The cigar-smoking ebullient father of Western Swing is dead.
Bob Wills, a former Tulsan and country music legend, died Tuesday at Fort Worth, Texas. He was 70.
Wills, the author of “San Antonio Rose,” and “Maiden’s Prayer,” had been in fragile health since 1969, when a stroke left him partially paralyzed and confined to a wheel-chair.
The end for the country music giant came at 1:05 p.m. at the Kent Nursing Home at Fort Worth. The immediate cause of death was reported to be bronchial pneumonia.
Only last July he was readmitted to a Fort Worth hospital and his condition was for a time listed as critical.
Tulsa funeral arrangements are pending with the Moore Funeral Home. A spokesman said services are tentatively scheduled here Friday at a location to be announced.
The man Time Magazine dubbed a “backwoods Guy Lombardo” had a career spanning 50 years in music and film.
He was in 26 films, produced records that sold 20 million copies, wrote and recorded 470 tunes and at one time was reportedly the highest paid bandleader in the U.S., with an annual income in the 1940s estimated $350,000.
It was a stunning life for the son and grandson of champion Texas fiddle players, a boy who once rode 50 miles on horseback to hear blues singer Bessie Smith.
Born James Robert Wills on March 6, 1905, near Turkey, Texas, Wills was one of 10 children who grew up on a 500-acre cotton farm owned by their father, John.
Young Wills learned to play guitar, mandolin and fiddle from his father and grandfather, and played with John Wills at “kitchen dances.”
Wills at various times was a barber, a lay preacher, a blackface medicine show entertainer and zinc smelter worker.
In 1931 he joined W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, then a Fort Worth flour mill executive, and the two formed the Lightcrust Doughboys. O’Daniel later used the band to campaign for governor and U.S. senator.
Wills left in 1932, taking the original band to Waco, where the musicians became the “Texas Playboys.”
A major impetus to his career came in 1934, when he got a one-time tryout spot on Tulsa radio station KVOO, the first in a series of noon broadcasts that lasted 25 years.
Wills’ band broadcast from Cain’s Ballroom, where a plaque on the wall, “Nothing forced or fancy,” succinctly expressed the music style.
That was the start of his fame across the Southwest and ultimately the country. The man whose first violin cost $2 once paid cash for a $5,000 violin from a Hollywood shop.
Wills eventually moved to California, although he always considered Tulsa his home and once boasted “10,000 people in Oklahoma” wanted him to run for governor or senator.
Wills declined, saying, “I don’t know anything about these politics. I’m a fiddler.”
When World War II started the bandleader joined the Army and after his discharge he led his group on bond drive tours. On one tour crooner Bing Crosby sang “San Antonio Rose” with the band when a bidder offered to buy $50,000 worth of bonds to hear it.
Hollywood also beckoned, and Wills made 26 films, the first of which, “Take Me Back to Oklahoma,” featured a Wills composition, “Take Me Back to Tulsa.”
His band, which included his brother, Johnnie Lee Wills, Tommy Duncan, steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe and Eldon Shamblin, was largest in 1944, when it included 22 men. During his career, Wills hired more than 600 musicians.
Wills was nationally famous, and fans, whether Western Swing buffs or not, recognized the omnipresent smile, cigar and fiddle, the Stetson hat, and the cries of “Aaaah-haah!” and “Take it away, Leon,” an urging to McAuliffe that became his own motto as a bandleader.
In the 1950s, Wills returned to his native Texas, but moved to Oklahoma City for a short period before making his home at Fort Worth.
His health started to fail about 1964, when he suffered liver ailments, diabetes and a heart attack. But he kept working.
The big band he fronted eventually broke up, and Wills led a smaller group until suffering a crippling stroke in May 1969.
Some of Wills’ perennial compositions included “San Antonio Rose,” “Faded Love,” “Maiden’s Prayer,” “Spanish Two-Step” and “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer).”
In 1970 a benefit program staged at the Tulsa Fairgrounds raised $24,400 for Wills’ medical expenses, and one week was set aside as Bob Wills Week. That same year the Oklahoma House passed a resolution expressing “commendation, admiration and appreciation” to the bandleader.
Wills in 1968 was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and was made a lifetime member of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
In 1973, as a special guest at the annual banquet in Nashville of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Wills was given a plaque for his “unequaled leadership” in music. Leading music figures gave Wills a standing ovation when the announcement was read.
The plaque said ASCAP “honors our member Bob Wills for his long, productive and creative association with country music and his unequaled leadership as a musician and as a man.”
Wills’ work recently enjoyed renewed popularity. Country artist Merle Haggard recorded an album of Wills standards that sold over 245,000 copies, and two years ago Wills himself and Haggard joined with some of the old Texas Playboys for a recording session that produced a two-disc album, “For the Last Time.”
Even though partially paralyzed, Wills helped supervise a five-hour session before suffering another stroke. The album subsequently received an award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Music critics have noted how Wills’ band effectively fused jazz, country and western and blues into a melodious, swinging package, but Wills always brushed aside theorization about his music.
Asked about rock and roll several years ago, Wills chuckled, “Why man, that’s the same kind of music we’ve been playing since 1928.”
Anecdotes about Wills’ leadership abound. One newly hired steel guitarist was told by Wills to “do something exciting” during his solo. The tyro musician found to his horror there was a short circuit in his instrument and finally in desperation kicked it off the stage after his cue to solo. Afterward Wills whispered to him, “I knew you’d so something exciting.”
Wills’ lingering fealty to Tulsa was once expressed in a film conversation he had. Asked if he’d ever been to Oklahoma, Wills quipped, “I had a meal in Tulsa one night.”
Asked how long he’d been away from the city and the state, Wills smiled, and said: “I never left.”
Survivors include the widow, Betty; four daughters, all of Fort Worth, including Mrs. Robbie Calhoun; a son, James Robert Wills, a student at the University of Oklahoma; three sisters, Ruby Sullivan, Eloise House and Olga Kerr, all of Tulsa; three brothers, Johnnie Lee Wills; Tulsa, Luther J. Wills, Las Vegas, Nev., and Billy J. Wills, Shawnee, and eight grandchildren.
The following was a Tulsa World editorial published on May 15, 1975.
Music For the People
For want of a better name they called it “Western Swing,” even though it wasn’t exclusively Western and it wasn’t exactly Swing. It was rooted in the tastes and experiences of plain people, workers and farmers of a predominantly small town and rural America of the 1930s. It could be described as a latter day version of American folk music except for the fact that it was created by a single talented musician – Bob Wills.
By any name, the music of Bob Wills had something about it that people like. His records sold 20 million copies. He made 26 films and wrote and recorded 470 tunes, many of which are still standard in the recording and broadcasting industries. In the 1940s, his estimated annual income reached $350,000, the highest of any band leader in the country.
Wills was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in 1968. He was made a lifetime member of the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers honored him for “unequalled leadership” in music. But the greatest tribute came from the public. It is a tribute that will last as long as songs like “San Antonio Rose” are heard and enjoyed.
In the old days, monarchs honored artists and musicians “by appointment” to their courts. Bob Wills was, by appointment, musician and composer to the common man of America.
The following was published in the Tulsa World on May 16, 1975.
Composer’s Songs Played at Service
About 500 Attend Final Rites for Bob Wills
About 500 persons paid final respects Thursday to the musical father of millions.
Bob Wills, 70, the man who developed western swing and sold 20 million copies of those developments, was eulogized at Eastwood Baptist Church as the Oklahoma House unanimously passed a citation in his memory.
About 50 wreaths, some designed in the shape of a fiddle, surrounded Wills’ closed casket. Mourners from throughout the Southwest were seated in the sanctuary two hours before the funeral.
Much of the gathering was comprised of original members of Wills’ band, “The Texas Playboys.”
Wills’ classics included “Faded Love,” “Maiden’s Prayer,” and “San Antonio Rose,” were played by a quartet consisting of guitarist Eldon Shamblin and fiddle men, Johnny Gimble, Curley Lewis and Keith Coleman.
Ernest Tubb, pioneer country singer whose career knew its greatest celebration during the 1940s when Wills’ name was a household word, was present along with Tulsa broadcast personalities and reporters from the National Enquirer, Newsweek magazine, Rolling Stones magazine and Dallas, Houston and Kansas City newspapers.
The funeral had tentatively been scheduled for Friday. The time change was blamed for the absence of many show business luminaries whose presence had been expected.
Former Rep. Clem McSpadden delivered the eulogy, recalling Wills’ noon broadcasts from Cain’s Ballroom here.
McSpadden said his wife was 5 years old when she attended a Wills dance. The bandleader let the child put her feet atop his boots so she could better dance with him, McSpadden said, adding that “things have changed with musicians today. Not many of Bob Wills’ stature would do such a thing.”
McSpadden said his ninth birthday was noted by Wills during a radio show. He said he could recall boyhood excitement at the broadcast mention.
McSpadden talked of the recent revival in Wills’ popularity, citing his last album recorded in 1973 entitled, “Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys – For the Last Time.”
During the recording session, Wills suffered a stroke that put him back in a Fort Worth nursing home where he spent his final days in and out of a coma as his record sales skyrocketed.
The crowd, with vacant pew space between parts of it, sat silently with little notice of blue jeaned-teenagers who intermittently entered the service, often sitting by older folks wearing dress attire that probably fit better when worn to a Wills’ dance 30 years ago.
Wills’ fifth wife, Mrs. Betty Wills, was seated at the front of the church along with five daughters, a son, three brothers, four sisters and 10 grandchildren.
The coffin was removed to the church foyer and opened as mourners filed past the man who was once the nation’s highest paid and most sought after bandleader.
“He did more to put Tulsa, his home, on the map than anybody,” one man wept. “And today he came home like his album said, ‘…For the Last Time.’ ”