In any social movement there is usually a dominant figure who emerges as its symbol. In the case of Texas music's most distinctive style, western swing, the symbol of the movement is the person who gave it its identity, defined its direction, and popularized it on a nationwide scale. That person was Bob Wills, and the story of Bob Wills and western swing is the same. James Robert Wills was born in 1905 on a farm in Limestone County near Kosse, Texas. Jim Rob as he was known in his youth grew up in a musical family of frontier fiddlers. When he was eight the family moved to the town of Turkey in the panhandle of Texas. It was there at the age of ten that he played the fiddle at his first ranch dance as a fill-in for his father. Turkey has celebrated, for many years, his life and music with a Bob Wills Day that annually draws several thousand people. It is a little overwhelming since the town has a population of only six hundred.
Bob left Turkey in 1929 and took up residence in Fort Worth. After a brief stint on radio he joined a traveling medicine show. While in it he met guitarist Herman Arnspiger and later teamed up with him to form the Wills Fiddle Band. They played for parties and private dances and also performed on radio six days a week. In the fall of 1930 Wills and Arnspiger teamed with brothers Milton and Durwood Brown. The group then accepted an offer with WBAP, Fort Worth's most famous and powerful station, and adopted the name Aladdin Laddies. From that point their fame and reputation spread as fast as the enthusiasm for the new music they played.
Radio exposure meant more dances with larger crowds and it led to the biggest break in Bob Wills' career. In 1931 Wills, Arnspiger and Milton Brown went to work for radio station KFJZ in Fort Worth. Their morning program was Photo from the collection of Ray Reed. sponsored by the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company and its major product, Light Crust Flour.
It was not long before the band inherited the name "the Light Crust Doughboys." They literally ruled the airways throughout the southwest. Before the breakup of the original Doughboys a number of prominent musicians joined their ranks including Sleepy Johnson, Leon Huff, Leon McAuliffe and Bob's brother, Johnnie Lee Wills. Another personality who was associated with them was W. Lee O'Daniel, who was the general manager of Burrus Mill and became the band's master of ceremonies. He also wrote a number of songs that were performed and recorded by the Doughboys. "Pappy" O'Daniel ultimately rode the coattails of the Light Crust Doughboys to statewide acclaim, the governorship of Texas and a seat in the United States Senate.
Bob left the Doughboys in 1933 and with Johnnie Lee Wills, Kermit Whalen, Tommy Duncan and June Whalen took the name "Bob Wills and his Playboys." The Playboys moved to Waco, briefly tried Oklahoma City where they added " Texas" to their name, and then traveled on to Tulsa. During their nine year stay on radio station KVOO in Tulsa, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys achieved their greatest artistic and commercial success. When their 1940 recording of New San Antonio Rose went gold, Wills and his band were firmly entrenched as the most famous western band in America. The songs that were written by Wills and his fellow band members also became American classics: San Antonio Rose, Faded Love, Take Me Back to-Tulsa, Eight'r from Decatur, Time Changes Everything and Panhandle Rag. Bob and the Playboys moved to the west coast in the 1940's and operated from California.
They were still extremely successful because of their records and radio, personal and movie appearances. This waned in the early 1950's, however, as there was a decline of interest in western swing and it became dormant for about twenty years.
This dormancy remained until the renaissance of the early 1970's when a new generation discovered the music: and legacy of Bob Wills, and western swing was born again. Their last recording session was set for December 3-4, 1973, to coincide with a reunion of the group in Dallas. Bob Wills was there the first day and led the band from a wheelchair but that night he slipped into unconsciousness. The album of twenty-four songs was completed the following day and was appropriately titled, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, For The Last Time. Bob died on May 13, 1975, without ever regaining consciousness.
A partial list of Playboys and female singers (indicated by an asterisk) who were a part of the band at different times include: Teddy Adams, Danny Alguier, Les Anderson, Joe Andrews, Herman Arnspiger, Jesse Ashlock, Junior Bernard, Bobby Boatright, Noel Boggs, Billy Bowman, Alex Brashear, Billy Briggs, Billy Carter, Keith Coleman, Gene Crownover, Johnny Cuviello, Smokey Dacus, Casey Dickens, Glenn Duncan, Tommy Duncan, Joe Ferguson, Benny Garcia, Gene Gasaway, Johnny Gimbel, Cameron Hill, Joe Holley, Leon Huff, Sleepy Johnson, Millard Kelso, Tag Lambert, Sonny Lansford, Doc Lewis, Jack Lloyd, O. W. Mayo (Mgr.), Leon McAuliffe, Billy McBay, Bobby McBay, *Laura Lee McBride, Rusty McDonald, Paul McGhee, *Dean McKinney, *Evelyn McKinney, Zeb McNally, Frankie McWhorter, Tommy Morrell, Tiny Moore, Tiny Mott, Monty Mountjoy, Tommy Perkins, Leon Rausch, *Ramona Reed, Herb Remington, Glen Rhees, Lee Ross, *Louses Rowe, Eldon Shamblin, Al Stickland, Louie Tierney, Mancel Tierney, Gene Tomlins, June Whalen, Kermit Whalen, Bob White (Steel Guitar), Bob White (Fiddle), Jimmy Widener, Billy Jack Wills, Johnnie Lee Wills, Luke Wills, Woody Wood and Jimmy Wyble.
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