"A Redneck Cab Calloway"

|

In The New York Sun: a nice appreciation of the great fiddler and bandleader Bob Wills, frontman for the Texas Playboys. Describing Wills' mix of jazz, blues, country, and Tin Pan Alley, critic Will Friedwald reminds us that the line between "authentic" folk music and "commercial" pop was blurred long ago, and that musicians were mixing genres long before anyone tried to cross country with rap or Irish folksongs with electronica:

Traditionally, we have been told that "roots" music forms like jazz, blues, folk, and country have a one-way relationship

bob wills.jpg

with the commercial music industry. New York publishers and record companies would smell potential profit in one of these primary forms, then dress it up and water it down in order to repackage it for the rest of the country and, eventually, the world. Yet…even by 1932, there was no longer such a thing as pure roots music. The phonograph had already entertained several generations, and particularly after about 1920—when commercial broadcasting began and when jazz, blues, and country began to be heard regularly on record—everyone in every part of the nation began listening to everybody else….

In 1935, when the Texas Playboys entered a recording studio for the first time, the producer Art Satherley was surprised (and not in a good way) to see that the band not only included the expected guitars, fiddles, and banjos, but also saxophone, trombone, and a full jazz rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums.

At the time, Friedwald notes, "the mainstream music press labeled all sounds produced by black people as 'race music' and all music produced by white people anyplace other than the two coasts or the Great Lakes as Hillbilly. Wills hated this term, much the same way New Orleans jazzmen hated being called 'Dixieland.'" The labels have changed but the limits to the labels have not: Wills' music transcended all those genres, but for some reason he hardly ever turns up in, say, histories of jazz. (Ken Burns' 700-hour PBS miniseries Jazz never mentioned Wills once, though it found time to devote three or four episodes to Louis Armstrong's novelty hit "Hello Dolly.")

Obligatory YouTube link: Wills and band play the blues standard "Sittin' On Top of the World."

NEXT: Chickening Out

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Once you’re down in Texas, Hoss, Bob Wills is still the King.

  2. WHAT? No passion raised by the issues surrounding Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys???

    I’ll make a few observations. On whether their music is jazz, I found myself wondering about what’s jazz years ago when it became clear that a lot of rock music had a lot of jazz in it yet didn’t get called jazz, and I decided that the way out of the paradox was to recognize that musical genre terms were as much, if not much more so, sociological in nature as musical per se, and as such reflected who was listening to something as what it was they were listening to. Therefore, if Bob Wills is (or, more to the point, was) considered country music by the listening public, including both the country music fans who listened to him and the jazz afficianodos who didn’t (and let’s make a distinction here between both camps and folks like Jesse Walker who obviously has eclectic tastes and a broader perspective than either, whether it’s because he’s an educated fellow or because it’s 70 years later), then I would say he’s country for that reason alone, even if his actual music swings every bit as much as Duke Ellington’s. That said, I might also like to see him get at least a mention in any supposedly thorough history of jazz.

    I would also like to comment that given the common understanding of a generation as being roughly 25 years, it’s a bit of an exageration to say the phonograph had been enjoyed by “several generations” by 1932. Still, the larger point being made is accurate enough. Some cross polination had already been going on before recorded sound, and basically, you just don’t need several generations for musicians to be influenced by each other and learn from each other. A fraction of one will suffice!

    Personally, I never thought of Bob Wills as “roots” or “folk” music anyway. Especially the latter. Something can always be a “root” of whatever follows, but it’s pretty obvious Bob Wills was a commercial performer, not someone who just performed on the porch to entertain himself and kin, and one doesn’t need to be a skeptic of the whole idea of folk music or of how the idea is often applied to recognize that!

  3. I’m too young to remember Bob Wills. I instead get it second hand from Asleep at the Wheel.

  4. I’m surprised anyone remembers Asleep At the Wheel!! (Though checking out their discography at allmusic.com, I do see there are some fairly recent entries…)

  5. Western Swing isn’t dead its just Asleep At the Wheel.

    Mainstream music press and their labels always have and always will suck.

    deep within my heart…

  6. If you’re a Country Swing fan, you’ll enjoy this. If not, it’s a history worth a few minutes anyway.

    A Tribute to Bob Wills,
    by C F Eckhardt

    Up in northern Texas, a few miles west of where the Red River meets the Panhandle, there’s a little place called Turkey, and they could just as well have put both city limits signs on the same post. But 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, I’ve never personally seen this school. Yet it has to be there. It absolutely has to be. 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, and had a fiddle and a Model T Ford, 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.

    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 a something he called ‘Spanish Dance’, (until Tommy Duncan wrote lyrics for it re-named it ?San Antonio Rose?), Across The Alley From The Alamo, Faded Love, Big Ball’s In Cowtown, Stay All Night, Stay a Little Longer, Ida Red, 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.”

    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 ?Pappy O’Daniel. Pappy later made it to governor?s mansion in Texas, to the US Senate, and to the broader school of complete asses, 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 right here, 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 had used back when he was sellin’em biscuit makin?s.

    The Lightcrust Doughboys, the Burrus Mills promotional hillbilly band, was Pappy O?Daniel?s brainchild, and 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 just Bob and Herman. The Doughboy’s musical theme, was written by Bob, can still be heard at times. 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.

    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 – Bob?s brother Johnnie Lee, – 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 old ‘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 his biggest hit until 1952 when he recorded the title song for the Gary Cooper Western “High Noon,”.

    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 appearances 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 as suddenly as falling off a cliff.

    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

  7. JimRob, you could have just posted a link to the Charley Eckhardt article, y’know.

    I’m with Jesse W. I’ve been a Bob Wills fan for decades. This article isn’t even out of place on a “political” blog like H&R, as broadcaster and flour entrepreneur W. Lee “Pass The Biscuits Pappy” O’Daniel rode the popularity of his show, featuring the Light Crust Doughboys, right into the Texas Governor’s chair. The Kinkster is continuing a tradition that includes not just Pappy, but Jimmie Davis of next-door Louisiana. (You Are My Sunshine)

    Here’s a nice Western Swing fan site: http://nfo.net/usa/weswing.html

    Now I may put on some tunes from a 4-CD set on Proper Records, Doughboys, Playboys and Cowboys: The Golden Years of Western Swing.

    Kevin
    (…And up North there ain’t nobody buys them
    And I said, “But I will”
    – John Sebastian)

  8. Here’s another Wills appreciation by Rush Evans:

    If Bob hadn’t played a fiddle, no one would have connected country to the Playboys’ music at all. It was really jazz; jazz that portrayed a dignified South, with flowing fiddles and classy, sometimes brassy, arrangements. Their rags, breakdowns, Dixieland tunes, and swingin’ blues were an uplifting beacon of light in otherwise hard, depressed times of the 1930s.

    Take It Away, Leon!

    Kevin

  9. I guess Bob Wills is jazz in a way – he certainly swung like the clappers in a solid 4/4 groove. But I can see why he doesn’t get into the jazz history books or courses –

    1) Pretty dull arrangements that were the same in the 60s that they were in the 30s
    2) Crap soloists – he may have had saxes, but noone could play em as individuals. Wills’ fiddle was tuneful and listenable, but it didn’t do jazz solos.
    3) Deathly dull vocals and too many of ’em.

    I mean, I have the Tiffany Transcripotions and all, but I don’t play them too often.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.