By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Bobby Joe Thorne has long maintained he was born in Donie, Texas--between Temple and Houston in Freestone County--in the mid-1920s. A recent article about him in a Los Angeles newspaper said he was 69 years old.
But Freestone County records indicate that the only Bobby Joe Thorne born in the county was birthed on October 6, 1938--to a woman named Edna Merle Cone, and a father named Joe Bailey Thorne. Records also indicate his name was spelled "Bobbie Joe Thorne," and that he was the first child born to Joe and Edna.
State records further reveal that Joe Bailey Thorne died on May 25, 1989, in neighboring Limestone County--in which Bob Wills was born in 1905, in the tiny town of Kosse--though there are no obituaries in Limestone or Freestone newspapers to reveal surviving family members. No death records could be found for Edna, though folks down in Donie say she died before Joe.
Moton Holt, Wills Jr.'s lawyer in California, says Edna Merle Cone is indeed the mother, but that his client was born in 1927 in a "private residence."
"And Edna did not marry Joe Bailey Thorne until January 1930," he says, relating information passed on by Elizabeth Wills.
One current Donie resident, who's 60 years old and asked that his name not be used, recalls knowing a guy named Bobby Joe Thorne who was a couple of years older--which meant he would have been born in the late 1920s. He recalls Bobby Joe as a "big, tall, strong man" who was around 6-foot-6, and bore a striking resemblance to Joe Bailey Thorne.
"I just figured Joe Thorne was his daddy," the man says. "He sho' was big and stout like his old daddy. He lived around here for a few years and he had, oh, I don't know, a little old swing band together and lived 'tween Donie and Buffalo in an old camper of some kind. Seemed like he did a little preachin'. I know that he had that old bus and had some kind of little ol' rag-tag band."
Bobby Joe Thorne was forced to change his name after Betty Wills found out he was billing himself as the son of Bob Wills. Through her lawyer at the time, she contacted Thorne--who was billing himself as Bob Wills Jr.--and told him to quit or else she would sue. On February 11, 1976--two days before he was to perform at the Round Up Inn in Fort Worth (on Friday the 13th, no less)--he signed a document in which he said he would cease making any references to Bob Wills or the Texas Playboys.
In the letter, Thorne told Betty Wills he had booked the engagement by claiming to be the son of Bob Wills, and that he had contacted several former Texas Playboys in hopes of having them perform with him, by informing them he was their old boss' son.
But, he promised Betty to avoid legal action, "I will make no further reference or inference that I am connected with Bob Wills or the Texas Playboys in any manner...and I will make no further reference, statement, or inference that Bob Wills of the Texas Playboys is my father, unless such fact be established by legal action."
Three years later, Thorne changed his name to Bob Wills Jr.
The man who says he is the son of the Father of Western Swing is bedridden in Los Angeles, the victim of a series of strokes that continue to weaken his already frail giant frame. He claims that were it not for his garden--a two-acre parcel of land overgrown with fruits and plants of all varieties--he'd likely be dead already.
At least, that is what he told the Los Angeles Daily News a couple of months ago, in a story written by general assignment writer Veronique de Turenne. The article was subsequently picked up off the wire by newspapers across the country--including the Austin American-Statesman and the Dallas Morning News.
The Statesman ran the story on June 6 on the cover of its Lifestyle section--followed the next day by a 367-word piece by writer Mike Kelley bearing the headline "Man who says he is Bob Wills Jr. may be King Con." In the story, Wills' daughter Rosetta, who lives in Austin, said she has a half-brother named James Robert Wills who goes by James, not Bob Jr.
De Turenne says she can't speak about the story because her newspaper has a policy forbidding employees from speaking to other journalists. But it is safe to say she regrets ever mentioning Bob Wills.
And yet, on June 26 the Morning News ran the Daily News piece verbatim, as did the Fort Worth Star-Telegram a week earlier--both pieces mentioning Wills Jr.'s alleged father, and with no reference to the doubts raised by the second Statesman article. The Wills family considers this a slap in the face because, after all, Bob Wills first recorded in Dallas in the '30s, his Ranch House (which later became the Longhorn Ballroom) is a Dallas music landmark, and he and wife Betty settled in Fort Worth before Bob's death.
His name is inextricably linked to both cities' musical heritage, and yet the newspapers in Dallas and Fort Worth both promulgated--without ever running a correction or clarification--the story told by Bob Wills Jr.