May 13

This Day in History

Old West

May 13, 1975:

The inventor of western swing dies

Bob Wills, one of the most influential musicians in the history of country-western music, is born on a small farm near Kosse, Texas.

Born James Robert Wills in 1905, he was trained to be a musician from an early age. His father was a champion fiddle player, and he began giving Wills lessons as soon as the boy could hold the instrument. By the time he was 10, Wills was a skilled fiddler and a competent guitar and mandolin player.

Wills left home at 16 and worked various jobs, like picking cotton and preaching. He eventually joined a traveling medicine show, where he played fiddle and met Herman Arnspiger, a Texas farm boy who had learned to play guitar from a Sears catalog guitar book. The pair began playing at dances and parties around Fort Worth, and after adding a singer, won a regular radio gig performing as the Light Crust Doughboys.

In 1933, the group separated and Wills formed the band that would make him famous: Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. With the Playboys, Wills perfected his hard-driving country-western sound, which drew heavily on the rhythms of the popular jazz-swing bands of the era. Wills' fiddle playing sounded nothing like the traditional folk music he had heard as a child. By using strong beats and syncopation, he produced a sound that seemed to cry out for dancing.

Wills eventually added drums, brass, and woodwinds to the Texas Playboys, making himself into a country-western bandleader in the style of Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw. Several of his bands were as large as 22 pieces, and Wills worked with more than 600 musicians in his long career. In 1940, Wills took some of the Playboys to Hollywood, where the band appeared in a number of western movies that won them a nationwide following. Among their many hits were highly danceable tunes like, "Take Me Back to Tulsa," "Bubbles in My Beer," and the ever popular "San Antonio Rose." All told, Wills has sold more than 20 million records to date

Many critics have argued Wills and the Texas Playboys had a greater influence on the sounds of country-western music than any other performer or group. In recognition of his achievements, Wills was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968. He believed his chances of winning were so slim he was backstage chatting with friends when the award was announced. When he was finally tracked down and brought on stage, he said, "I don't usually take my hat off to nobody. But I sure do to you folks."

Stricken by a series of severe strokes, he died seven years later at the age of 70.

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