b. James Robert Wills, 6 March 1905, on a farm near Kosse, Limestone County, Texas, USA, d. 13 May 1975, Fort Worth, Texas, USA. The eldest of the ten children of John Thompkins Wills and Emmaline (Foley), Bob was a sickly child and there were fears that he would not survive his early years. His father, known locally as Uncle John, was a fiddler (reckoned by many to be the best in all the Brazos River area), and later taught his son Bob to play the mandolin so that he could accompany his father's playing, but initially the child showed no great interest in music. In 1913, the Wills family relocated to Memphis, Texas. Bob rode his pet donkey behind the family wagon and the five-hundred mile journey took over two months. John and Bob played for farm dances along the way to raise money for food and it was at one of these dances that Bob first became interested in music played by Negro families, featuring trumpet and guitar. When he was 10-years-old, much to his father's relief, he took up the fiddle and made his first solo public appearance. His father failed to appear on time at a dance and in spite of only knowing six fiddle tunes for dancing, he kept playing alone. (His father eventually arrived at 2 am, too drunk to play.)
John Wills was fairly successful as a farmer and by 1921, he had moved to a 600 acre ranch/farm near Oxbow Crossing, which remained their home until 1931. The family continued to play for local functions. In fact, it was suggested that the Wills family, which by 1926 had 9 children, produced more music than cotton. Bob realised the farm could not keep them all and in 1924, he moved to Amarillo where, by working on building sites and as a shoeshine boy, he made enough money to buy himself a fiddle. He then found work playing for dances on Saturday nights and made his first radio broadcasts on Amarillo's two radio stations, KGRS and WDAG. A year later, he returned home driving a Model T Ford, which enabled him to appear as a fiddler over a wider area. In 1926, he married for the first time and leased a farm, but after a crop failure in 1927, he and his wife moved to Amarillo and he gave up farming for good.
He moved to Fort Worth where, sometimes in blackface, he found work in a Medicine Show. Here he met guitarist Herman Arnspiger and the two men began to appear as the Wills Family Band. They played for dances, did comedy routines and in November 1929, they recorded for Brunswick, in Dallas, although the two songs were not released. In 1930, the duo became a quartet when Milton Brown and his brother Durwood joined as vocalist and guitarist respectively, although Durwood was at the time still at school. (Milton Brown later became famous with his own band, the Musical Brownies ). They found regular work playing for dances, at times adding banjoist, Frank Barnes and played on KTAT and KFJZ where the assistant programme director of the latter station, Alton Strickland, would five years later became Wills’ pianist. In 1930, Wills’ band were sponsored on WBAP by the Aladdin Lamp Company (they appeared as the Aladdin Laddies ), and also gained a residency at the Crystal Springs dance hall in Fort Worth. In January 1931, through the sponsorship of the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company and billed as the Light Crust Doughboys, he and the band began to advertise Light Crust Flour on KFJZ. After two weeks, in spite of their popularity with the listeners, the President of Burrus Mill, Mr. Wilbert Lee O'Daniel (later a US Senator and Governor of Texas) sacked them, because he considered their music was too hillbilly. KFJZ kept them on air without a sponsor and Wills succeeded in getting O'Daniel to resume sponsorship and pay the band as well, although for a time all members had to work a 40-hour week in the mill.
Their popularity grew and soon the programme was being heard over all the southwest, even reaching as far as Oklahoma City. The band recorded for RCA-Victor in 1932, the only recordings made by Wills with the Light Crust Doughboys. The same year, vocalist Thomas Elmer Duncan replaced Milton Brown. In 1933, after differences of opinion and an odd drinking spree that saw him miss shows, Wills was sacked by O'Daniel. He moved to Waco, assembled a band that included his brother, Johnnie Lee Wills and Duncan and for the first time, he called his band the Playboys: he also added ‘formerly the Light Crust Doughboys’. (He found himself in law-suits from O'Daniel for using the name but eventually the Tenth Court Of Civil Appeals found in his favour.) He then moved to Oklahoma City, where he began to call his band the Texas Playboys, but O'Daniel stopped his programme by promising the radio station he would put on the 'Burrus Mill Show' there in Oklahoma if they did not broadcast Wills's band. Wills moved to KVOO Tulsa, where in February 1934, Bob Wills And The Texas Playboys fin ally began to broadcast and this time O'Daniel's attempts to stop them failed.
In 1935, the group made their first historic studio recordings. The band consisted of twelve musicians namely Bob Wills (fiddle), Tommy Duncan (vocals/piano), Johnnie Lee Wills (tenor banjo), Son Lansford (bass), Herman Arnspiger (guitar), Sleepy Johnson (guitar), Jesse Ashlock (fiddle), Art Baines (fiddle/trombone), Smokey Dacus (drums), Robert McNally (saxophone), Al Stricklin (piano) and Leon McAuliffe (steel guitar). Wills stayed in Tulsa and during the late '30s, he continued to shape his band and changes in personnel saw the arrival of guitarist Eldon Shamblin and saxophonist Joe Ferguson. In 1936, Leon McAuliffe first recorded his Steel Guitar Rag. Wills made further recording sessions in Chicago (1936) and Dallas (1937 and 1938). When he recorded in Saginaw, Texas in April 1940, his band numbered 18 musicians—more than the big bands of the period such as Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and the Dorseys were using. It was at this session that he recorded his million-selling version of New San Antonio Rose, the ( Tommy Duncan ) vocal version of his 1935 fiddle tune, previously known as Spanish Two Step. This version differed from his original fiddle one, in that it featured only reeds and brass and was played in the swing style as used by the big bands of the time. (Over the years the song has usually been referred to as simply San Antonio Rose.)
Wills was by this time one of the top-selling recording artists in the States. In 1939, the demand was such that Wills decided for the first time to run a second band, which was led by his brother Johnnie Lee and also included his younger brother Luke Wills. Although successful with his music, Bob Wills was far from successful in marriage. He had troubles at times with excessive drinking and a fondness for the ladies. He was divorced in 1935 and married and divorced a second time in 1936. In 1938, he married again but once more was divorced within the year and though he persuaded this wife to re-marry him, they were divorced for the second time in 1939. He married again in July 1939, only to be divorced (yet again!) in June 1941.
In 1940, he appeared with Tex Ritter in the film Take Me Back To Oklahoma, even duetting with Ritter on the title track and the following year, with his full band, he featured in the film Go West Young Man. In 1942, Duncan left for military service (he rejoined on discharge) but Wills maintained a band containing 15 instruments although only four were stringed. He recorded in Hollywood and made eight b-movie westerns with Russell Hayden. He was also married that year to Betty Anderson, a girl 18 years his junior and this time in spite of his drinking, the marriage would last until his death. After the filming was completed, more band members left for the US Army and Wills moved to Tulsa, fin ally disbanding in December 1942. He enlisted himself but was discharged in July 1943. He moved to California, reformed a band and returned to the film studios. Wills never liked Hollywood but he loved the cowboy image. He spent lavishly on horses, harness and dress for himself and was a popular figure on his favourite stallion, Punkin, around the California rodeo circuit. He bought a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley and stocked it with horses and a dairy herd ‘just to keep my father busy’.
At one stage in 1944, his band consisted of 22 instruments and 2 vocalists but he never recorded with this unit. Duncan left in 1947 to form his own band, probably because he had tired of having to take responsibility for fronting the band, when Wills failed to appear through a drinking spree. During 1944-45, Wills had US country and pop chart hits with New San Antonio Rose, We Might As Well Forget It and You're From Texas. He also had country number 1 hits with such war songs as Smoke On The Water, Stars And Stripes At Iwo Jima, Silver Dew On The Blue Grass Tonight and White Cross At Okinawa. In 1946, his New Spanish Two-Step topped the country charts for 16 weeks as well as having Top 20 pop success. Wills left Columbia in 1947 to record for MGM Records and in 1950, he recorded his classic Faded Love—a composition that he and his father wrote with some words added by brother Billy Jack Wills. He toured extensively and relocated to Dallas, where he invested heavily in a dancehall that he called Bob Wills Ranch House. Due to dishonesty by people employed to run his affairs, he soon found himself heavily in debt. Faced with jail, he sold his Bob Wills Music Company and accidentally with it the ownership of San Antonio Rose.
For two years, he struggled to raise funds; he ran two bands—one played at the Ranch House and he toured with the other. In January 1952, he fin ally sold the Ranch House to a Jack Ruby—a name then unknown outside Dallas, but later internationally known following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Throughout the '50s, he recorded and toured extensively and several times moved his base of operations. Wills continued to experiment but the influence of television began to affect the dancehalls, tastes had changed and he never recaptured the earlier successes. He recorded in Nashville for the first time in 1955 and again in 1956, but most of his recordings were made in California. In 1959, he appeared at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas but still missed a few shows through his drinking. He was reunited with Tommy Duncan, and during the period of 1960-1961 they recorded over forty sides for Liberty Records. In 1962, he suffered a heart attack but in 1963, he was back even though he sold his band to Carl Johnson. He suffered a further heart attack in 1964 and when he recovered sufficiently to work again, he always acted as a front man for other bands. Between 1963-69, he recorded almost an hundred sides for either Liberty, Longhorn or Kapp Records. He was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1968.
After an appearance on 30 May 1969, he suffered a stroke and was rushed to hospital where he underwent two major operations. The stroke left him paralysed on the right side and hospitalized for months.
In 1970, he moved to Tulsa and in 1971 underwent surgery for a kidney complaint, but suffered a stroke on the left side a few hours after the operation. Months later, he recovered sufficiently to talk and to use his left arm, even telling people that he would play again. Country star Merle Haggard admired Wills and was influenced by his music and in 1970, he recorded his album A TRIBUTE TO THE BEST DAMN FIDDLE PLAYER IN THE WORLD (OR, MY SALUTE TO BOB WILLS), which actually featured some of the Texas Playboys. Wills was unable to attend the recordings but in 1971, he was reunited with ten of his old Texas Playboys at Haggard's house, near Bakersfield and watched and listened as recordings were made. In 1973, he made a few appearances, at one even holding his fiddle while Hoyle Nix used the bow. He travelled to Dallas to attend a recording session of the Texas Playboys and on 3 December even included a few of his famous yells and ‘hollers’ as the band recorded some of his hits. During the night, he suffered a further stroke and remained unconscious for almost eighteen months until his death from pneumonia on 13 May 1975.
He was buried in Memorial Park, Tulsa, a city that saw much of the glory days of Bob Wills’ western swing music. It could never be said that he copied any other style—he devised his own, as the words of his song said ‘Deep within my heart lies a melody’. His long-time friend and steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe, who, though 12-years-younger than Wills, had retired from the music scene, summed things up when he said ‘My desire wore out before my body, Bob never did wear out at this. His body wore out before his desire did’. There have been other bands that played the music but none that ever matched the instrumental integration or the wide variation in the styles and music of Bob Wills. His habit of uttering spasmodic high pitched shouts during the playing of numbers, such as his famed ‘Ah haaa’, originated from the days when, as a young boy, he performed with his father at ranch dances in Texas. His father (and the cowboys) used similar loud cries at points when the music or the whiskey moved them to feel that something was special. His other habit of talking to his musicians such as his noted, ‘Take it away, Leon’, was picked up from his association as a youth with black musicians, who always talked to each other while they were playing. He believed it was the best way of getting the best out of musicians or even having a joke at their expense. He may even have had more fans without his continued ‘hollers’ or interjections, particularly over Duncan's vocals but as Waylon Jennings sang ‘When you're down in Austin, Bob Wills is still the King’.
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