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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,050

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This is the grave of Billy Jack Wills.

Born in 1926 in Memphis, Texas, Wills was the little brother of the great Bob Wills by a solid 20 years. Like Bob, Billy Jack grew up around music. He was with his brother as western swing became a thing. Now, there’s lots of western swing guys who are largely forgotten today. Outside of Bob and then Spade Cooley and a couple of others, most of these people are barely remembered, as it was a niche within country music, even then. But there were lots of bands and Billy Jack Wills led some of them. He joined Bob’s Texas Playboys in the 40s to play bass and drums. He wasn’t just some kid brother getting a break either. He wrote most of “Faded Love,” one of the all-time classics of country music.

In the early 50s, Bob decided to move the base of his band from California to Tulsa. By this time, the popularity of western swing was beginning to wane. Also, a lot of the guys in the band were really sick of the constant touring. That included Billy Jack. So he decided to start his own band in California that included a lot of the Texas Playboys, including Tiny Moore, the band’s well-known mandolin player. Billy Jack Wills & His Western Swing Band became an important part of the country music scene in California after 1950. Billy Jack was also very up to date on recent innovations in jazz. Bob was influenced by jazz too, but more that of the 20s and 30s. Billy Jack implemented ideas from be-bop into his band as well as R&B and other emerging genres of Black music. In fact, the band became known for interpreting contemporary Black hits for the white audiences of the west coast that otherwise would not listen to these great songs. Based out of Sacramento, Wills and his band served mostly a west coast audience, did a lot of radio, and very few of the tours that just wiped out those who had left the Texas Playboys. They had a few local hits and were pretty happy with it.

By 1954, western swing as a genre was really beginning to drop off and Bob Wills was desperate to turn that around. So he came to Sacramento and told Billy Jack that he was taking over his band. I have no idea of the relations between the brothers, but this was a pretty clear bullying job and Billy Jack acquiesced, maybe feeling he had no choice in the matter. In any case, it was pretty disastrous. Bob immediately took them out on a long tour, which led a bunch of the members to quit since this is why they had left Bob in the first place. Bob didn’t care for the experimentation that Billy Jack was engaging in with his covers of recent R&B hits. So he cut that out and turned them into his own band, again in a genre that was dying. So the whole thing fell apart.

Billy Jack continued to play music professionally until around 1960, but his time was up. He didn’t really have much money after all this. So he moved back to Oklahoma and became a plumber. Well, that’s a respectable enough existence.

Wills died in 1991, at the age of 65.

Let’s listen to some Billy Jack Wills.

Billy Jack Wills is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

If you would like this series to visit other country musicians, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Hank Thompson is in Dallas and Al Hopkins, the early country musician whose band the Hill Billies (also known as the Buckle Busters) had a lot of success in the 20s, is in Arlington. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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