By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Bob Wills Jr. cannot come to the phone. He is too sick to speak, his wife Elizabeth explains, the victim of a recent series of strokes that have left him incapacitated and near death. Through her lawyer, Elizabeth insists she will not leave his bedside--not to speak to a reporter, anyway, not to dredge up the painful memories and allegations one more time. Elizabeth Wills, who says she is a minister, does not want her husband to overhear her on the phone explaining one more time that, yes, Bob Wills Jr. is the bastard son of Bob Wills, the man known as the King of Western Swing.
Bob Wills Jr. is dying in California, clinging to the claims he has made since the mid-1970s--not long after Bob Wills died of pneumonia at his Fort Worth home, rendering him unable to dispute the man's claims. Junior has fronted his own western swing band called the Western Playboys, named after Bob Wills' Texas Playboys. To the outrage of the Wills clan, journalists from respectable newspapers have referred to him as the son of Bob Wills. Junior even had a role in the 1988 made-for-HBO film Baja Oklahoma, which starred Peter Coyote and Lesley Ann Warren and featured cameos from Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris as themselves.
Though the two men look nothing alike--Bob Wills Jr. is a hulking 6-foot-6 giant, while Bob Wills was a frail man who stood no taller than 5-foot-10--Junior played Bob Wills in the film. It was a brief part that lasted only a few seconds. It was a dream sequence.
Bob Wills Jr. claims to be the son of Bob Wills and a woman named Edna, which is the name of Wills' first wife. But Junior says he's illegitimate, born to Edna before Wills married her, which is why he's not mentioned in the history books or in Bob Wills' last will and testament. Only James Robert Wills is listed, the sole male child among Bob's six kids.
And those children want nothing to do with the man claiming to be Bob Wills Jr. They maintain he is a phony, an impostor, a fraud. For 20 years the Wills family has tried to disavow itself from Bob Wills Jr., discredit him, and keep him from abusing their father's good name. They thought they had once beaten Wills Jr., only to see his name appear in the Dallas Morning News last month--followed by the words, "whose father rose to international stardom in the '30s and '40s with his Western swing band, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys."
When Diane Malone, one of Wills' five daughters, saw the story, she literally became sick to her stomach. The family does not mind if someone wants to claim Bob Wills as an influence, but they are tired of this man desecrating their father's grave.
"It's kind of like when you know something isn't true, why even dignify this?" Malone says from her home in Alvarado, where she raises Arabian horses. "It's so stupid, and yet when it comes out in these newspapers like this it just drives you crazy. It's so preposterous I don't know how to say to what lengths."
Jeff Storie, the Fort Worth-based attorney for the Bob Wills estate, does not for a second believe that Bob Wills Jr. is the son of the man who wrote such immortal swing classics as "Take Me Back to Tulsa," "Faded Love," and "San Antonio Rose." For more than a decade, as the attorney for Betty Wills--Bob's fifth wife, who died in 1993--Storie has listened patiently to Junior's claim and asked only that he provide some conclusive proof that he's the son of the legendary fiddling bandleader.
Junior can provide none, only dozens of conflicting and confusing stories that serve to throw doubters off his trail. For years he maintained his mother was Edna Posey Wills, Bob Wills' first wife; now, through his lawyer, he says his mother was a different woman named Edna, who never married the legendary bandleader.
"I said, 'Look, verify it for me,'" Storie says. "We don't have a problem with him claiming the estate because he's not. The problem is the family legitimately doesn't feel he's Bob's son. It's not that they don't think Bob's capable of it, they just don't think it's him...
"I don't have conclusive genetic proof he's not the son of Bob Wills, but I also don't have proof you're not the son of Bob Wills."
One thing is certain: Bob Wills Jr. was not always Bob Wills Jr.
His real name, as he will readily admit, is Bobby Joe Thorne. In a Tarrant County domestic relations court in 1977, Thorne had his name changed to Bobby Wills; he explained it was for "professional entertainment reasons," according to court documents.
Two years later, in June 1979, he further changed his name to Bob Wills Jr. because, as his petition reads, Thorne "believes that he would be further advantaged by an additional change." Similarly, Thorne's wife Rafaela and son Bobby Joe also had their names changed, exchanging the "Thorne" for "Wills": Maria Rafaela Thorne became Maria R. Wills, and Bobby Joe Thorne became Bob Wills III. In December 1979, Bobby Joe Thorne/Bob Wills Jr. took two more children before the court and changed their names: Joseph Dewayne Thorne became Johnny Lee Wills, and Paula Kay Thorne turned into Valiza Ann Wills. It has so far been impossible to locate any of these family members in Dallas, Fort Worth, or Arlington--three of the cities in which Thorne has lived.