Bob Wills and Western Swing Music With Bands
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Although Bob Will was only one of many musicians who played in the genre of Western Swing, he is by far the name most associated with it. Wills was born March 6, 1905 and lived till May 13, 1975. His full name was James Robert Wills. He originally lived near Kosse, Texas. Music authorities consider him one of the fathers of western swing. His fans called him the “King of western Swing.”
SAN ANTONIO ROSE
Deep within my heart lies a melody,
A song of old San Antone.
Where in dreams I live with a memory,
Beneath the stars all alone.
For a long time the song San Antonio Rose stuck in my mind . I liked it but didn’t know where it came from. I thought it was probably Gene Autry and I believe he had recorded it but I finally found that it originated with Bob Wills.
Wills father, John Tomkins Wills, was a statewide champion fiddle player. The families raised cotton but were also involved in music. Young Bob picked cotton but was also taught fiddle playing and mandolin. His sister and brothers played musical instruments. There home was host to country-dances. They also played. “Ranch Dances” which were popular in Texas and New Mexico.
Wills learned traditional music from his family and songs from the African Americans in the cotton fields near Lakeview, Texas. They were his playmates when he was young and he learned to dance jigs with them.
The young Wills for several years drifted from town to town to find work. often hopping freight trains. When he was in his 20’s he went to barber school and got married. He returned to Hall County, Texas where his family had moved in 1913. He worked as a barber there in Hamm’s Barber Shop. He continued playing fiddle music. In 1929 he moved to Fort Worth where he played in minstrel and medicine shows. He wore “blackface” makeup for comedy routines, played fiddle and sang. He was also said to “do an amazing jig dance” according to Wikipedia. His daughter, Rosetta said “he had a lot of respect for the musicians and music of his black friends.” She said that he was such a fan of Bessie Smith he rode 50 miles on horseback to see her perform.
Western Swing began in the 1920’s In the American Southwest among the string bands of the region. Its up-tempo dance music which combines rural, cowboy, polka, folk, New Orleans jazz, or Dixieland and blues with a jazzy “swing.” Usually the band was hot with string instruments and drums, saxophones, pianos and steel guitar. It was an outgrowth of the Jazz that was also popular at that time. I think it filled a gap at the time for the demand for dance music. It is much like rock and roll or rockabilly music did much the same as in 20 years later. I am not much of a dancer, but I was rather baffled in the 1960’s when the folk revival seemed to virtually ignore the vast heritage of folk dances and only play ”singing” music. They pretty much left dancing to the rockers.
Wills and his “Playboys” had relocated to Waco, Texas where he was popular enough that he decided to look for bigger markets. In 1934 he went to Oklahoma City He renamed the his band as the Texas Playboys and began broadcasting over KVOO radio station which was 50,000 watts on a noontime show. They also played dances He added horn and reed players as well as drums He later added Leon McAuliffe, a steel guitar whiz. Wills sang blues and sentimental ballads. His style was supplemented by wisecracks and improvision. His “New San Antonio Rose” sold a million copies and became their signature song.
After 1950 Western Swing lost a lot of its popularity and Wills did not fit the categories of Nashville or pop music. Despite that he could draw large crowds up through 1957. He claimed that Rock and Roll was not much different than what they were playing all along.
At his death of pneumonia in 1975 Time magazine said “Wills turned out dance tunes that are now called country rock…”
Many performers have been influence by Wills, such as Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and led to the “Bakersfield Sound.” Willie Nelson was a big fan. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In addition to his recording career he appeared in several movies.
In 1969 Asleep at the Wheel was formed as a revival band of Country Swing to continue thetradition.
© 2010 Don A. Hoglund
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