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The Secret History of Texas Music

“New San Antonio Rose” (1940)

Written by: Bob Wills  Recorded by: Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys

The biggest recording of Bob Wills’s career—the one that led him to be crowned the King of Western Swing—had no fiddles on it at all. But the song didn’t begin its life that way. In 1938 Wills and His Texas Playboys were at a recording session in Dallas when their A&R man, the English-born Art Satherley, asked Wills if he had any more tunes like “Spanish Two-Step,” an instrumental fiddle number he had written and recorded in 1935. “No, I don’t,” said Wills, as he later recalled, “but if you give me a few minutes, maybe I can come up with something.” He set to work right there in the studio, picking out some of the melody lines from the bridge of “Spanish Two-Step,” and before long he’d arranged a new tune. He and the band recorded it immediately, with the fiddle taking one solo and the steel guitar taking another. When Satherley asked what the new tune was called, Wills, who hadn’t thought that far, told him to go ahead and name it. Satherley, who had a fondness for Texas place names, christened it “San Antonio Rose.” 

The song became a regional hit and got the attention of bigwigs at the New York music publishing company owned by famed songwriter Irving Berlin. The firm wanted to publish the song and give it a wider audience, but only if Wills wrote lyrics for it. Though Wills wasn’t much of a lyricist, he cobbled together some words with help from his band, and in 1940 he and the Playboys went back into the studio. The band, by this point, had grown to include eighteen instruments (including five saxophones and two trumpets) and sounded as if it could have been backing Glenn Miller—until Playboy Tommy Duncan opened his mouth. Aiming for a big-band pop sound, the Playboys didn’t use fiddle or steel guitar on the updated version, which they titled “New San Antonio Rose.” The song became a smash hit, bringing international attention to the rest of Wills’s music (the stuff with fiddles on it) and propelling him to superhero status. Inspired by this success, Wills redid “Spanish Two-Step” a few years later, again adding lyrics. The name? “New Spanish Two-Step.” 

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