a Western legend, minstrel, preacher, and hero across four decades.
The oldest of four brothers and six sisters, he grew up in a small frame house “down between the rivers” of Hall County near Turkey, Texas. By today’s standards, his family would be dirt-poor, but for the times, their standard of living was fairly typical. Rural America had yet to head for the city and agriculture was still the occupational standard. My grandfather, who I knew as “Daddy Papa” and the world knew as “Uncle John” Wills, was a champion fiddler and struggling cotton farmer who relied on his eldest son to play the fiddle for ranch dances and to pick cotton. The best the young Jim Rob “Bob” Wills took from those parched Texas cotton fields was a love for the blues and jazz sung and played by neighbors and migrant workers, and the best he got from his father were the teachings of a master fiddler and the sense of being central to the survival of others. No surprise that the charismatic firstborn would be gifted and burdened with talent, ambition, and a genius for creative evolution.
Bob Wills rose to stardom in the mid-1930s and enjoyed the ride well into the ’60s. Committed to lightening the woes of people wearied by the Depression, he understood the effect of hard times and the formula for easing its hold. As people moved from the country to the city and dance halls replaced the ranch dance, Bob Wills made sure Western swing traveled, too, bringing with it the sound of a happier, roaring decade. He became the genre’s favorite son, while his Texas Playboys surrounded him with a musical family of sheer enjoyment.
Onstage, he was the consummate performer. His unconventional “holler” and animated presence thrilled audiences up, down, and around Route 66 from Texas to the California coast, in dance halls, on the radio, and in western movies. His music lifted spirits that clearly needed lifting. It brought people to their feet and, more important for his time, proved for a humble picker from the cotton fields of Texas that sitting on top of the world was indeed possible.
Undoubtedly arising from his early experience of family, my father was acutely aware of the importance of others. His commitment to pleasing and elevating everyone — band members, family, audiences — inspired unwavering devotion and a kind of personal ownership from all who knew him. He admired great musicians and could spot and attract them instantly. His band, The Texas Playboys, was synonymous with the name Bob Wills, and thanks to my father’s onstage commentary, band members were known individually almost as well as he was. He was a natural leader who encouraged self-expression within strict and oddly diversified codes of behavior and performance. And by the numbers of Texas Playboys who proudly served over the years and ultimately relished in the telling of “Bob stories,” following his rules was, in the end, a rite of passage.
Well-known Texas Playboy piano pounder Al Stricklin recounted his travels with my father in My Years with Bob Wills, describing him as “The man who started it all; the man who could get 110 percent effort out of his musicians like a good football coach; the man who was feared and loved by his men; the man who could sell his product like nobody else, as testified to by the thousands of people who turned out to listen ... .” Al’s son, Dr. David Stricklin, reminds me that much of my father’s story revolves around “anti-rules,” of ignoring boundaries — as illustrated by his swing-dance version of the “William Tell Overture” — and “of fracturing such musical niceties as observing time signatures.”
He was his own kind of outlaw. “Bob broke meter and made it work, even though it drove the ‘serious’ musicians crazy,” Stricklin says. “Daddy referred to how Bob took music out of the straitjacket. ... The thing was, if you were willing to accept the discipline of being in Bob’s band, you had to adopt the work ethic that enabled them to survive the grueling schedule, the ways Bob drove them during performances, and the absolute requirement that people who paid to see them were going to get their money’s worth. Within those rules and that work ethic, there was a lot of room for self-expression. Daddy always said that when Bob pointed his bow at you — and you never knew when that was going to happen — you couldn’t just play exactly what you’d played the last time the band did the song. You had to think, Bob wants me to play all I know, and, if possible, play something I didn’t know I knew. That was light-years from the attitudes of so many bandleaders in those days, even the ones we regard as highly inventive. It’s one of Bob’s great contributions and, I think, one of the keys to understanding his great humanity.”
My father’s talent for presentation, for skirting the edge of what fans could embrace and yet dream to emulate, began with his arrival on the musical scene at the start of the ’30s. It was in Fort Worth, Texas, that he formed the Wills Fiddle Band; Milton Brown soon joined as vocalist and the group became the original Light Crust Doughboys. In sweaters and dress slacks, the band looked more like college boys than young men fresh from the farm.
In 1933, when Bob Wills left Fort Worth to broadcast on a radio station in Waco, the band became known as The Playboys. My father was 28; the band was young and they continued to dress like college students. From Waco, they headed for Oklahoma and their destiny to broadcast on KVOO. From 1934 through 1938, Bob Wills appeared in a tailored double-breasted suit and polished custom-made boots, and the Texas Playboys dressed in business suits, white shirts, and neckties. They were on their way to becoming the largest and most famous Western band in the history of America, and their increasingly familiar image announced the dawning of “Western chic.”
In 1939, my father and Mr. O.W. Mayo started the annual Bob Wills Stampede (Rodeo) in Tulsa and it was then that the Texas Playboys began to dress Western: cowboy dress shirts and Western pants, bolo or standard ties or Western scarves, vests or Western-cut sports coats, and cowboy boots with pants tucked in or out. Nowhere were there sequins, appliqués, floppy lapels, or loud colors. As the bandleader, Bob Wills became known for his trademark cowboy hat, boots, and Roi-Tan cigar. He usually wore a light-colored Stetson with a medium crease and slightly folded edges. A hat pushed too far back or pulled down to hide a man’s eyes was not acceptable.
“Those rodeos were what is called a happening today,” says Al Stricklin, who recalled one parade where people started waving and shouting, not at the Oklahoma governor but at Bob Wills. “[Wills] had on a well-tailored Western suit and was riding Punkin, that great stallion, saddled with that beautiful silver-lined saddle that Tulsa restaurateur George the Hamburger King had given him. It was a beautiful sight.”
A rare change to my father’s dress code occurred during the making of a western movie in which the Hollywood director insisted he wear a 10-gallon white hat and tuxedo to conduct the band in a dance scene. Everyone on the set who knew him immediately recognized the anger and discomfort captured in that cut.
By 1942, my mother, Betty Lou Anderson, had fallen in love with and married Bob Wills. She was young and petite with curly black hair, big brown eyes, and an attitude of total possibility. At 37, he had matured into a dark-eyed heart-melting celebrity with a list of failed marriages. The connection between the two would carry them through ever-changing times, 32 years of marriage, and four children. Early on, I saw my parents’ relationship as a working partnership as much as a great romance. From the outside, it may have appeared he was king, but from the inside I knew she was also queen. My mother excelled at business, and, as it turned out, she brought her own element of style to the Bob Wills image.
When we lived in Las Vegas in the late ’50s, I remember helping her shop for dresses for a young singer hired for the Golden Nugget shows, and through the years I often heard her discussing with my father what the band would wear. I especially remember the period when she actually made his Western shirts. It was a time when pearl snaps were a must and to secure them to a shirt meant standing in the kitchen at the ironing board and pounding them over and over with a meat mallet.
While a great era in American history passed with my father’s death on May 13, 1975, those who knew him — and many who knew those who knew him — were not prepared to see his legacy die. His memory is honored in numerous halls of fame, museums, and tributes, including the Country Music Hall of Fame, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the 2007 Grammy celebration, my niece and I were privileged to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed on my father by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for his contributions to American music. Ray Benson’s stage production of A Ride with Bob is entertaining audiences across the country. And the annual Bob Wills Day in Turkey, Texas, is approaching its 40th year.
“Bob was a stylish Western rogue,” says Benson, Asleep at the Wheel frontman. “As outrageous as his onstage dancing, hollering, and strutting were, he led the band in a presentation that was downright orchestral ... and always electrifying.”
To hear the music called Western swing is to feel a connection to America’s West. To know the man who was its instrument is to admire one of America’s great agents of change. Not only did his music bring America to its feet, but his view of and pride in being Western evoked a now-classic style. His talent for synthesizing sound — whether in the vein of blues, jazz, ragtime, Hispanic, country, gospel, or big band — into the music known as Western swing translated to his equally contagious and innate sense for designing the image known as Bob Wills. Whether it applied to the band or signage or the bus; whether it was expressed by his performance or attire, or for that matter, his horse and tack, if it had to do with Bob Wills, it had to do with class.
From the July 2010 issue.