Junior or joke?

Bob Wills' family disowns man claiming to be prince of Western Swing

"It's a funny deal," Diane Malone says. "People want to believe this stuff sometimes, and people will listen to it whether it's true or not."

But Los Angeles newspapers have a long history of referring to Bob Wills Jr. as the son of the western swing bandleader: In 1985, the Los Angeles Times mentioned him as the grand marshal of a local parade, and on February 1, 1985, Times staff writer Andrew Revkin wrote a long piece about his getting a bit part in a film about Lyndon Johnson. In that story--headlined "Tall Texan Talk: Actor in LBJ movie casts long shadow over barbecue in Van Nuys"--Revkin listed Wills' resume with a sort of awe, referring to his "dizzying array of lives."

"He has been an auctioneer, a leader of a Texas swing band, a Golden Gloves champion boxer, a financier, an Army lieutenant colonel, a husband to nine wives and 23 children," Revkin wrote. "Wills' father was Bob Wills, the father of Texas Swing, a rollicking brand of Western music that combined the fiddle and twang of country music with the finesse and power of big-band jazz."

Revkin added, "He was raised, though, by the Thorne family, well-to-do bankers." The story then recounted Wills Jr.'s alleged career: He began performing in the Fort Worth Stockyards when he was 8 years old--"That night, he took home $4.75 out of the kitty collected at the door," Revkin wrote--and assembled his first band after World War II.

"I guess I played every cut-and-shoot in America at one time or another," Wills told the Times. Revkin wrote that Wills toured with "an entourage of family members and musicians that, at its peak in the 1950s, filled three buses." Revkin, though, was not alone in buying Thorne's story.

In June 1994, a magazine called Modern Screen's Country Music (based, of course, out of New York City) ran a story about Asleep at the Wheel's all-star tribute to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys; the album, which featured the likes of Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett, resurrected interest in Wills' music, and its release coincided with the release of a postage stamp commemorating the bandleader.

Next to the article on Wills was another on Bob Wills Jr., under the headline: "A Man for All Reasons: The Son of Country Legend Bob Wills Carves out His Own Territory. He's Quite a Character in His Own Right!" In the story, Wills Jr. claims he was raised in Fort Worth and introduced to music by his mother, who he says used to play in a band with Bob Wills in the 1930s. "She started singing and dancing with the famous Stamps Quartet," he says, "and was on radio by the time she was three years old. She did that until she married my father, Bob Wills Sr., at age 17. It was Dad's first marriage."

But when Edna Posey married Bob Wills--on August 21, 1926, in the tiny town of Canadian--she was 21 years old, as was her new husband. Less than three years later, on January 15, 1929, Bob and Edna Wills had their first child--a girl, Robbie Joe Wills. (Incidentally, though he divorced Edna Wills six years after Robbie Joe's birth and was not bound legally to provide child support, Bob continued to support Edna and Robbie Joe and eventually put his daughter through college at SMU.) At the time Robbie Joe was born, the couple was living in Turkey, Texas, now the site of the annual Bob Wills celebration.

There has never been any evidence to suggest that Edna performed with Bob, as Bob Wills Jr. insists; in fact, according to Wills biographer Charles Townsend, when Bob sued Edna for divorce in 1935, he complained that his wife had little interest in his then-successful musical career, which was burgeoning in Tulsa.

Townsend did, however, write in his landmark 1976 Wills bio San Antonio Rose that Bob was quite the womanizer during his rise to fame in the mid-1930s. The bandleader had trouble coping with his new-found success, Townsend wrote, and with the strain came a fondness for drink accompanied by a penchant for the ladies.

"Drinking was his main professional handicap and his worst enemy," Townsend wrote of Wills. "Judging by his own moral standards, however, drinking was not his greatest weakness during the Tulsa years. At least this was the opinion of his first wife. According to Edna Wills, 'there has always been women'; Bob had affairs with other women almost from the beginning of their married life, in West Texas, Fort Worth, Waco, and Tulsa."

But in the last will and testament of Bob Wills, written when he was married to Betty Lou Anderson Wills, the bandleader declared that the couple had four children: James Robert II, Carolyn, Diane, and Cindy. He also mentioned two children from previous marriages, Robbie Joe Wills Calhoun and Rosetta Wills Arnett (who was born in 1940 to Bob and his second wife, Mary Lou).

Then he tacked on the following disclaimer: "I declare that no other children have been born to or adopted by me."

In a two-page biography prepared by his Sepulveda, California-based publicist, Holly Williams, Bob Wills Jr. lays out a fairly exciting life of adventure and intrigue--one spent in the military, on television and in film, on stage in the footsteps of his legendary father. The bio paints him as a giant (referring to his "hulking 6'6" frame...and a 13D boot") and calls him "one of the freshest and most colorful western personalities to hit the television community in years," typical press-release hyperbole. It describes him as "a cross between John Wayne and Gene Autry," with a dash of Andy Devine's "comedic presence."

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