Western Swing lost its biggest star when Bob Wills passed away today in 1975, at the age of 70. Idolised by artists ranging from Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel to young swingers like the Hot Club of Cowtown, Wills remains a pivotal figure in the commercial development of country music. His gravestone bears the fitting epitaph, “Deep Within My Heart Lies A Melody.”
Hailing from the Texas town of Turkey, Jim Rob Wills followed a family tradition when took up the fiddle as a youngster – although he worked as an insurance salesman, preacher and a barber before becoming a full-time musician with a travelling medicine show.
By 1930 Bob had formed his first group, the Wills Fiddle Band, who would appear regularly on local radio. And after a stint working for a flour seller when he alternated between driving trucks and playing promotional slots as the Light Crust Doughboys, Wills established the Texas Playboys in Waco, Texas.
Later relocating to Tulsa, Oklahoma, the band would come to encompass elements of cowboy music and jazz, filling dancefloors across the South West with top-class players including Leon McAuliffe (steel guitar) and Brother Al Stricklin (piano) boosting his sound and vocalists including Tommy Duncan adding a measure of sophistication.
To the fore was Bob the bandleader/cheerleader though, complete with trademark hat and cigar and a supply of quips and hollers – a style which became familiar to millions via the regular radio broadcasts that the Playboys gave. Tunes such as “Tulsa Stomp”, “San Antonio Rose” and “Twin Guitar Special” furthered their fame and saw the band appear in movies, but 1942 saw major changes, with Wills joining the army and various other members enlisting for military service.
Reforming and accepting an invitation to play the Grand Old Opry in 1945, Wills became the first act ever to appear on stage with a drummer. Years on the road would take their toll though – not helped by his heavy drinking – and after two heart attacks, Bob stood down as a permanent Playboy. Continuing to play some gigs with them, Bob also tried his hand at running a night club but encountered problems and found himself pursued by the IRS – resulting in the sale of the copyright to some of his songs.
Later touring by car with singer Tag Lambert and picking up local backing bands, Bob continued to record sporadically – with what proved to be his final album coming in 1973 with the Playboys. By now confined to a wheelchair after several strokes, he struggled through the final session before lapsing into a coma. Never regaining consciousness, he died in May 1975.
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And here’s some footage of Bob in action: