Ironically, this new series of Columbia/Legacy box sets debuts with an artist who didn’t want to be labeled as a Country Music performer. In a 1945 Time magazine he said, “Please don’t anybody confuse us with none of them hillbilly outfits.” That’s because Bob Wills, who coyly called his work “Texas fiddle music” wasn’t confined by genres or rules.
The band’s first producer, Arthur Satherley, questioned the inclusion of horns, but Wills made it clear they were part of the package. 1935’s “Get With It” was the first country record that featured amplified lead guitar. He was first country bandleader to use a drummer and in 1944 flaunted the Grand Ole Opry’s rules regarding modern instruments by bringing his drummer on stage.
In the liner notes, Rich Kienzle writes, “In Wills’ universe, musical boundaries simply didn’t exist.” He was a fan of all types of music so that’s what his Texas Playboys played: originals and covers that could be classified as country, big band jazz, blues, pop, etc.; sometimes changing within a song. Eventually Wills’ music would be labeled as Western Swing, but the only distinction that needs to be made is the word “outstanding.”
Though he played the fiddle and occasionally sang lead, he can be heard on almost every track. He yells out his trademark “A-ha!” or shouts to punctuate lyrics and moments when a song moves him; he calls out musicians to play and when they’re swinging; and on some songs he provides a humorous, running counterpoint to a song’s lyrics, reminiscent of Popeye’s asides in the ‘30s Fleischer cartoons. His joy radiates off each track and is infectious.
This set is the mother load, containing 105 tracks in chronological order spanning 41 years over four discs. Kienzle’s liner notes provide a great biography about Wills and his Texas Playboys and an impressive annotation of the recording sessions, explaining song origins and giving credit to the original artists whose work provides the foundation they built upon. It’s a musical history lesson well worth investing your time and money.
Disc 1 covers the early years. The first two tracks from 1932 feature Wills in his previous band. Because of a radio sponsorship by the makers of Light Crust Flour, they were known as the Light Crust Doughboys, but Victor Records changed their name for legal reasons to the Fort Worth Doughboys. The audio quality of “Sunbonnet Sue” and “Nancy Jane” sound surprisingly clean considering their age.
When singer Milton Brown left to form his own band, the Musicial Brownies, Wills hired singer Tommy Duncan, left Fort Worth for Oklahoma City, and renamed his band the Texas Playboys. In 1935, Wills added drummer Smoky Dacus and singer/steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe. In 1937, guitarist-arranger Eldon Shamblin was brought in to help the musicians and bring them up to the level of the era’s great orchestras: Ellington, Henderson, Goodman and others.
Shamblin's work with the band is noticeable on the disc’s last track, “White Heat." This disc features standards, such as the Mississippi Sheiks “Sittin’ On Top Of the World” and “Basin Street Blues," which had been previously covered by Louis Armstrong.
Disc 2 continues with the 1937 sessions. Recorded during their November ’38 sessions, Wills’ first national hit was the instrumental “San Antonio Rose.” Like all great entertainers of the time, the Playboys went to Hollywood and appeared in their first picture, Tex Ritter’s B-Western Take Me Back to Oklahoma.
In April 1940 sessions, they cut “Bob Wills Special,” which Kienzle explains was the introduction “of Eldon’s and Leon’s revolutionary lead and steel guitar ensemble, a key component of the postwar Playboys sound.” This disc finds them covering Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #1," Bessie Smith’s “Down Hearted Blues,” and Wills patterned his version of “Rosetta” after Fats Waller’s.
Disc 3 opens with 1940’s “New San Antonio Rose,” a revamp of their hit single with lyrics written by Wills. The next sessions were in February 1941, and the big band influence is pervasive, almost all swing and no western. They perform a great cover of Tommy Dorsey’s “Liebestraum.” It’s not until the fiddle opens “”I Know he Moment I Lost You” that the Western sound returns. In July 1941, they recorded in Hollywood and added the songwriting skills of 23-year-old Texan, Cindy Walker.
In 1942, Wills kept making movies and many band members took part in the war effort by enlisting or taking defense jobs. The two notables were Duncan and Shamblin. In July, former Light Crust Doughboys Leon Huff makes his Playboy-singing debut on Johnny Bond’s “Drop Us Off At Bob’s Place” while trumpeter Danny Alguire sings on Fred Rose’s “Home In San Antone.”
A two-and-half-year break between recording sessions began when Wills was drafted into the Army. After being honorably discharged, he went on to perform a national tour and then in 1945 got back together with Duncan for sessions in Hollywood for Columbia. Fred Rose’s “Roly Poly” became a Wills classic. Taken from an April Session, the last track is “New Spanish Two Step,” a vocal version of their 1935 instrumental that also went on to became a nationwide hit.
Disc 4 finds the band back in the Hollywood studios in 1946. “Bob Wills Boogie” with its boogie-woogie piano and electric guitar work is definitely early rock and roll. In October 1947, Wills began recording for MGM. He had had a drinking problem since the early ‘30s that intensified due to business pressures.
Country singers were usurping Western swing, a new invention known as television was shrinking his ballroom audiences, and rock and roll was on the horizon. Wills’ benders led to his firing of Duncan. Timmy Moore, Rusty McDonald, and Wills’ brother Billy Jack filled in at subsequent sessions. McDonald sang lead on Wills’ last big hit, 1950’s “Faded In Love.” His recording sessions in 1954 didn’t create the same magic and he went on a hiatus from the studio.
Duncan returned in 1960 for two years while Wills was signed to Liberty Records. Wills suffered two heart attacks in 1962 and 1964. After the second, he began working solo, playing with house bands. In 1965, Wills signed to Kapp Records and two tracks, “A Big Ball In Cowtown” sung by Leon Rausch in 1966 and an instrumental 1969 were recorded with Nashville studio musicians.
Wills was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968. The disc closes out with three tracks recorded in 1973 for a reunion album, prophetically titled For The Last Time. Wills led the band from his wheelchair and it’s readily apparent that he doesn’t have the same vivaciousness. A powerful stroke would eventually put him into a coma. On May 15, 1975, he succumbed to pneumonia and was laid to rest in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Bob Wills’ influence on American music is so vast that he is one of the few artists worthy of induction into both the Country Music and the Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. He might not be as well known as Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley, but he’s just as influential and integral to the current state of American music.