Few styles of country music have been more hugely influential than Western Swing. As the embodiment of that style, Bob Wills became one of the most influential country artists in history.
Born and raised in Texas, Wills was a virtuoso fiddle, guitar, and mandolin player by his teens. Like many early country stars, he first made a name for himself playing dance halls across Texas. More so than most country legends, Wills put a huge emphasis on having an excellent backing band. His first group of players, the Wills Fiddle Band, became popular in the Fort Worth area, eventually earning their own radio show. In honor of their sponsors, they renamed themselves the Light Crust Doughboys.
Soon, Wills had formed a close bond with Tommy Duncan, who had joined the band as a singer and piano player. When Wills left the Doughboys over a management dispute, Duncan left with him. The two moved to Waco, where they formed what would be the signature Wills band, the Texas Playboys. They relocated to different cities, following radio show opportunities, until they finally settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was there that they would establish the signature sounds of Western Swing, and where they would record their initial successful records.
Many music careers were put on hold due to World War II, and Wills and many of his band members spent stints in the military in the early forties. Right before the war broke out, the band was enjoying some of its biggest hits, most notably the classic “San Antonio Rose.” By the time that Wills and Duncan returned to the States, they were ready for a new scene, and they moved the band to California. After several hits for Okeh Records, the band moved to Columbia and enjoyed what would be their biggest hits, including “Smoke on the Water” and the long-running #1 hit, “New Spanish Two Step.”
Wills developed a reputation for being difficult to work with, as he struggled with addiction to alcohol. Many band members left the Texas Playboys because of this over the years, but Wills began to truly suffer professionally when he fired Duncan in 1948. In the years that followed, Western Swing fell out of favor, and Wills had difficulty maintaining a consistent lineup, with few chart hits to keep the band’s profile as high as it needed to be. When he reconciled with Duncan at the end of the fifties, some of the old success on the road returned, but Wills was now struggling with declining health.
The sixties were crucial for the legacy of Wills and his band, as a new generation of country singers cited them as a primary influence. Shortly after Wills was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968, he suffered a serious stroke. While he was recovering, Merle Haggard was inspired to record A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills). The record was a huge hit, and made a new generation aware of Wills and his work.
Wills was collaborating with Haggard on a joint project in 1973 when another stroke left him in a coma from which he never recovered, and he passed away in the spring of 1975. In the years since, his legacy has grown only stronger, his influence permanently shaping the sound of country music.
- Osage Stomp, 1935
- Steel Guitar Rag, 1936
- San Antonio Rose, 1939
- Big Beaver, 1939
- Time Changes Everything, 1940
- Take Me Back to Tulsa, 1941
- Cherokee Maiden, 1942
- Please Don’t Leave Me, 1942
- Smoke on the Water, 1945
- New Spanish Two Step, 1946
- Faded Love, 1950
- Bob Wills Anthology, 1973
- Tiffany Transcriptions, 1978
- The Essential Bob Wills: 1935-1947, 1992
- Longhorn Recordings, 1993
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