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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,011

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Aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhaaaaaaaaa. This is the grave of Bob Wills.

Born on a cotton farm outside of Kosse, Texas in 1905, Bob Wills grew up in a musical family. His father was a well-known fiddle player throughout Texas. To say the least, his son picked up the knack for it. He also picked up the mandolin as a child. They frequently held barn dances at their house or played elsewhere. This was also a largely Black area of Texas and so most of the kids he played with were Black. I have little doubt that Wills picked up the racism of basically every white person in Texas, but what he also picked up was Black music, which he incorporated heavily into his own sounds as it developed.

Speaking of white Texan racism, when Wills was a kid, the family moved out to the town of Turkey, in the panhandle. Once, when I lived in New Mexico, I stopped at the Bob Wills Museum in Turkey. I think he got the hell out of there and never returned as soon as he could, but it’s hardly surprising that this nowhere town with nothing going on would have something for him. The woman who ran it was late coming back from lunch. She apologized, but looked at the license plates and said “Well, you’re from Manana Land you are used to it.” God, I hated that kind of racist dismissal of New Mexico from Texans.

Anyway, Wills left home early and hopped trains around the region. He worked as a barber for a bit in Turkey, but spent quite a bit of time out in New Mexico before ending up in Fort Worth. There, he put his musical talent to work, playing in bands and, yes, minstrel shows. And yep, that included Bob in blackface. Ugh. There’s not too much to say here–this was Texas in the late 20s and early 30s and it was not a good place.

As the recording industry popped up, Wills was well-placed to take advantage. He was already a very experienced and very good musician. He also had a serious ear for new things. He took that old-time Texas fiddle music and added a good dose of the blues that he picked up from Bessie Smith and Emmett Miller. He also loved jazz and really was as much of a jazz musician as a country one. About Smith, he later said, “I rode horseback from the place between the rivers to Childress to see Bessie Smith … She was about the greatest thing I had ever heard. In fact, there was no doubt about it. She was the greatest thing I ever heard.”

Wills started playing in the burgeoning commercial music scene. He formed the Wills Fiddle Band. Then the vocalist Milton Brown, the first of the vocalists that would lead Wills’ band, joined. They became the Light Crust Doughboys, playing for Light Crust Flour, their radio sponsor. That lasted a bit and then Brown left to form his own band. Wills went to Waco and got together the band that would make him famous, the Texas Playboys. Wanting a real market, he moved to Oklahoma City in early 1934 and there Bob Wills would start his rise to fame.

Wills liked a real big band. Jazz influenced, he added trumpets and saxophones. The great steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe joined the band in 1935. Tommy Duncan provided most of the singing vocals. Bob played the violin and engaged in his iconic calling. When you first listen to Wills, especially live or radio recordings, this is the first thing you notice–why is this crazy person talking all the time during the songs, telling a few jokes, and providing his classic “aaaaaaaaahhhhhaaaaa”? What is going on here? But this came out of the barn dance culture of the southern Plains. And Wills was nothing if not entertaining as a caller.

By the late 30s, the Texas Playboys were one of the biggest bands in country music. In 1940, Wills had his biggest hit ever with “San Antonio Rose,” recorded by so many artists over and over. He got to appear in a bunch of bad westerns too. I haven’t seen any of them but from what I understand, I’m not missing anything. There was a hiatus for a bit in World War II, when even Wills was drafted. By all accounts, he was a horrible soldier, someone who was hung over basically every day. They just discharged him after a year.

After Wills returned to civilian life, he reestablished the band in Los Angeles. There, they became the biggest act on the west coast. For the rest of the 1940s, he could play anywhere in California, Oregon, or Washington and get thousands of people to attend. They were making real money at this time. It’s true that Bob was drinking a lot of it away, which became more of a problem as the decade advanced. This finally led to Tommy Duncan to leave the band in disgust, especially as he was the one who had to tell audiences that Bob was too drunk to perform. But let’s not understate just how great Wills was in these years. Those dances on the Santa Monica Pier in the late 40s are probably some of the greatest live music ever made in this country. When he appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, it was nearly a disaster because the Opry had a very stupid rule barring drums. Wills of course did use a drummer. So he refused to play. They finally let him have the drummer so long as he was behind the curtain and no one could see the savage music coming out.

After World War II, the band recorded a bunch of live material for KGO in San Francisco. Today, much of this is available in The Tiffany Transcriptions set. This is what you want to hear. The original studio recordings are fine. They are good. But they are dated. But The Tiffany Transcriptions stuff, this is first rate. The sound is very good. They are having so much fun. They are also a hot band. They show off the great musicianship, Duncan’s great vocals, Bob’s insane calling. Just great stuff. Wills was also the consummate entertainer. He knew what people wanted. He also knew what people didn’t want, which was time between songs. So he just ripped from song to song without more than a beat between them. If you’ve ever seen Willie Nelson perform, he does the same thing (or did at his peak anyway), where he does not mess around and can get through 50 songs in a show. He borrowed this directly from all the times he saw Wills play live.

Not surprisingly, when musical styles changed, Wills’ drinking and spending did not. After 1951, music started moving on and Wills was less fashionable. He made bad investments and trusted sketchy advisers. He loved the bottle. He didn’t pay his taxes on time (another thing Willie Nelson evidently learned from him). By 1956, where he could bring them out by the thousands in California, he was mostly bringing them out by the hundreds. So he returned to Tulsa, where he was seen as a local hero. He was very open to rock and roll. When he was asked about it shortly after he came back to Oklahoma, he replied, “Rock and roll? Why, man, that’s the same kind of music we’ve been playin’ since 1928! … We didn’t call it rock and roll back when we introduced it as our style back in 1928, and we don’t call it rock and roll the way we play it now. But it’s just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of different names in my time. It’s the same, whether you just follow a drum beat like in Africa or surround it with a lot of instruments. The rhythm’s what’s important.” And he has something to this–not only was this a rhythm-based drum oriented music, but he was using loud, amplified guitars since the 30s. It’s not really rock and roll. But it’s a lot more of a forerunner to it than you might initially think.

But rock and roll did not bring a Wills revival around. He played for small audiences, could do OK in Vegas through the 60s, but he never did get back on top. In 1969, he suffered a stroke and couldn’t really perform after that. The revival for him did not come until 1970, when Merle Haggard recorded The Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, his tribute album to Wills. Merle was always inclined to recognize his heroes through full albums when he was at his peak. Wills really appreciated this. Then Waylon Jennings recorded his great song “Bob Wills is Still the King,” which appears on both the Waylon Live and Dreaming My Dreams albums, both 5 star masterpieces of country music. Wills even recorded a comeback album in 1973 that Merle appeared on. I haven’t heard it but evidently, Wills could not really speak clearly due to the stroke and so it’s not very good. But you have to appreciate him going on to the end.

Wills died in 1975, of pneumonia. He was 70 years old.

Let’s listen to some of the one and only Bob Wills, one of the greatest single people in the history of American music.

Bob Wills is in Memorial Park Cemetery, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Bob Wills was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 as part of its “early influences.” If you would like this series to visit other members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Gene Vincent, inducted in 1998, is in Santa Clarita, California and Cass Elliot, also inducted in 1998 with the rest of The Mamas and the Papas, is in Los Angeles. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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