In the 1930s, America was immersed in the great economic Depression, but it was also experiencing a technological and cultural explosion. The motorized transportation and the new electronic media would forever change the world. And yet, from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean, we were still a developing, open, agricultural wild land. The music that had been carried through the folk tradition continued to be handed down through the families that had worked the land, the families who'd faced dust storms and other hindrances to their hard work west of the Mississippi. But music was reaching those folks with the help of new technology, too. Radio changed things. It created national celebrities, musicians who took folk tunes and dressed them up, giving them class and widespread acceptance. The strong identities with the common man and his work stayed in the music, but a new sound was creeping into it, with more structured arrangements and melodies to dance to. Cowboy music.
The sound had been coming on for some time, with the earlier recordings of the Singing Brakeman Jimmie Rogers paving the way for cowboy singers like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. These were the musical heroes for the rest (or west) of the country, while other musical varieties developed a little further east, as Nashville, Tennessee became the spiritual home of all country music.
And then there was Texas. Everything always seemed a little different in Texas, and maybe it still does. It was the only state that had once been a nation, and a spirit of individualism had flourished in its people for years. That iconoclastic attitude could even be found up around the Texas Panhandle and the Cap Rock Canyons, hundreds of Texas miles from the Alamo and the state capital. Truly, it was the middle of nowhere, the unlikely little Texas town of Turkey that folk, country, cowboy, jazz and blues began to mix together in the mind of a young man who would lead the way in a sound we now call Western Swing.
Jim Rob Wills was only ten years old in 1915 when he fiddled at his first dance there in Hall County, being called to fill in for his drunken daddy, also the son of a fiddler. It was the first of thousands of nights on stage over the next six decades. Jim Rob wouldn't realize until much later that playing that fiddle would be his true calling and the most basic element in his eventual Wall of Western Sound.
Young Jim Rob Wills held a series of jobs before adding Professional Musician to his resume, including selling insurance and preaching the Word. But he settled into a job at Turkey's barber shop, a job he took seriously enough that he completed barber college. Music had always been in his family and was still a big part of Jim Rob's life when he went into the Dallas-Fort Worth area looking for work as a barber. It was 1929, and despite the Depression, he was lucky enough to get some work in music, fiddling with a medicine show in black face. It was an interestingly ironic career move (by today's standards) for the young man who'd already made music with black friends back home, whose jazz and blues influence would be heard his entire career. Black-face performances were pretty common at the time, though playing and working with black children in the cotton fields wasn't. And this was exactly how Jim Rob had been exposed to black America's soulful blues and rhythmic jazz. 'People from that area and that day and time, you think would be prejudiced, (but) he didn't seem to have a bit of prejudice,' says Bob's daughter, Rosetta. 'He had a lot of respect for the musicians and music of his black friends.' He was such a fan of blues singer Bessie Smith that he rode 50 miles on a horse to see her perform live. 'I don't know whether they made them up as they moved down the cotton rows or not,' Wills later said of his black contemporaries to biographer Charles Townsend, 'but they sang blues you never heard before.'
In Fort Worth, Wills and Herman Arnspiger, the guitarist from the medicine show, hooked up with brothers Milton and Durwood Brown to form the Wills Fiddle Band, becoming the Aladdin Laddies after becoming regular radio performers on WBAP in 1930. Long before Michael Jackson ever held a can of Pepsi, it was not uncommon for musicians to be sponsored by, and even named for, advertisers. When the Aladdin Lamp Company dropped its sponsorship, the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company began its cross-promotional relationship with the boys. Thus were born the Light Crust Doughboys, the singing and playing billboard for Burrus' Light Crust Flour. They literally punched a time clock and worked for the company. Wills was the delivery truck driver by day, fiddler by night. Burrus' manager was the group's employer and the radio show emcee. W. Lee 'Pappy' O'Daniel had plans for the country dance band that were in his product's best interest and not necessarily the band's: they were to perform only on radio and not at dances. But it was, after all, dance music that Wills and his friends were making. It needed real people shuffling across the floor in front of it.
Would I like to go to Tulsa, you bet your boots I would.
Just let me off at Archer, and I'll walk down to Greenwood.
Take me back to Tulsa, I'm too young to marry.
('Take Me Back To Tulsa' by Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan)
When the Browns left to form Milton Brown's Musical Brownies in 1932, it wasn't long before Wills' earliest battles with the bottle got him fired by Pappy. Bob and his brother Johnnie Lee took off for Waco, Texas, where the Texas Playboys were truly born, playing frequently on radio station WACO. From there, they moved on to Tulsa, Oklahoma, finding their first true radio home on KVOO. Brown and Wills would separately become the most important figures in this new cowboy jazz, but the Doughboys were Pappy's launching pad, too: O'Daniel's radio exposure started a political career that would take him to the Texas Governor's mansion in 1938, and in 1941, he'd beat out a young Lyndon Johnson in a U.S. Senate race. His Light Crust Doughboys would continue on without him or Brown or Wills. They'd continue, in fact, as the keeper's of a western music flame, receiving their first Grammy nomination in 1997. That's right, more than 60 years after Wills left the band, dozens of musicians have kept the Doughboys alive. They still perform today, with Marvin 'Smokey' Montgomery on banjo since 1935. A feud between O'Daniel and Wills over the band's name kept Fort Worth's Doughboys out of Bob's Tulsa home base. The feud lasted far longer than either man did. 'O'Daniel always had a vendetta against Bob from then on,' remembered Montgomery in June, 1998. 'We were on the air [by recording] on KVOO all during those years, but Pappy never would book us into Tulsa, on account that Bob was big there. Last year, Borders Bookstore booked us up there. That's the first time the Doughboys ever played in Tulsa.'
During those early Waco and Tulsa years, the Playboys began to grow, bringing in players like the teenaged Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Smokey Dacus on drums, Jesse Ashlock on guitar, Brother Al Stricklin and his boogie woogie-styled piano playing. Just like the Doughboys, they even had a product to push--Playboy Flour. Bob's vision of a jazzy fiddle band was taking shape throughout the '30s, but, to be fair, he wasn't the only one west of the Appalachians bringing together big city jazz and frontier fiddle. Good friend Milton Brown continued with his similar sound, enjoying great success with the Musical Brownies until his tragic death in a 1936 auto accident.
There were others, all under the western umbrella, being influenced by Dixieland jazz and the minstrel shows. Nearly a decade earlier, Al Bernard had plugged western folk into Chicago blues, taking his minstrel-based show into the Eastern Tin Pan Alley culture. Emmett Miller and His Georgia Crackers, Roy Newman and His Boys, Spade Cooley, Adolph Hofner, and others took Gene Autry's cowboy sound a giant, soulful two-step to the left.
Along the way, Wills had become the leader of the pack. It was his constant effort to put on a bigger, better show that brought about the Big Sound. He was a showman. And putting on a better show meant bringing in lots of other instruments, and more fiddles than just his own. A good show for dancing, that was the goal, not the creation of some musical revolution.
The air will be filled with Western Swing,
And we can hear ol' Tommy Duncan sing,
It feels good to be alive, but the clock says 9?,
And the party can't start 'til the Playboys arrive.
('The Party Don't Start 'Til The Playboys Get Here' by Don Walser and Pat Baughman, recorded by Don Walser)
The transition from Jim Rob to Bob was just the beginning of Wills' effort to achieve class and distinction for his western ensemble. Bob may have been country, but the image he wanted portrayed in both appearance and song, was far removed from the hillbilly style that had been coming out of Nashville, and he didn't want the Playboys to be another hillbilly band. He hated the hillbilly image associated with country music. But then, this was a different kind of country music anyway. If Bob hadn't played a fiddle, no one would have connected country to the Playboys' music at all. It was really jazz; jazz that portrayed a dignified South, with flowing fiddles and classy, sometimes brassy, arrangements. Their rags, breakdowns, Dixieland tunes, and swingin' blues were an uplifting beacon of light in otherwise hard, depressed times of the 1930s.
The Playboys usually appeared in cowboy dress attire. No sequins or overalls, this was a sophisticated outfit. Bob's look was that of a well-dressed bandleader, but one from Texas. His cowboy hat, cigar, and fiddle were all part of his trademark appearance.
'Bob was a stylish, western rogue,' says Ray Benson, leader of Asleep At The Wheel, Western Swinging Bob Wills disciples for the past quarter century. 'He danced onstage, he was outrageous. He strutted like a peacock, unheard of back in those days.' In all other respects, he led a Big Band just like Tommy Dorsey, in a presentation that was downright orchestral - except Bob conducted with a fiddle bow.
The earliest incarnations of the group (over the years, hundreds of musicians would be Playboys) included trumpets and saxophones, and at various times, female vocalists with an Andrews Sisters style. The band's makeup and size changed frequently: it could grow into a veritable western symphony, or shrink to a tight little fiddle band. The most important qualifications for Texas Playboys were that they be good musicians and good people. They had to get along with the others and with the audience, it was that simple. No matter how many players were onstage, it was a decidedly different sound from any other in country music, with that steel guitar (electrified by the late '30s), extra fiddles, electric mandolin, even drums. With a foundation like this, the emergence of rock and roll was only an inevitable matter of time.
The completion of the Bob Wills sound meant having a vocalist who was more crooner than cowpoke, but with a definite western touch. Tommy Duncan's relaxed, smooth voice was as appealing as Bing Crosby's, just more suited for a fiddle band. There was no pretense or exaggeration in Duncan's baritone, and when it was mixed with Bob's cheerleading interjections, there was a magical combination.
Duncan's voice fit the band like a glove and his touch of class wouldn't take them too far away from country music. Bob and his fiddle made sure of that. And Bob wasn't just the leader and arranger, he was also a vocalist himself, but not in any conventional way. His running commentary during songs was as much a part of a Playboy arrangement as anything else in the mix. Bob's cheerful, nasal voice could be heard in nearly every song, as he threw hollers like 'Play it, boys!,' 'Ahh, now!,' 'That's what I said!,' and any imaginable thought that might (or might not) pertain to the words of the song at hand.
Bob's own personality was a musical instrument. It was the hook, the thing that put a smile on any listener's face. He'd sometimes sing whole songs himself, but he was hardly a stage hog. The hollering gave all of the Playboys a moment in the spotlight during a dance or radio show. Band members' names were as important as Bob's, even as the lineup changed. It was hard for any audience not to feel connected with the Texas Playboys, with Bob's constant reminders of just exactly who was playing the swingin' solo in progress: 'Here's the man who'll tell you about it, Tommy!,' 'that man they call Kelso, piano!,' 'the biggest little instrument in the world, mandolin! Tiny Moore!,' 'All right, Herbie! Herb Remington and that little ol' steel guitar!'
It was Bob's magnetic stage presence, with his constant Cheshire grin and rhythmic regal bearing, that brought the most basic element out of the music. It may have had roots in blues, jazz, and working man's folk music, but it was always happy. A sense of joy could even be found in sad songs like Wills classics, 'Yearning,' 'Bubbles In My Beer,' and 'Lily Dale.' It had to be happy, it was for dancing!
The onstage charisma was apparently just a reflection of a genuinely nice man to start with. Light Crust Doughboy Smokey Montgomery plainly states, 'If I asked him for a dollar, he'd give me a ten.' Another Smokey, drummer Smokey Dacus once commented on his boss' largess. 'After our noon broadcast, some guy in overalls would walk up to Bob and whisper in his ear. Bob would reach in his pocket and give the guy a hundred dollar bill. The story was always the same - the guy had a sick mother who was always in California and he always needed money for a bus ticket. After the guy was out of earshot, Bob would say, 'You know, that guy's probably lyin', but I can't take the chance.''
A drummer who came a little later than Smokey, Johnny Cuviello, once told the story of how Bob had quietly relieved him of his Playboy duties: 'After we would play a show or do some recording, the Bob Wills tour bus would let everyone off at the bus stop so they could go home, but they would always drive me right to my house and all of my neighbors would see me arrive home in the Bob Wills bus! After I was with the band for almost two years, the bus stopped coming by to pick me up. No one ever fired me - they just stopped picking me up.'
From 1934 to 1942, the KVOO radio program was part of the Playboys' lives, and radio's far-reaching exposure in those days was the most important publicity any musician could have. The band would travel for nighttime dances, performing in towns hundreds of miles away, but they had to be back for a live noon broadcast every week day, and a gospel radio show on the weekend (presumably a balance for the less-than-wholesome atmosphere of dance halls). The radio commitment wasn't the only one; they also played each Thursday and Saturday night at Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa. Despite such restrictions, they managed to play throughout Texas and other Midwestern states, and their grassroots popularity was spread far and wide.
So far, in fact, that a book had been written about them as early as 1938. Hubbin' It by Tulsa reporter Ruth Sheldon was available by mail order only, and included a dreamy glossy photo of that grinning Texan. The book wasn't the only fan-driven venture to come decades before Beatlemania. A fan named Ruth Thomason created a set of about a dozen guidelines and duties to keep true Bob Wills fans in line. Among the most basic requirements, any real Bob Wills fan 'never knocks, but always boosts Mr. Wills,' 'is one whose room is completely lined with Bob Wills pictures,' 'attends every dance possible and always listens to the broadcasts,' and one who most certainly 'never ridicules a Kyser or a Wayne King fan, simply pities her for not knowing enough to be a Bob Wills fan.'
Yodeler and traditional country recording artist, Don Walser, remembers the power of a Playboys radio show, as it reached into the Texas Panhandle town of Lamesa. He'd walk home from school, in the days when windows stayed open, and the entire neighborhood would pick up those Tulsa broadcasts. 'You'd walk through there and you could hear a Bob Wills song from start to finish walking by those windows.'
In 1942, World War II brought the party to a temporary end, as a number of the guys went into the service, including Bob. Brother Johnnie Lee kept the radio show going during those years, and wound up keeping that daily noon broadcast on the air until 1958. Johnnie Lee had his own swing band by that time based right there in Tulsa, though members of his band and Playboys often overlapped, as players would float back and forth between them. Whenever Bob was in town, he'd join his brother on the air. 'A lot of people think that they were listening to my dad on KVOO when they probably were listening to Johnnie Lee,' declares Rosetta. 'Sixteen years he was on there after my dad had moved to California. They played the same kind of music.'
Bob had actually set up Johnnie Lee's band for him, just as he would do for brothers Billy Jack and Luke. All the Wills brothers were musically talented, and all were Playboys at various times, but Bob was the clear business leader behind every offspring group. There was always a pool of musicians to mix and match as the size and sound of the Texas Playboys evolved over the years. Bob was the central figure, the creative genius behind a Western Swing empire. 'Johnnie Lee was always kind of in the shadows,' says Rosetta. 'He was a sweetheart, nicest man in the world. Uncle Billy Jack was a good musician, Luke, all of them. But Bob was the star.' The brothers' bands weren't the only ones in that musical network. Don Walser saw a number of the Playboys many times, but not as Playboys. 'Whenever the guys from Bob Wills' band wanted to dry out, they'd go to Big Spring and work for Hoyle Nix.' Nix was an important swing leader in his own right and a good friend to Bob. 'They all had to watch Hoyle just like they'd watch Bob.'
The dancing, smiling image of Bob Wills would also be brought to folks all over the country in the medium that it cherished the most. Bob, Tommy, and all the boys were brought vividly to life as they appeared in several dozen 1940s western movies like 'Go West Young Lady,' 'The Lone Prairie,' 'A Tornado In The Saddle' and 'Take Me Back To Oklahoma,' in which Bob and the boys shared the screen with cowboy singing star, Tex Ritter.
Radio, however, was still king, and it continued to deliver the Western Swing message to the people. In the late 1940s, Bob and the band made a series of recordings produced especially for radio. The band's recording career had already been going strong since the mid-'30s, but these song versions were completely separate from the commercially released material. The transcriptions of these live-in-the studio sessions, handled by Tiffany Music, were then sent to radio stations as an early version of what we now call syndicated programming. The performances were formatted in such a way that radio stations could customize them with local announcers and commercials.
It had seemed like a logical business idea at the time. The band's original legend and following had been built from the far-reaching signals of KVOO and WBAP. Despite such advertised announcements that it was a 'sure-fire audience builder for your station, a powerful selling vehicle for your sponsors,' the Tiffany music recordings failed as a business venture, but not before running for several years on dozens of stations throughout the country. It may not have generated cash, but it had kept the Playboys spirit alive. It's ironic that the Tiffany Transcriptions were not intended for commercial release, but now, decades later, they're more available than most of the rest of the Wills recorded catalog. After sitting untouched for decades in a basement, they were released in the 1980s by Rhino Records, giving a fascinating glimpse of the Playboys' musicianship at the time.
By 1945, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys had achieved enough notoriety that they were invited to play at the prestigious home of country music a little farther east. Bob unknowingly created quite a stir at his Grand Ole Opry performance. A drum set was a natural, integral part of the Playboys' music, but it was unheard of in the world of country music back then. When the Opry staff told Bob that his drummer couldn't play, he angrily declared that he would not leave a band member out. It was all the Texas Playboys or none. Bob did agree, however, to let the drums be set up behind the curtains. That is, until time to play, when he hollered, 'Move those things out on stage!' In that moment, Bob Wills had left a permanent mark: there would forever be a beat in country music. (He and the Texas Playboys, by the way, were not invited back.)
The Playboy rhythm would ultimately seep into other music with a powerful pulse: Chuck Berry's 'Maybelline' was simply an adaptation of the Wills version of 'Ida Red,' the traditional folk tune that Bob had set to a beat. But it was mostly a beat rooted in jazz. 'He couldn't play jazz, he just loved it. And he hired guys who could play it.' Johnny Gimble remembers the first time he sat in with the band as a 23-year-old fiddler. Johnny's greatest musical influence was jazz great Benny Goodman, who didn't even have a fiddle in his orchestra. A jazzy fiddle was just the right sound for the Playboys though. Eldon Shamblin, the electric guitarist who also served as the band's manager, understood this when he hired Gimble in Bob's absence in 1949. 'I was on my way to join the band and I stopped in to where they were playing in Waco,' recalls Gimble. 'And Bob said, 'There's a little fiddle player in the house! The boys hired him, I haven't heard him. They say he's good. Well, he sure better be!' I was scared to death, of course. He asked me if I could play 'Draggin' The Bow.' I had learned that when I was a kid. Bob couldn't play it, it wasn't one of his tunes. It was something that knocked him out, though. That's sort of the way he worked: he cut you loose to play. You played whatever you felt like. He wasn't bossy at all.'
Gimble vividly remembers the feeling of a Bob Wills show, and how its star connected with his fans. Bob would spend the entire four hour dance on the bandstand. After a show, he'd travel in his car while the rest of the boys hopped in their bus. 'He'd kick off the last tune and then make his way out to the car and leave while we were finishing it out. If he had to, he'd stand there and shake everybody's hand. Sometimes he'd make his way through the crowd [while] they were dancin', if there wasn't a back door. You could see that white hat movin' out through the crowd. He'd speak to everybody that stopped him.'
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys somehow found time to write, learn, and arrange new songs in the midst of their almost constant traveling and performing throughout the '30s, '40s and '50s. Bob wrote quite a few songs, but so did Jesse Ashlock, Tommy Duncan, the other Wills boys, and various other Playboys. Bob always incorporated pop tunes by the likes of Cole Porter, along with jazz works by W.C. Handy (a particularly soulful rendition of 'St. Louis Blues'), and even traditional folk songs by influences like Woody Guthrie. He would record the blues standard, 'Sittin' On Top Of The World' many times over the years. They could do it all, and Bob was the first to say so. 'We're hep,' he once boasted. 'We're the most versatile band in America.'
Texas songwriter Cindy Walker was responsible for a number of the songs in the films, as well as other classics like 'Cherokee Maiden' and Roy Orbison's 'Dream Baby.' One tune she'd written when she was eleven years old would also be interpreted by the Playboys. It was perhaps the perfect Western Swing song, the one that captured its feeling the best. The sad lyrics of 'Dusty Skies' paint a stirring picture of hard life on the dry western plains, as the dust storms drive hard working folks from their homes. Only Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys could tell such a sad tale with the rich, full sound of a western orchestra. The songs were as ever-changing and varied as the band itself.
The Playboys would record hundreds of songs over the many years, but two songs would be associated with the band in all its incarnations. They would become standards in the world of popular music.
'Spanish Two-Step' was a simple melody that Bob had made up in the early '30s. He'd written the fun little instrumental piece for the primarily Mexican audiences of Roy, New Mexico, where he'd lived and played for a while. He recorded it in 1935, but it was a Dallas recording session in 1938 that brought out a new burst of creativity. 'After we had cut several tunes, Uncle Art Satherley, who was the A&R man on this session asked me if I had another tune like 'Spanish Two-Step,'' Bob recalled some years later. 'I said, 'No, I don't, but if you give me a few minutes, maybe I can come up with something.' In a few minutes, I had written and recorded the tune. Uncle Art asked me what I wanted to name the tune. I told him I didn't know. So he said, 'Let's name it 'San Antonio Rose.'' The instrumental sold very well, and later, Columbia would ask Bob to record it again with lyrics.
It was 1940 before 'New San Antonio Rose' came out, with lyrics as poetic as the melody itself ('Moon in all your splendor, know only my heart/Call back my rose, rose of San Antone/Lips so sweet and tender, like petals fallen apart/Speak once again of my love, my own.'). Bob's hypnotic hollers of 'San Antone!' could be heard in all the versions that he would eventually record, each time with a different Playboy vocalist. It would literally be heard all over the world by 1969, as the Apollo 12 astronauts sang it, looking back at the earth from a lunar orbit.
'San Antonio Rose' took Bob 'from hamburgers to steaks,' as he was fond of saying, but it wasn't his only song to take on a life of its own. 'Faded Love' had also started out as a simple fiddle tune, originally made up by Bob's father, John Wills. For years, it didn't even have a name, let alone words.
The mournful instrumental came to be known as 'Faded Love' by the time Bob had his own band, but it wasn't until 1950 that he and brother Billy Jack wrote the heart-broken words to their father's beautiful melody, just two years before John's death. Bob would later sign over all royalties from the song to his mother, as an appropriate provision for her financial security. Since then, over 300 artists have recorded the timeless classic.
'Fifty-seven was the first time I saw him on a bandstand. I was 17, and I was fascinated,' recalls Rosetta, Bob's second daughter. Bob's marriage to Betty Wills in 1942 would last the rest of his life and produce three children. But this amiable fellow who never knew a stranger had known divorce long before it was, shall we say, popular. Bob Wills had been married five times prior to Betty, two of which were with Milton Brown's ex-wife. (When asked once about his many marriages, Bob simply replied, 'I've got about sixteen more horses than I've had wives.') He would remain friendly with his exes, except for Rosetta's mother, whom he'd divorced when Rosetta was just a toddler. Good friend and Light Crust Doughboy Smokey Montgomery remembers, 'Every time he'd come to town (Fort Worth), I'd kinda' be his transportation to see his ex-wives.'
Rosetta hadn't known her father well when she was a child. Like her sister, Robbie Jo (also the product of an early marriage), she'd only been around him a handful of times, and just knew him to be a very sweet and kind fellow, like a distant uncle. By the time she was 17, she was ready to get closer to this mythical father figure, who was already immensely famous when her mother had first met him in the late '30s. 'I decided I was gonna go see him,' she says of her first trip with friends to Cain's Ballroom, the Tulsa dance hall that served as the Playboys' home base. 'He, of course, did not expect us, he had no idea. I just went up to the bandstand, he was totally shocked. He didn't quite know how to handle it.' Bob had lived a life in barrooms and dance halls, and was acutely aware of the seedier aspects of those environments. He would watch all members of his family like a hawk whenever they ventured into such a setting. 'He never wanted his wives or his children at Cain's, but I was kind of outside that circle. He couldn't exactly tell me not to come.'
It was nights like those that became the basis for their relationship. Most of the time that Rosetta spent with her father over the years would be while one was onstage, the other on the dance floor below. They'd also spend hours talking in his car after a performance, while the Playboys were piling themselves and their gear into the bus. The man she got to know during those nights was exactly the same kind-hearted soul that friends and fans have commented on for years. He was as friendly offstage as on. Rosetta has compiled her memories of her dad into an anecdotal biography, The King Of Western Swing: Bob Wills Remembered, published just this year.
Certainly, there are those who've commented on his moodiness, jealousy, his tendency to withdraw, but Rosetta saw none of that. 'I'm sure there was that side of him, but of course, I never saw it. I really wasn't around him enough to ever have any kind of disagreement. He always acted just thrilled to see me, I never got the cold shoulder.' Her fleeting moments were always precious.
There was a side of him that was remote; a private side to the seemingly simple man. His struggles with the bottle over the years usually resulted in a no-show for a Playboys gig; this way, fans and friends would only see him at his friendly best. As powerful as his illness apparently was, he usually did not let it show to friends and fans. He was a binge drinker, not a constant drunk; it wouldn't get in the way of the serious musical work to be done. Johnny Gimble only saw Bob drinking twice during his several years as a Playboy, and it didn't prevent him from doing his job. Band manager Eldon Shamblin saw to that, recalls Gimble. 'Eldon said, 'You got a tour to do, Bob, and the bar's closed.' That's how authoritative Eldon was.'
Also, as loving as Bob was towards Rosetta, he'd hidden her and Robbie Jo's existence from his other family for many years. When he did let the news out, it was with such whimsy that the mystery had hardly seemed necessary. Rosetta's first introduction to her brother was during a show, while her famous dad was literally in the middle of a song: 'That was something out of a movie. He leaned down from the bandstand and said, 'James, this is your sister Rosetta.' We were just there looking at each other. Of course, I knew [about him], but he didn't know [about me].' James was 18, Rosetta in her 20s, and both leapt at the chance to get to know each other. 'We stayed up all night until the sun came up. We were just fascinated.'
The family life that Wills knew with Betty and their kids was perhaps as unconventional as his relationship with Rosetta. That presumably more stable family wasn't really stable either: they would move 14 times in 20 years, but such is the life of a traveling musician.
The love he clearly felt for his family can be found in the song bearing that second daughter's name. 'It is a really good song, and he does a great version of it,' says Rosetta of the Earl 'Fatha' Hines jazz tune that Bob had first recorded in 1938. 'My mother, it was her favorite song, so I was named for the song. The song's older than me. When he recorded it in the '60s, he told me, 'I sang 'Rosetta' for you, and I was thinking about you the whole time I was singing that.' So that made it more special to me because I wasn't even born the first time he recorded it.' That later recording, by the way, was released as a single at the time that the Beatles first took over record sales in the States. The record, along with all other tunes considered country and western at that time, sold poorly as the British Invasion took hold.
Years of hard traveling and a good bit of drinking had taken their tolls on Bob's health, so after a second heart attack in 1964, he simply 'sold' the management of the band for ten thousand dollars. The Playboys were left under the musical leadership of Leon Rausch, a longtime singer with the band (Tommy Duncan had been fired some years earlier, and a number of other singers had passed through since). They made Fort Worth something of a home, but life on the road was really what the band was all about. Bob would sometimes still play with them when the opportunity presented itself, but it was time to simplify his life.
Bob had pursued several business ventures, such as the Bob Wills Ranch House in Dallas, which was intended to become a sort of home base. During the week, onetime Playboy Johnny Gimble and The Ranch House Boys would play there, then Bob and whoever was playing with him at the time would handle the weekend dances. Poor management in his absence made for another failed effort, so Wills sold the joint to another Dallas club owner - Jack Ruby.
Selling off that dance hall was just one of the ways in which Bob did his level best to pay off a crippling IRS debt. In those days, there was no opportunity like Willie Nelson would later have for a settlement and payment plan. One simply paid it. Bob sold his homes, his land, and his music. Even the rights to 'San Antonio Rose' went to Irving Berlin's publishing company. 'That really was a crushing blow,' says Rosetta. 'He talked about that a lot. When I saw him in the '60s, he couldn't get over that, because he'd lost so much.'
The financial pull of the road still had a tight grip on him. Bob made decent money on the road, and his demand in other towns kept him out there. He had bills to pay and a family to support. 'He was so into music,' says Rosetta. 'I don't know if he could have done anything else anyway. He never really retired.' Besides, playing for the people was what he did the best. He and singer Tag Lambert began touring together in a car. This was the simpler way to do it. By these years, Bob Wills had long been a musician of such stature that simply his own name was enough to create a draw. Hiring musicians was not a problem, he'd done it so much for so many years as the Playboys lineup had changed, as some had moved on to other projects. Even well-known members like Leon McAuliffe, for instance, had long been out of the band. Leon had his own group, Leon McAuliffe And His Western Swing Band, whose most noteworthy song was named for Bob's best known dance hall interjection, 'Take It Away, Leon!'
Throughout most of the '60s, Bob just lined up the gig, and local players would be rounded up before his arrival (often under the billing, 'Bob Wills And His Boys'). The basics of country music and Western Swing were somewhat universal (just as they are for rock and roll; Chuck Berry's toured this way for years). All they needed to know was how to play; all he needed was his smile and his fiddle. He'd sometimes hook up along the road with friends like Hoyle Nix, singing and playing with his band. The Playboys split wouldn't remain permanent, however, and Bob and the band would still sometimes travel together.
James White clearly remembers the first time he was able to bring the legendary fiddler and band to his humble Broken Spoke bar and dance hall in Austin. After telling the joint's regulars that the one and only Bob Wills was coming to play, they simply didn't believe him, or at least they were certain that he wouldn't show up. 'About that time, the door opened. Bob Wills opened it up, he had his cigar in his mouth, he had his fiddle in his hand, and a cowboy hat on, and all those drunks at the bar and at a table, there was just a complete hush,' says White of that night in '66. 'It was just the biggest thrill of my life to walk Bob Wills up on the Broken Spoke bandstand. I can still visualize him right here.' That night, it was Bob and The Playboys. White would book him several more times in the next few years, some with just Bob and Leon Rausch as his singer, then later Bob and Tag Lambert. As for that first time, White says, 'I got him for 400 dollars, band and all.' An unbelievable amount for a guy with such musical influence. 'If it wasn't for people like him and Hank Williams, George Jones, Jimmie Rodgers,' White adds, 'these people today are kind of ridin' the gravy train when they get one song out.'
During those years, Bob had continued a recording career, releasing numerous albums with session musicians and several that reunited him with Tommy Duncan, one album title referring to them as Mr. Words and Mr. Music.
By the early 1970s, Bob Wills' poor health had caught up with him for good. Several strokes and heart attacks had left him paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair. In 1973, some of the Playboys got together, with the help of country music star and Wills fan Merle Haggard, to try to put together one last album while Bob still had the strength to participate. It was eventually released as Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys For The Last Time.
Light Crust Doughboy Smokey Montgomery was at the sessions. 'They brought Bob Wills over in a wheelchair. He'd give the guys the right tempo, then we put a mike in front of him so he could do some of his 'ah-hahhs.' He was so weak we
couldn't use them. Hoyle Nix was there, who could imitate Bob to a tee. We got Hoyle Nix to do a bunch of 'ah-hahhs.' Those 'ah-hahhs' you hear [on the record] are Hoyle. That night, [Bob] had one of those massive strokes. I don't think he ever got out of bed after that. The next day, of course he couldn't be there, and the guys were recording 'San Antonio Rose,' and they all started crying, they just couldn't hardly do it. They figured the stroke he'd had would be his last one. And of course it was.'
In what he calls a 'cosmic juxtaposition,' Ray Benson and his fellow Asleep At The Wheel-ers also had the privilege of meeting their musical mentor at those sessions. 'He had a stroke about four or five hours after we met. He was really sick, really just dying. We got to watch the band [record] 'Big Ball's In Cowtown,' 'Twin Guitar Boogie,' 'When You Leave Amarillo.'' Since witnessing that historic session, Benson and his band mates have kept Bob's spirit alive in their music, operating under the slogan: 'Western Swing ain't dead, it's just Asleep At The Wheel.' And Ray's proud of that. 'It's an honor to be the mantle-bearer of this music, along with George Strait [who's fond of covering Wills tunes], and many other very dedicated, not-so-famous people.'
Bob Wills died on May 13, 1975 at the age of 70. He'd been in a coma since that recording session. The headstone of his grave bears the epitaph, 'Deep Within My Heart Lies A Melody.' The melody remains in the hearts of millions.