(1905 – 1975)
As a fiddler, singer, songwriter and bandleader, Bob Wills was the foremost practitioner of Western Swing, a genre-bending style incorporating elements of Country, Jazz, Blues, Big Band Swing and Pop.
Through the late 30s and most of the 1940s, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were one of America's most popular and musically accomplished bands, packing dance halls across the Southwest and beyond.
Born in Texas in 1905, the son of a cotton farmer and amateur fiddler, Wills entered show business as a teen, playing local dances. He formed a band that earned some regional popularity, and in the early 1930s landed a local radio show. Wills and singer/pianist Tommy Duncan formed the Texas Playboys as a quintet in Waco, Tex., in 1934. The group moved to Tulsa, Okla., taking a job at a local radio station while Wills experimented with the band's lineup, adding steel guitar, drums and a horn section.
As big bands came to dominate popular music in the late 30s, Wills sought to compete by having the Texas Playboys play more ambitious, Jazz-inspired arrangements. He reorganized the group into an 18-piece ensemble whose Country/Big Band fusion wowed audiences throughout the Southwest. The group had it’s first national hit in 1940 with "New San Antonio Rose," which began a period of massive popularity.
The group was sidetracked by World War II, when Wills and Duncan both enlisted in the army. After being discharged the following year, they moved to California, where they reformed a smaller version of the Playboys. The band bounced back commercially with a new version of "New San Antonio Rose" that became a crossover Pop smash in early 1944, and the first in a series of hits.
By the late 1940s, though, Wills’ style had begun to fall of public favor. Despite health troubles, financial problems and dwindling audiences, he kept the Texas Playboys together through the 50s and early 60s, until a pair of heart attacks forced Wills to break up the band in 1964.
He continued to record and perform sporadically until 1968, when a stroke left him partially paralyzed. During his recovery, longtime admirer Merle Haggard paid homage to him by recording A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World. By 1972, Wills was well enough to participate in some Texas Playboys reunion shows, and he and the group began working with Haggard on a new LP. But Wills suffered another stroke shortly after the sessions began, leaving him comatose. The band finished the album as a tribute to Wills, who never regained consciousness and passed away quietly on May 15, 1975.