Bob Wills wasn’t a trendsetter. He was a movement maker. The King of Western Swing was a pioneer who had a profound influence on country music, especially artists Buck Owens, George Strait, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Asleep at the Wheel, and more.
Bob Wills’ songs “San Antonio Rose,” “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” “Faded Love,” and “Steel Guitar Rag” became the heart of Western swing.
Perhaps Waylon Jennings said it best in his tribute song, “Bob Wills Is Still the King,” which he wrote and released in 1975: “You can hear the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville, Tennessee / It’s the home of country music, on that we all agree / But when you cross that ol’ Red River, hoss / That just don’t mean a thing / Once you’re down in Texas, Bob Wills is still the King.”
Bob Wills’ Beginnings
Bob Wills recounted the earliest days of his career in an interview with Ken Hightower that was re-aired in 1976, shortly after Bob’s death in 1975. Wills said that he organized his first official band in 1931. The Light Crust Doughboys played a 15-minute radio show every day on KFJZ-AM. They were incredibly popular. But, the band only stayed together for a couple of years. Wills was nowhere near done, though. In fact, he was just getting started.
Bob Wills began cementing his legacy in 1933 when he moved to Oklahoma and formed The Texas Playboys. They were a traditional country string band. However, as time went on, Wills added horns to the mix. This truly set them apart. At the same time, it gave them the ability to play a wider range of music.
The Texas Playboys seamlessly blended country, jazz, blues, and big band swing. They slowed down the blazing-fast fiddle tunes of the past and made them suitable for dancing. The heart of the Playboys’ music was their infectious beat that kept the dance floors full and the feet moving.
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys took Tulsa by storm. Soon, people from all around the region were dancing holes in their shoes to “The Osage Stomp,” and other fine tunes. They played live radio shows five days a week, broadcast live from the legendary Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The only day that Wills and his band weren’t broadcasting or packing dance floors was Sunday. However, they didn’t truly hit the big time until the late 1930s. The song that put them on the national map was “San Antonio Rose.”
San Antonio Rose
Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys recorded “San Antonio Rose,” as an instrumental in November 1938.
In the aforementioned radio interview, Hightower asked Bob Wills about “San Antonio Rose.” Wills said that it was “ . . . a steal from ‘Spanish Two-Step.'” Bob explained that Art Sutherly, head of Columbia Records’ country music A&R department, came into the studio and said, “Bob, give me another ‘Spanish Two-Step.’ You got one?” To which Wills replied, “We sure have.”
They didn’t have another one. However, Bob Wills explained that they just rearranged “Spanish Two-Step.” A simple reversal of key changes was all it took. All told, Bob said, it took them less than five minutes to write the music. They had a solid tune. However, they didn’t have a name for it. In his book, The Stories Behind Country Music’s All-Time Greatest 100 Songs, author Ace Collins recounted the tale of how “San Antonio Rose” got its name.
According to Collins, Satherly asked what the name of the new song was. Bob Wills shrugged and told Satherly to name the song. So, he wrote, “San Antonio Rose” on the master. Pretty soon, the track was everywhere. It got national airplay and peaked at No. 15 on the charts. It was their biggest hit to date.
The Rose of San Antone Blooms
According to Ace Collins, the song caught the attention of Irving Berlin Music Company. They tracked Bob Wills down and asked him about buying the rights to the sheet music. Wills agreed to sell the rights. But, he wanted a $300 advance. Berlin sent a representative to Oklahoma with contracts and a check.
However, when Bob Wills handed over the sheet music, something was missing. There were no lyrics. When asked where the lyrics were, Wills replied simply, “Ain’t none.”
That just wouldn’t do. Irving Berlin didn’t publish anything without lyrics. So, it was up to Bob Wills, Tommy Duncan, and Everett Stone to create lyrics for a song that they hadn’t even named. A few hours later, Wills handed over the lyrics and received his check. Not long after that, the royalties and recognition came rolling in.
In 1940, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys re-recorded the song with the lyrics. They called it “New San Antonio Rose.”
Bob Wills Is Still the King
Bob Wills relocated to Hollywood in the early 1940s. However, by the 1950s, times were changing and so was the music. So, he retooled the sound of the Texas Playboys. Wills replaced the horns with electric guitars, as well as a steel guitar and drums. Before long, he was at the forefront of the Bakersfield Sound. It was a mixture of Western swing, honky-tonk, and rockabilly. It was the music of roadhouses with a strong backbeat. Wills was once again in the midst of a musical revolution.
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys influenced a number of country’s biggest stars over their 40-plus-year career.
- Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, two of the most successful artists of the Bakersfield era, were both deeply influenced by Bob Wills’ music.
- George Strait still tips his Stetson to Wills. He once said, “Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys are simply the best band that ever was.”
- Willie Nelson noted that anyone who played country music in Texas was influenced by Bob Wills, whether they knew it or not.
- “He had charisma before there was charisma,” said Ray Benson, whose group Asleep at the Wheel has preserved and expanded on Wills’ legacy.
- Chuck Berry cited Bob Wills’ “Ida Red” as the main inspiration for his first hit song, “Maybellene.”
- Fats Domino patterned his 1960 rhythm section after Wills’ own.
Wills as a showman is generally considered in a class by himself. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968 as a solo artist. Wills died at the age of 70 in 1975. He also received a special citation in 1973 from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers in honor of his more than 550 recordings.