IT DON’T MEAN A THING IF IT AIN’T… Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys

They had that swing, as
evidenced on a massive collection of early transcriptions.

 

BY
RICK ALLEN

 

When
Bob Wills and fellow Texan Milton Brown formed the Light Crust Doughboys in the
1931 they were just two of the many young musicians in Texas,
Oklahoma and
other parts of the American Southwest who somewhat simultaneously started a new
musical hybrid form that would become known as Western Swing. Wills, Brown and
their brother musicians were doing what young white American musicians had been
doing since the days of Stephen Foster and before: blending they heard in their
homes and churches and at their social gatherings with music of the black
culture that existed sometimes side by side with yet worlds away from their
own.

 

It
was a cultural exchange that would come again in the 1950’s with rock and roll
– Wills was clear and definite about the unbroken connection between his music
and rock and roll, calling it “the same kind of music we’ve been playing since
1928 – and later with hip hop with new variations sure to come.

 

The
exchange went both ways too. Black movie cowboy and Count Basie Band vocalist
Herb Jeffries, “the Bronze Buckaroo”,  was
among the African American artists who would embrace country and western music
(and Western swing) a decade or two before the world had heard of Charley
Pride. The phenomenon got a gentle send-up in “Cow Cow Boogie” a song about a
“swing half-breed” who’s got “a knocked out western accent with a Harlem touch”
recorded by Dorothy Dandridge and Ella Fitzgerald as well as Jeffries and Ella
Mae Morse a white singer who was a fixture on the R&B charts in the forties
and fifties.  Though white jazz musicians
like Stan Kenton would even come to record with country artists like Tex Ritter
the hardnosed bigotry of the time meant that there would be no Western Swing
equivalent of Benny Goodman’s groundbreaking integrated quartet but there was
plenty of undocumented action on the QT. Who wouldn’t have wanted to witness Ray
Price’s swinging Cherokee Cowboys jamming with the Charlie Parker, as legend has
it? Cross pollination has always been the true musician’s bread and butter.  

 

In
pursuit of a bigger slice of the pie – family financial concerns were part of
the reason – Brown left the Doughboys in 1932 and formed his own group, Milton
Brown and his Musical Brownies. Headquartering in Fort Worth the band would become a popular
live act and were responsible for several innovations that would become
standard parts of country music, Western Swing in particular. Brown and the
Brownies would become the first country and western band to utilize the
electric lap steel guitar after guitarist Bob Dunn, originally a jazz man, got
the idea to bring the instrument to the band after hearing a black blues
musician play on the Coney Island boardwalk.
Brown’s life and career would be cut short after he died in 1936 due to the
pneumonia he contracted while recovering from a car crash likely caused by his
narcolepsy. Brown’s premature death would leave the way open for Wills to
become the name most associated with Western Swing music.

 

Wills,
whose Waco
based Texas Playboys were modeled after Milton Brown’s Brownies got a big
career boost from the film work he and the band had during the golden age of
movie Westerns, especially the lower budgeted “B” westerns of the 1940’s. “San
Antonio Rose”, also the title of the group’s most well-known song had Wills and
the Playboys appearing with the likes of Lon Chaney Jr. Eve Arden and Shemp
Howard.

 

Over
the years the Playboys would become the New York Yankees of country and Western
Swing music. Their roster would include a changing but consistently impressive
list of those styles’ most iconic names; guitarists Junior Barnard and Eldon
Shamblin, pianist Al Stricklin, Fiddler Johnny Gimble, mandolinist Tiny Moore,
steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe and vocalists Leon Rausch and Tommy Duncan.
Their core instrumental lineup of guitars, fiddles, pedal steel, used in much
the same way as horns were used in swing and big bands, became the template for
the classic country outfits of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

 

Their
enduring influence can be heard in the music of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and
Mel Tillis to the Mavericks and Jim Lauderdale. Wills and the Texas Playboys
were arguably Merle Haggard’s most important musical role models and Eldon
Shamblin would perform with Haggard’s band, the Strangers, for almost ten years.
He would join Tiny Moore and other one-time Playboys for Haggard’s 1970 album The Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World (Or
My Salute To Bob Wills)
. So determined to do right by Wills, Haggard, already
in his early thirties, learned to play fiddle for the recording. Later, in
1973, Haggard was instrumental in the organization and execution of For The Last Time, an album of Wills
classics which brought together Playboys alumni from their 1930’s beginnings to
their last days in the late 1960s. (Though Wills had a stroke on the second day
of the sessions and was unable to contribute much to “The Last Time” thereafter,
it is one of the finest recordings in his canon)

 

The Tiffany Transcriptions (Collectors’ Choice, www.collectorschoicemusic.com; via
Tiffany Music Inc.,  the company formed specifically
for the project by Wills and his partners, a pioneering country disc jockey from
California called Cactus Jack and songwriter Clifford Sundlin) were recorded during
breaks from long stretches of consecutive one-night stands across the West and
Southwest almost thirty years before “The Last Time.” They give a glorious
opportunity to hear Wills and the Playboys at the apex of their popularity and
musical ability. The ten discs contain versions of many of the same classics
that are on “The Last Time” and other studio recordings but the need for enough
material to cover dozens of radio shows meant the Playboys also had to draw
from more than just their regular repertoire. Besides the polka/mariachi/Celtic
folk music rooted country music most of the band grew up playing and which they
blended with the more urban/Eastern/African American music to create their
signature sound, the boys got to directly address those latter styles, expertly
interpreting the music of Fats Waller (“Honeysuckle Rose”), Count Basie
(“Jumpin’ At The Woodside”) and Duke Ellington (“Take The ‘A’ Train”; “C-Jam
Blues”) – proving they could play it straight and still cut the mustard with
jazz and swing as well as with more standard country and/or western fare.

 

In
1946 and 1947 Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys made a series of “transcriptions”
pre- recorded radio shows of the band performing with Wills also acting as MC
and ringmaster – that were sent to various local radio outlets. These
recordings allowed space for the local stations to insert local advertising and
announcements and were aired at the stations’ convenience giving the impression
of immediacy and proximity.

 

With
the project being in the control of Wills and his partners, the band had the
freedom to take on a broad range of material but also to take a more expansive
even improvisational approach to playing it; if somebody hit a sweet spot they were
given the leg room to play it out, to wail while the wailing was good. And for
these cats, farm boys, city slickers and small town sharps to play was to live,
and to live was to swing.

 

Some
of the songs here were released by Kaleidoscope records on vinyl in the early 1980s
and later on CD. But this is the first time all of the transcription recordings
have been available in one package. It’s the first complete collection of any
kind since the original 78s were distributed in the ‘40s. Each of the ten discs
has a particular, though sometimes loose, theme; “Basin Street Blues”; “You’re
From Texas” etc. One disc, titled “Sally Goodin”, is made up of fiddle tunes
and reels and even includes “Oklahoma Hills.” Fans of folk music and muckraking
slightly “pink” patriots will recognize that one as a Woody Guthrie joint. Another
disc features the singing McKinney Sisters, Dean and Evelyn. Dean would marry
Playboys mandolinist Billy “Tiny” Moore.

 

Wills,
as his film appearances show, was a dynamic, energetic, appealing performer; one
hundred per cent Texas
ham. Onstage, he would dance, clown and mug, employing some of the schtick he
picked up from his days in blackface minstrel shows. He’d call out his
musicians by name to cue solo breaks hollering his trademark “Ah!” when the
feeling hit or, since no audience would feel a show was complete without it,
convincingly made it seem that way.  One
might well ask, “What Makes Bob Holler?” and in the song of the same name the
band did just. “Because he loves to play,” they testify. One would be hard
pressed to find any evidence in his films or recordings to the contrary. From
Bob, what might have seemed corny, contrived and phony from someone else was,
well, corny, sometimes contrived but hardly false. Bob Wills had loads of charm
and a love of music making that transmitted easily to live audiences and are
just as much in evidence on record, especially in this almost dauntingly
comprehensive collection.

 

Despite
the popularity of contemporaries like Brown, Bill Boyd, Moon Mullican, Spade
Cooley and others, there are many reasons why Wills, is the enduring face of
Western Swing. The lively, vital performances on The Tiffany Transcriptions give at least 150 re-mastered ones. There
were better fiddle players and singers, more prolific songwriters and certainly
there were more graceful dancers but somehow Bob Wills caught lightning in a
bottle. He was that rarest of musical people; a great bandleader. They are generally
good to great musicians but more than that they are strategists, spokesmen,
focal points and sometimes even jesters and clowns.

 

The
bandleader – Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Cab Calloway – is the locus of a band’s
energy, soul and magic. Wills, who as a child could not be separated from the
black children and their families and friends who were his companions and early
music sources, had those qualities to spare. A stroke in 1969 ended his playing
career at age 64; four years older than Bruce Springsteen is now and several
years younger than Willie Nelson, Buddy Guy and the surviving Beatles and
original Rolling Stones. After the ’73 stroke his physical decline was rapid
and inexorable. A love of high living – he was married five times – and a
fondness for the bottle contributed to the decline.

 

But
since his death Wills’ legend has been growing,
not fading. With fuel like the “TT’s” to keep it going there’s no reason to
expect that to change anytime soon.

 

 

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