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James Robert Wills (March 6, 1905 – May 13, 1975), better known as Bob Wills, was an Americanmarker Western swing musician, songwriter, and bandleader, considered by many music authorities one of the fathers of Western swing and called the King of Western Swing by his fans.

New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma

He was born in Limestone county near Kosse, Texasmarker to Emma Lee Foley and John Tompkins Wills. His father was a statewide champion fiddle player. and the Wills family was either playing music, or someone was "always wanting us to play for them," in addition to raising cotton on their farm.

In addition to picking cotton the young Jim Bob was taught to play the fiddle and the mandolin. Both a sister and several brothers played musical instruments, while another sister played piano. The Wills frequently held country dances in their home, and there was dancing in all four rooms. They also played at 'ranch dances' which were popular in both West Texas and eastern New Mexico at the time the Wills lived in Hall county.

Wills not only learned traditional music from his family, he learned some Negro songs directly from African Americans in the cotton fields near Lakeview, Tx and said that he did not play with many white children other than his siblings, until he was seven or eight years old. African Americans were his playmates, and his father enjoyed watching him jig dance with black children.

"I don't know whether they made them up as they moved down the cotton rows or not," Wills once told Charles Townsend, author of San Antonio Rose: The Life and Times of Bob Wills, "but they sang blues you never heard before."

The family had moved to Hall county in West Texas in c.1913. As a young man "Jim Rob", as he was then known, drifted for several years, hopping freight trains and traveling from town to town to try and earn a living. In his 20s he attended barber school, got married, and moved first to Roy, New Mexicomarker then returned to Hall county and Turkey, Texasmarker (now considered his home town) to work as a barber at Hamm's Barber Shop. He alternated barbering and fiddling even when he moved to Fort Worthmarker as he left Hall county in 1929. There he played in minstrel and medicine shows, and, as with other Texas musicians such as Ocie Stockard, continued to earn money as a barber. He wore blackface makeup to appear in comedy routines, something that was common at the time. "He was playing his violin and singing." There were two guitars and a banjo player with him. "Bob was in blackface and was the comic; he cracked jokes, sang, and did an amazing jig dance." Since there was already a "Jim" on the show, the manager began calling him "Bob."

Wills was known for his hollering and wisecracking. One source for this was when, as a very young boy, he would hear his father, grandfather, and cowboys give out a loud cries when the music moved them. When asked if his wisecracking and talking on the bandstand came from his medicine show experience, he said it did not. Rather, he said that it came directly from playing and living close to Negroes, and that he never did it necessarily as show, but more as a way to express his feelings.

While in Fort Worth Wills added the "rowdy city blues" of Bessie Smith and Emmett Miller to a repertoire of mainly waltzes and breakdowns he had learned from his father, and patterned his vocal style after that of Miller and other performers such as Al Bernard. Wills acknowledged that he idolized Miller. Furthermore, his 1935 version of St. Louis Blues is nearly a word for word copy of Al Bernard's patter on his 1928 recording of the same song.

The fact that Wills made his professional debut in blackface is commented on by Wills' daughter, Rosetta: "He had a lot of respect for the musicians and music of his black friends," Rosetta is quoted as saying on the Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys Web site. She remembers that her father was such a fan of Bessie Smith, "he once rode 50 miles on horseback just to see her perform live." (Wills is quoted as saying, "I rode horeseback from the place between the rivers to Childress to see Bessie Smith...She was about the greatest thing I had ever heard. In fact, there was no doubt about it. She was the greatest thing I ever heard."

In Fort Worth, Wills met Herman Arnspinger and formed The Wills Fiddle Band. In 1930 Milton Brown joined the group as lead vocalist and brought a sense of innovation and experimentation to the band, now called the Light Crust Doughboys due to radio sponsorship by the makers of Light Crust Flour. Brown left the band in 1932 to form the Musical Brownies, the first true Western swing band. Brown added twin fiddles, tenor banjo and slap bass, pointing the music in the direction of swing, which they played on local radio and at dancehalls.

Wills remained with the Doughboys and replaced Brown with new singer Tommy Duncan in 1932. He found himself unable to get along with future Texas Governor W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, the authoritarian host of the Light Crust Doughboy radio show. O'Daniel had parlayed the show's popularity into growing power within Light Crust Flour's parent company, Burrus Mill and Elevator Company and wound up as General Manager, though he despised what he considered "hillbilly music." Wills and Duncan left the Doughboys in 1933 after Wills had missed one show too many due to his sporadic drinking.

Wills recalled the early days of what became known as Western swing music, in a 1949 interview. "Here's the way I figure it. We sure not tryin' to take credit for swingin' it." Speaking of Milt Brown and himself working with songs done by Jimmie Davis, the Skillet Lickers, Jimmie Rodgers, and others, and songs he'd learned from his father, he said that "We'd pull these tunes down an set 'em in a dance category. It wouldn't be a runaway, and just lay a real nice beat behind it an the people would get to really like it. It was nobody intended to start anything in the world. We was just tryin' to find enough tunes to keep 'em dancin' to not have to repeat so much."

Wills is also quoted as saying, "You can change the name of an old song, rearrange it and make it a swing. "One Star Rag", "Rat Cheese under the Hill", "Take Me Back to Tulsa", "Basin Street Blues", "Steel Guitar Rag", and "Trouble in Mind" were some of the songs in his extensive repertory."

After forming a new band, "The Playboys", and relocating to Wacomarker, Wills found enough popularity there to decide on a bigger market. They left Waco in January of 1934 for Oklahoma Citymarker. Wills soon settled the renamed "Texas Playboys" in Tulsa, Oklahomamarker, and began broadcasting noontime shows over the 50,000 watt KVOOmarker radio station. Their 12:30-1:15 Monday-Friday broadcasts became a veritable institution in the region.Nearly all of the daily (except Sunday) shows originated from the stage of Cain's Ballroommarker. In addition, they played dances in the evenings, including regular ones at the ballroom on Thursdays and Saturdays.By 1935 Wills had added horn, reed players and drums to the Playboys. The addition of steel guitar whiz Leon McAuliffe in March, 1935 added not only a formidable instrumentalist but a second engaging vocalist. Wills himself largely sang blues and sentimental ballads.

With its jazz sophistication, pop music and blues influence, plus improvised scats and wisecrack commentary by Wills, the band became the first superstars of the genre. Milton Brown's tragic and untimely death in 1936 had cleared the way for the Playboys.

Wills' 1938 recording of "Ida Red" served as a model for Chuck Berry's decades later version of the same song - "Maybellene."In 1940 "New San Antonio Rose" sold a million records and became the signature song of The Texas Playboys. The song's title referred to the fact that Wills had recorded it as a fiddle instrumental in 1938 as "San Antonio Rose". By then, the Texas Playboys were virtually two bands: one a fiddle-guitar-steel band with rhythm section and the second a first-rate big band able to play the day's swing and pop hits as well as Dixieland.

In 1940 Wills, along with the Texas Playboys, co-starred with Tex Ritter in “Take Me Back to Oklahoma”. Other films would follow. In late 1942 after several band members had left the group, and as World War II raged , Wills joined the Army, but received a medical discharge in 1943.

Wills also appeared in The Lone Prairie (1942), Riders of the Northwest Mounted (1943), Saddles and Sagebrush (1943), The Vigilantes Ride (1943), The Last Horseman (1944), Rhythm Round-Up (1945), Blazing the Western Trail (1945), and Lawless Empire (1945). According to one source, he appeared in a total of 19 films.


After leaving the Army in 1943 Wills moved to Hollywood and began to reorganize the Texas Playboys. He became an enormous draw in Los Angeles, where many of his Texas, Oklahoma and regional fans had also relocated during the Great Depression and World War II in search of jobs. Monday through Friday the band broadcast from 12:01 to 1:00 p.m. over KMTR-AM (now KLAC) in LA. They also played regularly every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night at the Mission Beach Ballroom in San Diego.

He commanded enormous fees playing dances there, and began to make more creative use of electric guitars to replace the big horn sections the Tulsa band had boasted. For a very brief period in 1944 the Wills band included twenty-three members., and around mid year he toured Northern California and the Pacific Northwest with a 21-pieces in the orchestra.Billboard reported that Wills outgrossed Harry James, Benny Goodman, "both Dorsies, et al." at Civic Auditorium in Oakland, CA in January of '44.

While on his first cross-country tour, he appeared on the Grand Ole Oprymarker and defied that conservative show's ban on using drums of any sort.

In 1945 Wills' dances were outdrawing those of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, and he had moved to Fresno, Californiamarker. Then in 1947 he opened the Wills Point nightclub in Sacramentomarker and continued touring the Southwest and Pacific Northwest from Texas to Washington State. While based in Sacramento his radio broadcasts over 50,000 watt KFBKmarker were heard all over the West.

Famous swing orchestras in California realized that many of their followers were leaving to dance to Bob Will's Western swing. Because he was in such demand, some places booked Wills any time he had an opening, regardless of how undesirable the date. The manager of a popular auditorium in the LA Basin town of Wilmington, California: "Although Monday night dancing is frankly an experiment it was the only night of the week on which this outstanding band could be secured."

During the postwar period, KGOmarker radio in San Franciscomarker syndicated a Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys show recorded at the Fairmont Hotel. Many of these recordings survive today as the Tiffany Transcriptions, and are available on CD. They show off the band's strengths significantly, in part because the group was not confined to the three-minute limits of 78 RPM discs. They featured superb instrumental work from fiddlers Joe Holley and Louis Tierney, steel guitarists Noel Boggs and Herb Remington, guitarists Eldon Shamblin and Junior Barnard and electric mandolinist-fiddler Tiny Moore. The original recorded version of Wills's Faded Love, appeared on the Tiffanys as a fairly swinging instrumental unlike the ballad it became when lyrics were added in 1950.

Wills and the Texas Playboys played dances throughout the West to more than 10,000 people every week. They held dance attendance records at Jantzen Beachmarker in Portland, Oregon; Santa Monica, California, and at the Oakland (California) Auditorium, where they drew 19,000 people in two nights. Wills also broke an attendance record of 2,100 previously held by Jan Garbner at the Armory in Klamath Falls, Oregon, by attracting 2,514 dancers.

Clint Eastwood recalled seeing Wills when he was 18 or 19 (~1948/1949) and working at a pulp mill in Springfield, Oregon.

Appearances at the Bostonia Ballroom in San Diego continued throughout the 1950s.

Still a binge drinker, Wills became increasingly unreliable in the late 1940s, causing a rift with Tommy Duncan (who bore the brunt of audience anger when Wills's binges prevented him from appearing). It ended when he fired Duncan in the fall of 1948.

Winding down

Having lived a lavish lifestyle in California, in 1949 Wills moved back to Oklahoma City, then went back on the road to maintain his payroll and Wills Point. An even more disastrous business decision came when he opened a second club, the Bob Wills Ranch House in Dallas, Texasmarker. Turning the club over to managers later revealed to be dishonest left Wills in desperate financial straits with heavy debts to the IRS for back taxes that caused him to sell many assets including, mistakenly, the rights to "New San Antonio Rose." It wrecked him financially.

In 1950 Wills had two Top Ten hits, "Ida Red Likes the Boogie" and "Faded Love". After 1950 radio stations began to increasingly specialize in one form or another of commercially popular music. Wills did not fit into the popular Nashville country and western stations, although he was usually labeled "country and western". Neither did he fit into the pop or middle of the road stations, although he played a good deal of pop music, and was not accepted in the pop music world.

He continued to tour and record through the 1950s into the early 1960s, despite the fact that Western Swing's popularity, even in the Southwest, had greatly diminished. Bob could draw "a thousand people on Monday night between 1950 and 1952, but he could not do that by 1956. Entertainment habits had changed."

On Wills's return to Tulsa late in 1957, Jim Downing of the Tulsa Tribune wrote an article headlined "Wills Brothers Together Again — Bob Back with Heavy Beat". The article quotes Wills as saying, "Rock and Roll? Why, man, that's the same kind of music we've been playin' since 1928!...We didn't call it rock and roll back when we introduced it as our style back in 1928, and we don't call it rock and roll the way we play it now. But it's just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of different names in my time. It's the same, whether you just follow a drum beat like in Africa or surround it with a lot of instruments. The rhythm's what's important."

Even a 1958 return to KVOO, where his younger brother Johnnie Lee Wills had maintained the family's presence, did not produce the success he hoped for. He appeared twice on ABC-TV's Jubilee USA and kept the band on the road into the 1960s. After two heart attacks, in 1965 he dissolved the Texas Playboys (who briefly continued as an independent unit) to perform solo with house bands. While he did well in Las Vegas and other areas, and made records for the Kapp Records label, he was largely a forgotten figure — even though inducted into the Country Music Hall of Famemarker in 1968. A 1969 stroke left his right side paralyzed, ending his active career.

The May 26, 1975 issue of TIME (Milestones section) read: "Died. Bob Wills, 70, "Western Swing" bandleader-composer; of pneumonia; in Fort Worth. Wills turned out dance tunes that are now called country rock, introducing with his Texas Playboys such C & W classics as Take Me Back to Tulsa and New San Antonio Rose".



Year Album US Country Label
1966 From the Heart of Texas 33 Kapp
1967 King of Western Swing 43
1968 Here's That Man Again 24
1974 For the Last Time 28 United Artists
1975 The Best of Bob Wills Vol. II 36 MCA
1976 Remembering...The Greatest Hits of Bob Wills 46 Columbia
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys in Concert 44 Capitol
1977 24 Great Hits by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys 39 MGM


Year Single US Country Label
1935 "Osage Stomp (Rukus Juice Shuffle)" Vocalion 03096
"Good Old Oklahoma" Vocalion 3086
"Spanish Two Step" Vocalion 03230
"Maiden's Prayer" Vocalion 03924
"I'm Sitting on Top of the World" Vocalion 3139
1936 "Steel Guitar Rag" Vocalion 03394
"Right or Wrong" Vocalion 03451
1937 "Playboy Stomp" Vocalion 03763
"I'm a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas" Vocalion 03659
1938 "Ida Red" Vocalion 05079
"San Antonio Rose" Vocalion 04755
"Beaumont Rag" Vocalion 04999
1940 "Corrine, Corrina" OKeh 06530
"New San Antonio Rose" OKeh 6894
"Time Changes Everything" OKeh 05753
1941 "Maiden's Prayer" OKeh 06205
"Take Me Back to Tulsa" OKeh 06101
"My Life's Been a Pleasure" OKeh 06676
"Cherokee Maiden" OKeh 06568
"Dusty Skies" OKeh 06598
1942 "If You're from Texas" OKeh 6722
"Let's Ride with Bob" OKeh 6692
1944 "New San Antonio Rose" 3 OKeh 5694
"We Might as Well Forget It" 2 OKeh 6722
"You're from Texas" 2
1945 "Smoke on the Water" 1 OKeh 6736
"Hang Your Head in Shame" 3
"Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima" 1 OKeh 6742
"You Don't Care What Happens to Me" 5
"Texas Playboy Rag" 2 Columbia 36841
"Silver Dew on the Blue Grass Tonight" 1
1946 "White Cross on Okinawa" 1 Columbia 36881
"New Spanish Two Step" 1 Columbia 16966
"Roly Poly" 3
"Stay a Little Longer" 2 Columbia 37097
"I Can't Go on This Way" 4
1947 "I'm Gonna Be Boss from Now On" 5 Columbia 37205
"Sugar Moon" 1 Columbia 37313
"Bob Wills Boogie" 4 Columbia 37357
1948 "Bubbles in My Beer" 4 MGM 10116
"Keeper of My Heart" 8 MGM 10175
"Texarkana Baby" 15 Columbia 38179
"Thorn in My Heart" 10 MGM 10236
1950 "Ida Red Likes the Boogie" 10 MGM K10570
"Faded Love" 8 MGM K10786
1960 "Heart to Heart Talk" (w/ Tommy Duncan) 5 Liberty 55260
1961 "The Image of Me" (w/ Tommy Duncan) 26 Liberty 55264
1976 "Ida Red" (re-release) 99 Vocalion 05079


Wills' style influenced performers Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and helped to spawn a style of music now known as the Bakersfield Sound. (Bakersfield, Californiamarker was one of Wills' regular stops in his heyday). A 1970 tribute album by Haggard directed a wider audience to Wills' music, as did the appearance of younger "revival" bands like Asleep at the Wheel and the growing popularity of longtime Wills disciple and fan Willie Nelson. By 1971, Wills recovered sufficiently to travel occasionally and appear at tribute concerts. In 1973 he participated in a final reunion session with members of some the Texas Playboys from the 1930s to the 1960s. Merle Haggard was invited to play at this reunion. The session, scheduled for two days, took place in December, 1973, with the album to be titled For the Last Time. Wills, speaking or attempting to holler, appeared on a couple tracks from the first day's session but suffered a stroke overnight. He had a more severe one a few days later. The musicians completed the album without him. Wills by then was comatose. He lingered until his death on May 13, 1975.

In addition to being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Famemarker in 1968, Bob Wills was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famemarker in the Early Influence category along with the Texas Playboys in 1999, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.

During the 49th Grammy Awards, Carrie Underwood performed his song "San Antonio Rose."

From the 1970s until his 2002 death, Waylon Jennings performed a song called "Bob Wills is Still the King". In addition, the Rolling Stones performed this song live in Austin, Texasmarker at Zilker Parkmarker for their DVD The Biggest Bang.

Wills ranked #27 in CMT's 40 Greatest Men in Country Music in 2003.

Today, George Strait performs Bob Wills music live on concert tours and also records songs greatly reflecting the magic of Bob Wills and his Texas style swing.

Asleep at the Wheel, the Austin, Texasmarker-based western swing band has been paying homage to Bob Wills for over 35 years, best demonstrated by their continuing performances of the musical drama A Ride With Bob [427] which debuted in Austin in March, 2005 to coincide with celebrations of Wills' 100th birthday. [428]

In 2004, a documentary film about the life and music music, entitled Fiddlin' Man: The Life and Times of Bob Wills, was released by VIEW Inc.



  • Townsend, Charles R. (1998). "Bob Wills". In The Encyclopedia of Country Music. Paul Kinsbury, Editor. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 594-5.
  • West, Elliot. "Trails and Footprints: The Past of the Future Southern Plains". The Future of the Southern Plains (pp. 17-37) edited by Sherry L. Smith. University of Oklahoma Press, 2005. ISBN 0-861-3735-5
  • Whitburn, Joel. The Billboard Book of Top 40 Country Hits. Billboard Books, 2006. ISBN 0-8230-8291-1
  • Wolff, Kurt; Orla Duane. Country Music: The Rough Guide. Rough Guides, 2000. ISBN 1-85828-534-8

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