13 May marks the day musician Bob Wills died in 1975.
Wills fronted a band called, ‘The Texas Playboys’ that combined traditional hillbilly dance tunes with swing jazz music, developing a style called, ‘Western Swing’. Wills performances and recordings were wildly popular, especially from the era of the late 1930’s through the years just following World War II.
Raised on the sharecropper cotton farms of Texas, Wills first playmates were African-American, and he developed a love for the music and dance of this culture. Wills stated that he once rode 50 miles on horseback to hear African-American vocalist Bessie Smith sing.
One of Wills most identifiable traits was his shouts of “Ah-HAA!” during musical performances, sounding similar to the cries you would hear from a Mexican Mariachi band leader. Wills would often make wise-cracks and retorts as the vocalist performed, sometimes leaving them chuckling through their next line. Wills would also shout to the band as they began to swing such things as
“tear it down boys but don’t you ruin it!”
Wills would note this too was a product of his experience growing up around the African-American community, saying they were not afraid to show their emotions. Wills also stated he witnessed boisterous cowboys cry out with approval when they heard a band strike up a song they liked. Wills humble origins were once commented on by a radio station owner who witnessed Wills early in his career when he arrived to play.
“There was Bob Wills with his fiddle in a flour sack”, he said, “I mean they were rugged buddy!”
A lifelong member of the musicians union, Wills would often introduce members of the band by appending the prefix “brother” before their names.
Musicians from Jimi Hendrix to George Strait would cite Wills as an influence. The Country Music Hall of Fame inducted Wills in 1968, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Wills and the Texas Playboys in 1999.
Here is a recording of their song ‘Nancy Jane’…..