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.
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.
"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."
"The son of the celebrated Swing Era Bandleader, recognized as the Father of Western Swing, BOB WILLS JR.'s larger than life exploits should make rich movie material," reads the biography. "Born in Donie, Texas, a tiny hamlet in Freestone County, like the sons of many celebrated men, BOB JR. felt the need to make his own mark on the world and has pursued many paths to this end."
The bio chronicles a history spent as a professional boxer, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, a bandleader in Fort Worth, a candidate for a seat in the Senate, a bit-part actor in dozens of unknown films (Ben and Genoich and Caldonia DC, to name two). He claims to have been named the Entertainer of the Year in 1982 by something called the Hollywood Appreciation Society; a year earlier, he says he was elected by the National Federation of Music Clubs, another organization of dubious origin, as an Outstanding Composer.
He also claims to be a member of the Texas Music Hall of Fame, though such an entity doesn't exist. There is a tentative opening date for a Hall of Fame in Johnson City set for October, in something called the Feed Mill Complex, but various delays and insurance problems have held up the opening. Furthermore, Charles Trois, who is currently in charge of the items to be placed in the Hall of Fame, says he has never heard of Bob Wills Jr.
"I mean, I've heard of Bob Wills," Trois says.
For her part, publicist Holly Williams dismisses the Wills family's charges as "ridiculous," maintaining her client is the real deal.
"We go through this once every five years," she says. "The reason this comes up is because he's the illegitimate son of Bob Wills and an embarrassment to the family. It's the two sisters that are upset because they're not making money for this, and they want to make trouble. It's ridiculous. It's not like he owes them anything. He's the most generous man. His life is a story everybody wants to do, and for them to do this after family members pass away is ludicrous."
For a lawyer, Moton Holt does not build a convincing case for his client. When asked point-blank whether he believes his client is the son of Bob Wills, he does not say yes or no. He will only say that Wills Jr. believes it, which is good enough for him.
"And I'll tell ya what," Holt says, "he really believes it."
Holt first met Wills Jr. in the early 1980s, around the time Wills Jr. claims he was discharged from the Air Force. They were introduced at a place called the Cauliflower Alley Club in Hollywood, the kind of place that catered to former wrestlers and ex-boxers and anonymous actors who played in B-grade movies. It was, as Holt describes it, a social club for losers and never-weres--"a Damon Runyon kind of thing," he calls it, giving the group a certain kind of pathetic dignity.
Holt says he was introduced to Wills Jr. through Mike Mazurki, a character actor who had bit parts in such films as Some Like It Hot, Four For Texas, and the 1955 John Wayne high-seas epic Blood Alley. At the time, Wills Jr. was trying to tour California with a swing band called the Western Playboys, and attempting to establish his own career as a character actor.
Holt recalls he was skeptical of Wills Jr.'s claims of being the son of Bob Wills, primarily because the two men looked nothing alike. The only thing they have in common when it comes to appearance is the fact both have two eyes, two ears, a nose, and a mouth.
"I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, and Wills and Hank Williams were heroes of ours when I was a kid," Holt says. "I asked [Bob Jr.] about the lack of physical similarities, and he said around the eyes and around the facial features, they're the same. I never took out a magnifying glass to compare, but that was his answer. But if he didn't inherit his father's slimness, he didn't inherit his musical ability, either."
Still, Holt shrugs, he had "no reason to believe Bob one way or the other."
"I didn't think it was important," he says now. "But when I was in Hollywood, I met enough screwballs to be skeptical. I met one who said he was the illegitimate son of John Barrymore. Peter Lorre has one running around there says he's his son. Bob was the one person that really rang true...
"The guy really believes it. In those times I went along with it, not because of any retainer or monetary basis. For all practical purposes I thought Wills was tel-ling the truth, for whatever that mattered. If someone in his past led him through the primrose path, they did a good job of it."
Holt, for his part, has never seen his client's birth certificate be-cause, he says, Thorne told him all the records were destroyed in a Freestone County Court-house fire. (The only fire in the courthouse occurred in 1896.) Holt says Thorne changed his name to Bob Wills Jr. because Wills' legitimate sons--"Wills Jr.'s brothers," as Holt says--told him to. That way, if he was going to go around saying he was the son of Bob Wills, he wouldn't embarrass the family by having a different last name. The family didn't want a "hint of scandal," Holt says, and so Thorne had his name legally changed.
Problem is, Wills only had one son (that is, only one is listed in the will and history books): James Robert, who now lives in Tulsa. When asked if his client actually said his "brothers" told Thorne to change his name, Holt says, "It was definitely plural."
He considers this for a second. "It might have been Bob Wills' brothers," he says after some hesitation. "Better to have said half-uncles."
It is likely no one will ever turn up proof proving Wills Jr. is or isn't who he claims to be; after all, it's almost impossible to prove a negative, reminds Jeff Storie. But Diane Malone and the rest of the Wills family, not to mention the surviving Texas Playboys, will never embrace Bob Wills Jr. as anything other than a liar.
"My father never wanted any one of us to be musicians," Malone says. "He raised us not to be musicians. He didn't like life on the road. It was hard, and he didn't want us to do it. My father's choice was not really to be a musician. He would have been a barber or a rancher, but he happened to be able to make money and raise a big family playing music."
"Really, I think it's sad for him [Wills Jr.] that he had to make himself feel good by being something he's not.