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Texas | Columns

Bob Wills
The Greatest Fiddle-Player of Them All

by C. F. Eckhardt
Up where the Red River meets the north-south line that forms the eastern edge of the Panhandle, there's a little place called Turkey. In Turkey is the largest public school building on earth. It covers some 40 acres, maybe more, with a single building, and it's at least 30 stories high.

Now, please understand. I've never seen this school. Neither, to my knowledge, has anyone else. Yet it has to be there. It absolutely has to. Over the years I've met so many people who 'went to school with Bob Wills in Turkey' it'd take a school that big to hold 'em all.

His name was Jim Rob Wills, and whether that was James Robert or simply Jim Rob means nothing to anyone, because it's not important. He was a shirt-tail kid from Turkey, where they put both city limits signs on the same post. He had a fiddle and a Model T, and he pushed that Tin Lizzie to anywhere anybody would pay $3 or $4 to hear him fiddle all night and sometimes well into the dawn while they danced to old songs.
Turkey Tx - Bob Wills Monument - Fiddle
A fiddle sits atop the Bob Wills Monument in Turkey
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, July 2009
Sixty years after that beginning he was a legend-Bob Wills, the fiddle king, the man who started the sound called Western Swing. He led the most famous dance band in the Southwest - Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. He wrote God only knows how many songs and saw more of them become standards than perhaps any other American songwriter. He wrote and played San Antonio Rose (which was simply called 'Spanish Dance' until Tommy Duncan wrote lyrics for it) Across The Alley From The Alamo, Faded Love, Big Ball's In Cowtown, Stay All Night, Stay a Little Longer, Ida Red Loves The Boogie, and dozens if not hundreds more. During WW II, wherever American servicemen went, Bob Wills' music went with them.

Bob took the most maligned and scoffed-at musical form in the United States-'hillbilly,' they called it, not yet realizing it was the natural outgrowth of 'folk' music (and it had not yet become, through its own askance-viewed offspring, Rockabilly, the direct ancestor of Rock 'n' Roll) - and married it to the Glen Miller type big-band sound of the 1930s. In doing so, he created an entirely new, purely Southern/Western form of music-Western Swing-that has influenced nearly every type of American dance music since. Yet in Bob's own words, "Nobody loved us but the people."
Turkey Tx - Bob Wills Monument
Bob Wills Monument in Turkey, Texas
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, July 2009
Bob began as a solo fiddler, but soon organized his first band - The Bob Wills Fiddle & Jug Band. It consisted of Bob on fiddle, Herman Arnspiger on guitar, and an as-yet-unidentified jug blower. A talent scout who saw the band at an amateur tryout for WBAP radio in Ft. Worth in the very early '30s called it "about the worst thing hillbilly music comes to."

Bob's second band existed until just a few years ago, but he didn't form it. Burrus Mills of Texarkana, home of Lightcrust Flour, hired a go-getting promoter named Wilmer Lee O'Daniel. W. Lee 'Pappy' O'Daniel later made himself governor of Texas, US Senator from Texas, and a complete ass, not necessarily in that order. This, however, isn't Pappy's story but Bob's, so we'll let Pappy's political career die an unlamented death at this point, mentioning only that when he was elected governor a Washington wag suggested that the Stars and Stripes be changed to have 47 stars and a circle in the union-representing a biscuit, in recognition of the fact that Pappy used the same tactics to sell Texans a governor that he used to sell 'em biscuits.

The Lightcrust Doughboys, the Burrus Mills promotional hillbilly band, was the brainchild of Pappy O'Daniel. Pappy, a hillbilly music fan, reasoned that a band organized to play hillbilly music and promote Lightcrust Flour would be a great success. He was absolutely right.

The original Lightcrust Doughboys consisted of Bob and Herman. The Doughboy's musical theme, still played today, was written by Bob. The catchy refrain:
Listen, everybody from near and far
While we tell you who we are-
We're the Lightcrust Doughboys
From Burrus Mills-
accompanied by Bob's breakdown fiddling and Herman's thumping guitar made Lightcrust Flour the most widely sold and used in the four states of Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, outselling any other flour including Pillsbury and General Mills by two to one or better. Pappy was on his way-and so was Bob Wills.

Those ways were soon to part. Bob used his time off to play country dances, picking up the extra money that often meant the difference between solvency and bankruptcy during the Depression. Pappy, a hardshell Southern Baptist, frowned on dancing, drinking - and just about everything else that looked like it might be fun.

The Doughboys played five live shows a week. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday they were live from the studio at WBAP in Ft. Worth at prime rural radio time-noon. Tuesday and Thursday they were live from the studio at WHOO in Oklahoma City, again at noon. This meant the band did a lot of traveling. The band would leave Ft. Worth right after the Monday show, play a dance in Lawton on Monday night, do the Okie City show on Tuesday, pick up a dance in Cherokee Tuesday night, make the show in Ft. Worth Wednesday, and so on. Sometimes the dances degenerated into drinking bouts with home-brew and 'shine, and Bob didn't make the show the next day. This, of course, infuriated Pappy, who read to Bob from the Good Book about missing shows. This in turn infuriated Bob, who responded by going out and tying one on.
Bob Wills Audio CD
In 1933 Pappy and Bob came to an entirely un-amicable parting. Pappy did his best to prevent that young upstart from ever getting another job as a musician. Bob formed the nucleus of the band that became the Texas Playboys and went to WHOO. He was joined by Smokey Dacus on drums and a boyish-looking hellraiser of a singer who claimed he could play the piano but couldn't - Tommy Duncan. The new Bob Wills band, called simply 'The Playboys' at the time, got the Monday/Wednesday/Friday noon slot on WHOO.

Here came Pappy! His new Lightcrust Doughboys, minus Bob, were the station's Tuesday/ Thursday noon mainstays. Burrus Mills was the biggest local advertiser on WHOO. O'Daniel threatened to pull the Doughboys - and all Burrus Mills advertising except that for network shows - if the Playboys weren't kicked out immediately. WHOO couldn't afford to lose either the Doughboys or the Burrus Mills advertising, so Bob got the boot.

The next stop was KTOK in Tulsa, which didn't get the Doughboys and needed a noon attraction. Bob and the Playboys landed the Monday/Wednesday/Friday noon slot, with plenty of time to play dancehalls and nightclubs during the week and on weekends. The schedule, though, was rough. The Playboys would do the noon show live on Monday, roar off in a rickety bus to Little Rock, Shreveport, Tyler, or maybe Mission, Kansas-anywhere KTOK's signal reached - and then hotfoot it back to Tulsa in time for the Wednesday show.

By 1936 Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, as they'd begun to be called, could draw more people to a crossroads barn dance on three hours' notice than Ted Weems or Glen Miller could draw in Dallas with three weeks' notice. Outside the KTOK listening area - Oklahoma, northeast Texas, northwest Louisiana, western Arkansas, and southeastern Kansas-nobody ever heard of 'em. "Bob Who and the Whatboys?" was the A&R man's reaction when they turned up in Chicago to record.

That soon changed. Ted Weems or Glen Miller might sell well in New York, Chicago, or LA, but across the south and southwest people wanted a different kind of swing-Western Swing - and the Texas Playboys were the only band playing it. Across the south and southwest the Texas Playboys outdrew the 'name' bands two to one.

Part of the secret of the band's success was Bob's philosophy of popularity. People, he figured, wouldn't take to folks they couldn't get to know. At Bob's instructions the boys mingled with the house between sets, made friends, shook hands, maybe danced with a few ladies to the fill-in band's music, and generally got acquainted with their fans. It worked. Bing Crosby, Ted Weems' star vocalist, was somebody you saw on stage. Between sets he disappeared backstage. Tommy Duncan sat down at your table with you, had a beer with you, and got to know you and your girl. Bob talked to the crowd between numbers, called out old friends' names over the mike and brought them up on stage to shake hands. During the sets the band cut up on stage, hollered, and occasionally raised a little hell. There was never any way to figure what might happen when The Texas Playboys took the stage.

One notorious night Bob opened the show with a breakdown that ran a full three minutes. Just after he started playing his second fiddler-Johnnie Lee, his brother - approached him and whispered something to him. Immediately Bob began acting very strange. He kept fiddling, but his knees came together, his feet went pigeontoed, and he stooped over. As soon as he finished the piece he turned his back on the house, then began to chase Johnnie Lee around the stage, whacking him with his fiddle bow. Tommy Duncan, who - as usual - instigated the gag, took the mike and told the audience what was going on. Johnnie Lee told Bob his fly was undone and his drawers were hanging out. It wasn't and they weren't. The crowd roared-and loved the Playboys even more.

By 1940 the Texas Playboys were a Southwestern legend. Another young Texan, who'd made his way to Hollywood via radio, records, and the New York musical stage-Woodward Maurice Ritter, better known as Tex-was doing himself right proud making singing-cowboy movies. His two major rivals, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, had backup bands and singing groups - The Sons of the Pioneers and The Riders of the Purple Sage. Tex figured he needed a backup band, too, and he knew a good one-Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. He contacted Bob and the Playboys went to Hollywood to back up Tex Ritter in a series of pictures-for which Bob wrote most of the songs.

It was in Hollywood that Bob wrote Bluebonnet Lane, and he and Tommy took the 'Spanish Dance' tune the band had been playing as an instrumental, changed the phrasing slightly, added lyrics, and called it San Antonio Rose. Tex recorded it and it remained, until 1952 when he recorded Dimitri Tiompkin's title song for the Gary Cooper Western "High Noon," his biggest hit.

All during '40 and '41 Bob and the Playboys remained in Hollywood, riding horses for the cameras and doing the background music for Tex Ritter Westerns, playing club dates in and around LA, and building a national following. Then, just about 8 AM Honolulu time on Sunday, December 7, 1941, the world fell apart. The Texas Playboys fell apart with it. Tommy Duncan started it. "I don't know what the rest of you are gonna do," he said, "but I'm joinin' the Army." On Monday morning, December 8, that's just what he did. By noon on Tuesday, December 9, the Texas Playboys, for all practical purposes, had ceased to exist.

Bob and a few others held off joining until they got back to Texas. They went by the recruiting depot to say goodbye to Tommy and the rest before they were shipped off. In the middle of the floor in the back room there was a circle of kneeling men. It might have been a prayer meeting, and Bob was on the verge of leaving quietly when he heard the unmistakable clicking of dice and Tommy sang out "eighter from Decatur, county seat of Wise." Bob wrote the line down and, after the war, wrote a song called Eighter from Decatur, which became a minor hit. Tommy sang it, of course-after Bob explained where the song came from.

Eighter from Decatur, for the record, is one of two songs based on crapshooters' calls. The other, Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo, and Blair was written by Tex Ritter. Tenaha - pronounced "Tenney-haw" - Timpson, Bobo, and Blair are towns once on the H&TC railroad in deep East Texas. So the story goes, the towns were so close together that if the conductor tried to call them individually, the train would be in Blair before he got through all the cars calling Timpson. The phrase is the call for the ten in craps. Both phrases, since WW II, have gone worldwide.

After the War Bob gathered up the survivors including Tommy and reformed The Texas Playboys. During the late '40s and '50s, The Texas Playboys were the hottest dance band between the Mississippi and California. Nationally-known bands like Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman avoided playing any town within three weeks of a Texas Playboys date. They had too many walkouts. Folks in the West wanted Western Swing, and only The Texas Playboys were playing it. It was during this period that some of the finest of Bob's music was written, including Take Me Back To Tulsa, Big Ball's in Cowtown, and the immortal Faded Love, considered the finest Country/Western fiddle tune ever written.

The Playboys, of course, inspired imitators-some successful, some less so. Peewee King and The Golden West Cowboys, whose style, for years, was a direct imitation of The Texas Playboys, were perhaps the most successful. Peewee King had a stroke of luck like Bob's with San Antonio Rose. The band had just cut a side with Rootie Tootie, which had been a hit, and needed a B side for the record. He and his vocalist took an untitled waltz tune the band had been playing for some time, wrote words for it in about twenty minutes, and recorded it for the B side of Rootie Tootie. They called it The Tennessee Waltz. Yet another imitator, Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters, never rose to great heights, but worked most of Texas as a Western Swing band before changing styles in the '60s.

The Playboys' star rose - to featured appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, the Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden of Country and Western music-and then went into a dramatic decline. With the rise of Rock 'n' Roll, progressive jazz, and the pseudo-sophistication of the late '50s, followed by the English invasion of the '60s, Western music-and Western Swing-went down suddenly.

Tommy Duncan left the band to pursue a solo career. Other vocalists followed him, but only one, Leon Rausch, ever came close. In 1965 Bob and Tommy reunited for an album called "Together Again," but the great Duncan voice was gone. Two years later Tommy was dead of throat cancer.

When country music began its great rise in the late '60s, the Playboys rose with it-but only for a time. Long hours, late nights, and too much whiskey had taken their toll. In 1971 Bob suffered the first in a series of massive strokes that silenced that wonderful fiddle forever. Early in 1974, after attending a recording session for an album released as 'Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys - For The Last Time' Bob died in Ft. Worth. The Texas Playboys went on for a while with replacement members, but eventually faded away.

They do say that in 10,000 drafty old dancehalls across Texas, Oklahoma, and the rest of the West, when the moon and stars are right and the night is still and quiet, you'll see an apparition in a white Stetson, a cigar tucked in the side of his mouth, step out on the deserted stage, tuck a well-worn fiddle under his chin, and if you listen hard you'll hear the sweet notes of Faded Love, followed by that well-known holler-"Ahh-Hahh! San Antone!" Maybe Waylon Jennings said it best-"Once you're down in Texas, Bob Wills is still the King." Amen, brother.

C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
> July 19, 2006 column
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