Check out Graham's other articles and interviews with some of country music's top recording artistes

Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys with their tour bus

Bob Wills Texas Playboys

by Graham Lees


Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were without doubt the best-known band in the history of Western Swing and was one of the very few bands to continue performing this once highly popular dance style music well into the 1970s. The heyday of this fantastic big band sound reached its peak directly after the Second World War. By the mid 50s, this era had all but virtually ended.

Bob Wills was born (James Robert) near Kosee, Texas in 1905. His father (locally Bob Willsknown as Uncle John) was a fiddle player of local repute and the young Jim Bob learnt to play fiddle and mandolin essentially to accompany his father at the square dances he played. For a while it was thought that Bob would become a preacher, but he worked for a time as a farmer and then a barber. In 1929 Bob started out as a black-faced comedian in one of the travelling medicine shows of the time. Making the acquaintance of guitarist Herman Arnspiger, the pair formed the Bob Wills Fiddle Band, playing at local dances and parties and even recorded two songs for Brunswick in Dallas, which were not released. The duo became a quartet when Milton Brown (vocalist) and his brother Durwood (guitarist), joined the group in 1930, though Durwood was still at school at that time. The band played for dances and had spots on the radio with KTAT and KFJZ in Fort Worth, after receiving sponsorship from the Aladdin Lamp Company on WBAP they changed their The Light Crust Doughboysname to the Aladdin Laddies. At this time the band had been extended to a quintet with Clifton "Sleepy" Johnson playing tenor banjo and then guitar when Arnspiger left the band in the early part of 1932. The show ran for about a year when it was taken over by an even bigger sponsor, Burrus Mill and Elevator Company. Billed as the Light Crust Doughboys, they advertised the companies Light Crust Flour on air. Although the band 1was highly popular, Wilbert Lee O'Daniel, President of the company (later US Senator and Texas Governor in 1939) sacked them after only two weeks, saying they were too Hillbilly. KFJZ kept the band on air without sponsorship until O'Daniel realised the bands popularity and resumed sponsorship.

Milton Brown left the band in September 1932 to form his own band, The Musical Brownies and was replaced by Thomas Elmer Duncan as vocalist and piano player. In Tommy Duncan1933 Bob Wills was fired by O'Daniel for a combination of reasons, especially due to his indulgence in a little drink and the fact that it had caused Wills to miss a couple of shows. Tommy Duncan told Bob "You hired me, O'Daniel didn't, anywhere you go, I'm gonna go and I'm not leaving until you fire me." The Playboys were conceived, with Tommy Duncan, Kermit Whalin on steel and bass, Bob's brother Johnny Lee on tenor banjo and June Whalin playing rhythm guitar. Some 15 years later Tommy was sacked by Wills and replaced by Jack Lloyd. Tommy formed his own band Tommy Duncan & His Western All Stars. Some ten years later Bob and Tommy reunited and recorded three albums together for Liberty. Sadly Tommy Duncan died of a heart attack at the age of 57 in 1967.

Due to pressure applied by O'Daniel, The Playboys were precluded from working on radio in Texas; therefore Bob moved his band to Oklahoma City by the beginning of Texas Playboys 19351934 and secured a show with WKY with the additions of Everett Stover playing trumpet, pianist Don Ivey and Bob's cousin Son Lansford playing fiddle and for the first time called themselves "Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys". Here O'Daniel contrived to have the band ousted and Wills and his band moved again, this time to Tulsa, playing the midnight slot on KVOO and making Tulsa their home. Even though O'Daniel tried to bring pressure to bare once again, Bob Wills & Texas Playboys stayed with the station until 1942 when the war caused members of the band to sign up for the services. In 1935 Bob introduced horn and reed instruments, though were always seen essentially as a fiddle band, Bob Wills and Texas Playboys were signed up with Brunswick and recorded their session in September which included 'Osage Stomp' and a fiddle tune Bob had fiddle player Johnny Gimble with Bob Willswritten in 1927 "Spanish Two Step". Over the next few years the band had a turnover of musicians that read like a Who's Who. Wills brought in several jazz fiddle players such as Jesse Ashlock, Louis Tierney, Joe Holley and Johnny Gimble alongside names such as Zeb McNally, and Leon McAuliffe with his electrified steel guitar. Others were Alton Stricklin described by Bob as "the old piano pounder" (took over piano from Tommy Duncan), Herman Arnspiger, Joe Ferguson and Smokey Dacus who introduced drums to country music. Tommy Duncan's voice was as smooth as silk which he skilfully used to caress his audience and Eldon Samblin (formally of the Alabama Boys) brought with him the electric guitar. Tiny Mott, Lon Lansford and Sleepy Johnson were expected by Wills to bring innovation and originality into the band. Bob's daughter Rosetta Wills says; "Guy Logsdon, University of Tulsa professor, claimed that Oklahoma had more dance halls than any other state." "Logsdon Texas Playboys with early tour busmaintained that bands like the Playboys were responsible for development of the electric Fender solid-body bass and solid-body rhythm guitar. In the late forties Bob became friends with Californian Leo Fender, who built steel guitars and amplifiers. Fender gave amps and prototypes to Eldon Shamblin and Herb Remington to road-test on tours."

1938 Columbia bought Brunswick and Bob Wills recordings were released on the Okeh subsidiary. "Spanish Two Step" was virtually played backwards and the fiddle tune was given the name 'San Antonio Rose' by record producer Art Satherley, selling well and became a regular number in the bands repertoire. In 1940 Bob Wills put words to the music, calling the song 'New San Antonio Rose' which the band Old Tascosa dance hall recorded and soon became their most popular number, hitting the country and pop charts and now recognised as a country standard. At the same recording session the instrumental 'Bob Wills Special', was also recorded and the last number the band recorded before breaking up due to the Second World War was 'Lil Liza Jane' in 1942. Many of the band members enlisted in the services and Bob Wills joined up in late 1942, but was discharged in 1943.

Due to his popularity over many years, Bob Wills was held in high esteem as the King of Western Swing. Throughout the post-war years Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys were somewhat reduced in size, concentrating more on string instruments, than the horns of the Tulsa days. In 1943 Monte Mountjoy joined the Texas Playboys on drums. Monte says; "Bob was definitely the father of his musical family, and he took care of waiting for the Grand Ole Opry showus like we were his children. We were hired to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, not knowing that they did not allow drums there. Well we showed up and when I started carrying in my drums, all hell broke loose. They told Bob the band could play - but the drummer couldn't! He told them that if I didn't play, the whole band wouldn't play; so finally they said I could play behind curtains. I started setting up my drums behind the curtain. Bob watched 'til I was finished - then said "Get them moved." Nobody had to ask 'What'? We moved the drums in front of the curtain and because of Bob, I became the first man to ever play a full set of Texas Playboys at Cains night clubdrums on the Grand Ole Opry."

In 1944 the Texas Playboys had as many as 22 members playing with horn players from the bands of Jimmy Dorsey and Glen Miller. Sadly the band never recorded in this format and lasted only a few months, mainly due to many of the band members working strictly to union rules, not wanting to travel and making it impossible to comply with the demands that Bob wanted to impose. It was not until 1945 that Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys recorded several sides for Columbia, but did record for Armed Forces Services Transcription service between October 1943 and December 44, which were broadcast over the "Melody Round-Up" show. At this time the Texas Playboys on horns Texas Playboys Jamie McIntosh, Tubby Lewis and Everett Stroverconsisted of steel guitarists Les "Carrot Top" Anderson and Noel Boggs, Jesse Ashlock, Louis Tierney, Joe Holley and Buddy Raye on fiddle, Rip Ramsey and Teddy Adams on bass, Tiny Mott on sax, jimmy Wyble, Dick Hamilton on guitars, Millard Kelso on piano, Alex Brashear and Chuck Mackey on trumpet, Monte Mountjoy and Howard Davis on drums with Tommy Duncan and Laura Lee Owens on vocals. Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys started recording transcription discs for the Tiffany Music Company and between 1946-47 Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys made over 370 recordings.

In 1950 Bob recorded his famous song "Faded Love" for MGM Records in California. 15 year old Tommy Perkins was playing drums with the Texas playboys at this time and Tommy Perkinssays in the biography of singer Leon Rausch; I was still in school and I had to get special permission from the Lieutenant Governor, James E. Barry, to leave school for a month to six weeks to do this tour to California and back. Sadly Tommy died in June 2003 after suffering a heart attack while driving home after performing with the Texas Playboys at the Legends Of Western Swing Festival, Texas. Tommy died from injuries suffered in the car crash (no other vehicle was involved).

In 1955/56 Bob Wills recorded in Nashville, though most of his recording was in California. In 1959 the Texas Playboys appeared for a two-week gig at the Showboat and followed by a lucrative contract at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. Rosetta quotes her father, "We have wonderful crowds, just stack `em in at the Golden Texas Playboys at The Showboat, Las VegasNugget, but no western music is being played on the radio stations these days. But I'm proud of our crowds. That's proof enough our music isn't dead".

With Tommy Duncan back in the fold in 1960-61 Bob & His Texas Playboys recorded over 40 sides for Liberty. In 1962 Wills suffered a heart attack and in 1964 had a second heart attack. Bob was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1968, but in 1969 Bob suffered a stroke and underwent two major operations, but was left paralysed on his right side and in 1971 Bob had another stroke on the left side. In 1973 Bob made a few appearances and even held his fiddle while Hoyle Nix used the bow. He travelled to Dallas to attend a Leon Rausch, Leon McAuliffe and Tommy Allsuprecording session of the reunion album Bob Wills And The Texas Playboys For The Last Time, when he included a few 'hollers' while the band recorded several of his hits. Sadly during the night Bob suffered a further stroke and remained unconscious for almost 18 months until his death on 13 May 1975.

Leon Rausch was lead vocalist and bass player with the Texas Playboys from St Patrick's Day 1958 untill 1961. In 1965 due to Bob's illness, Leon took over the Texas Playboys as manager-coordinator and vocalist. After Bob's death his widow Betty Wills made the decision toBob Wills Texas Playboys today reform The Texas Playboys, who reorganised as The Original Texas Playboys under the direction of Leon McAuliffe, performing together for eleven years. The band made several appearances on the TV show Austin City Limits and received the 'Instrumental Group Of The Year' award from the CMA in 1977. In 1986 Al Stricklin became ill and died in the October. The band agreed to honour all remaining dates and then call it quits. The band didn't come to an end here!!! Leon Rausch and Tommy Allsup purchased the name Bob Wills' Texas Playboys from Betty Wills and continue the legacy that Bob Wills started back in 1930.