DFW Music News

For Your Weekend Listening Pleasure: Bob Wills, Who Died 36 Years Ago Today

Kosse, down in Limestone County, is known as the "Little Town With a Big Heart" -- and as the birthplace of Bob Wills, who was born to John Tompkins Wills ("a hard-drinking sharecropper-fiddler") and wife Emmaline on March 6, 1905. Thirty years after that, Brunswick Record Corporation's Don Law -- the same man who would record Robert Johnson at 508 Park Avenue in 1937 -- signed Bob and his Texas Playboys to a recording contract.

Brit-born A&R man Art Satherley came to Dallas to record the band in a makeshift studio -- "an upstairs Buick building," according to Charles Townsend's San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills. (Updated: Though, as the United States Department of the Interior's Downtown Dallas Historic District Designation notes, "Other musicians also recorded at the studios at 508 Park Avenue, including Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, who held their first recording session in Brunswick's warehouse in September 1935.")

Bob was already a regional star, having been a member of the Light Crust Doughboys with Milton Brown, who'd quit before Wills and start his own legendary, if lesser-known, band -- the first of the real Western Swingers. But the Dallas dates were the first under the Texas Playboys moniker -- the "opportunity that ultimately took him out of the provincialism of the Southwest and made him a national musical figure," as Townsend wrote. But Satherley didn't quite get Wills, didn't know what to make of this strange fiddler who came with a steel-guitar player and a horn section and who was prone to hollering during takes. Satherley told him to stop shouting. Wills shouted back: "You want Bob Wills, you get Bob Wills, and I talk and sing and say what I want when I feel like it." And thus was born the first of many legends.

Townshend writes that 20 sides were cut in Dallas between September 21 and September 24, 1935, among them "Maiden's Prayer" and "Spanish Two Step." Those recordings, among dozens of others dating from '35 through the mid- to late 1940s, can be found on The Internet Archive. That important, thrilling body work, presented alphabetically, is divvied up into several sections: here, here, here, here, here, here and here -- with a "Big Beaver" thrown in for good measure, just because.

Wills, of course, came back to Dallas often after that -- even owned the Bob Wills Ranch House on Industrial and Corinth, which self-made millionaire O.L. Nelms built just for him. That was in 1950, 'round the time of his hit "Faded Love." But as Rich Kienzle wrote:

Wills unknowingly hired managers who turned out to be unscrupulous, whose shady deals plunged the Ranch House and Bob's personal finances into turmoil. His binges resumed and when the smoke cleared, he had to borrow money, sell property and deal with the IRS, since he and the Ranch House owed substantial back taxes. He sold his song catalog. He intended to keep "New San Antonio Rose" but inadvertently signed it away as well. In 1952 he sold the Ranch House -- to Jack Ruby. Disheartened as he was, he had no choice but to press on.
I found that contract here -- it was auctioned off some time back, who knows for how much. The Ranch House, of course, is still around; it's the Longhorn Ballroom. After Wills parted with it, of course, he kept recording, kept touring and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame 33 years after those Dallas recordings. Reason I mention all of this: Bob Wills died on May 13, 1975, in a Fort Worth nursing home. Bob Wills is still the king.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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