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THE GREATEST WESTERN SWING MUSICIAN OF ALL TIME, Bob Wills long ago ascended to the hallowed ranks of the Country Music Hall of Fame. But the impact of his style—a showy big-band sound embellished with steel guitar and his own fiddle—echoed far beyond that genre’s boundaries. That’s why, this month, another musical pantheon is claiming Wills: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which dubs him an influence extraordinaire. Wills also wrote many of his hit songs, notably the transcendent classics “San Antonio Rose” and “Faded Love,” and in the seventies a tribute album by Merle Haggard helped inspire a second wave of swing artists. No wonder many Texans find that deep within their heart lies a Bob Wills melody.
He was born James Robert Wills on March 6, 1905, in Kosse and grew up in Turkey. The eldest of ten, he left the family cotton farm at age sixteen and spent nine years at various jobs—carpenter, roughneck, barber, salesman, surveyor, preacher—while fronting dance bands at night.
In 1930 he formed the Wills Fiddle Band. Flour magnate (and future governor) W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel soon hired the group to play on his Fort Worth radio show, rechristen-ing them the Light Crust Doughboys.
Three years later, Wills struck out on his own. In 1934 he and his new group moved to Tulsa to headline a popular daily radio program on KVOO. The station’s huge audience and the group’s fabled members—like vocalist Tommy Duncan, steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe, guitarist Eldon Shamblin, and fiddler Jesse Ashlock—helped make Wills a star.
Between 1935 and 1947 Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys recorded scores of records and appeared in thirteen films, including one with Tex Ritter.
After World War II began, Wills enlisted, but his stardom proved disruptive—his fan letters, for example, overwhelmed mail call—and the Army discharged him a year later. Because of his drinking and dallying, five of his marriages were also brief. But his sixth, to Betty Anderson in 1942, lasted 32 years.
In 1950 his purchase of a Dallas dance hall proved financially disastrous. Swindled by some of his employees, he had to sell his music-publishing company to pay his debts and, by accident, also parted with the rights to “San Antonio Rose.” Later he had to sell the hall as well. The buyer? A then-unknown businessman named Jack Ruby.
In 1969 Wills suffered a stroke. A second one, in 1973, left him in a coma for seventeen months. He died on May 13, 1975.