Buck Norris sings the Bob Wills Classic, "Still Water Runs The Deepest".
Bob Wills' name will forever be associated with Western swing. Although he did not invent the genre single-handedly, he did popularize the genre and changed its rules. In the process, he reinvented the rules of popular music. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were a dance band with a country string section that played pop songs as if they were jazz numbers. Their music expanded and erased boundaries between genres. It was also some of the most popular music of its era. Throughout the '40s, the band was one of the most popular groups in the country and the musicians in the Playboys were among the finest of their era. As the popularity of Western swing declined, so did Wills' popularity, but his influence is immeasurable. From the first honky tonkers to Western swing revivalists, generations of country artists owe him a significant debt, as do certain rock and jazz musicians. Wills was a maverick and his spirit infused American popular music of the 20th century with a renegade, virtuosic flair.
Wills was born outside of Kosse, TX, in 1905. From his father and grandfather, he learned how to play mandolin, guitar, and eventually fiddle, and he regularly played local dances in his teens. In 1929, he joined a medicine show in Fort Worth, where he played fiddle and did blackface comedy. At one performance, he met guitarist Herman Arnspiger and the duo formed the Wills Fiddle Band. Within a year, they were playing dances and radio stations around Fort Worth. During one of the performances, the pair met a vocalist called Milton Brown, who joined the band. Soon, Brown's guitarist brother Durwood joined the group, as did Clifton "Sleepy" Johnson, a tenor banjo player.
In early 1931, the band landed their own radio show, which was sponsored by the Burris Mill and Elevator Company, the manufacturers of Light Crust Flour. The group rechristened themselves the Light Crust Doughboys and their show was being broadcast throughout Texas, hosted and organized by W. Lee O'Daniel, the manager of Burris Mill. By 1932, the band was stars in Texas but there was some trouble behind the scenes; O'Daniel wasn't allowing the band to play anything but the radio show. This situation led to the departure of Brown; Wills eventually replaced Brown with Tommy Duncan, who he would work with for the next 16 years. By late summer 1933, Wills, aggravated by a series of fights with O'Daniel, left the Light Crust Doughboys and Duncan left with him.
Wills and Duncan relocated to Waco, TX, and formed the Playboys, which featured Wills on fiddle, Duncan on piano and vocals, rhythm guitarist June Whalin, tenor banjoist Johnnie Lee Wills, and Kermit Whalin, who played steel guitar and bass. For the next year, the Playboys moved through a number of radio stations, as O'Daniel tried to force them off the air. Finally, the group settled in Tulsa, where they had a job at KVOO.
Tulsa is where Wills and His Texas Playboys began to refine their sound. Wills added an 18-year-old electric steel guitarist called Leon McAuliffe, pianist Al Stricklin, drummer Smokey Dacus, and a horn section to the band's lineup. Soon, the Texas Playboys were the most popular band in Oklahoma and Texas. The band made their first record in 1935 for the American Recording Company, which would later become part of Columbia Records. At ARC, they were produced by Uncle Art Satherley, who would wind up as Wills' producer for the next 12 years. The bandleader had his way and they cut a number of tracks that were released on a series of 78s. The singles were successful enough that Wills could demand that McAuliffe -- who wasn't on the first sessions due to ARC's abundance of steel players under contract -- was featured on the Playboys' next record, 1936's "Steel Guitar Rag." The song became a standard for steel guitar. Also released from that session was "Right or Wrong," which featured Duncan on lead vocals.