Thomas (Tommy) Elmer Duncan, singer and songwriter, was born on January 11, 1911, in Whitney, Texas, into a large and impoverished family of truck farmers. He was the son of Jackson Limuel Byrd Duncan and Edna Nash (Powers) Duncan. On the farm he worked with African Americans who indelibly marked his singing style and repertoire. He was influenced, according to his sister Corrine Andrews, "by the records of colored people and by the recordings of Jimmie Rodgers" (James Charles Rodgers).
When he was seventeen he left home and moved in with a cousin near Hedley, where residents remembered that Duncan sang Jimmie Rodgers songs as he drove along in an "old stripped-down car." He evidently went broke on a farm he had leased in Hedley and in the early 1930s was still broke, out of work, and living in Fort Worth. But the show-business bug had bitten him, and he was determined to have a career as a singer. Clifton "Sleepy" Johnson, an early member of the Light Crust Doughboys, recalled first seeing Duncan playing a little cheap guitar "about a foot and a half long" and singing at the Ace High root beer stand for tips. In 1932 Duncan won an audition against sixty-six other singers to join bandleader James Robert (Bob) Wills as the vocalist for the Light Crust Doughboys.
He was versatile in his singing style and repertoire, had a fine voice and range, and was ideal for the kind of dance music Wills performed. In his earliest recording sessions for Wills, he sang everything from ballads and folk to pop, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and cowboy songs. Even in songs with sad lyrics he maintained a touch of fun. Duncan had "soul" in his singing like black blues singers, not the sentimentality of some country singers. His versatility was well-suited to the western swing music that he and Wills pioneered.
When Wills left the Light Crust Doughboys in August 1933 to form the Texas Playboys, Duncan went with him. Alton Stricklin, a member of the group, observed that Duncan remembered the lyrics to more than 4,000 songs and could learn the words to a new song within fifteen minutes. The song that made the Texas Playboys famous was a folk-rooted pop song that Irving Berlin heard Wills play as a fiddle instrumental and published in 1940. Since Berlin wanted lyrics for the selection, Wills asked Duncan and several other band members to help him write words for the fiddle tune. Wills called it "New San Antonio Rose." In 1940 Wills recorded it in Dallas. That recording, with the brilliant Duncan vocals, sold three million copies for Columbia Records (now CBS Records). Bing Crosby then recorded it and won his second gold record.
Tommy Duncan was the first member of Wills's band to volunteer for the armed services after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He rejoined Wills in 1944 as the war neared its end and as Bob Wills was becoming even more famous in music and the movies. Duncan appeared with Wills in several movies, including Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (1944), Rhythm Roundup (1945), Blazing the Western Trail (1945), Lawless Empire (1945), and Frontier Frolic (1946). He became not only a movie star but the most famous singer in all of western swing. His voice matured in the middle to late 1940s, and he became a star in his own right, second only to Wills himself in the Texas Playboy band. Duncan, who could also play piano and guitar, joined Wills in writing several numbers, including "New Spanish Two Step" (1945), "Stay a Little Longer" (1945), "Cotton-Eyed Joe" (1946), and "Sally Goodin" (1947).
For various reasons, including Wills's periodic drinking and Duncan's own ego and ambition to strike out on his own, Duncan left the Texas Playboys in 1948. He organized one of the best western swing bands ever assembled, Tommy Duncan and His Western All Stars. Although the band was technically perfect, and Duncan's singing was excellent, the band lacked the spark that had made Wills's group exciting. The band had only minor success with such recordings as "Gambling Polka Dot Blues," "Sick, Sober, and Sorry," "There's Not a Cow in Texas," "Mississippi River Blues," and "Wrong Road Home Blues." Attendance at the Western All Stars' dances ranged from fair to poor, certainly not good enough to sustain a large band for very long. The band lasted less than two years.
Duncan then spent several years recording and entertaining on his own, but in 1959 returned to the Wills band. There was standing room only as they crisscrossed the country on national tours. In 1960–61 they made three albums that sold much better than either of their recordings had while they worked separately: Together Again, A Living Legend, and Mr. Words and Mr. Music. In the early 1960s the two pioneers of western swing went their various ways, Wills to Oklahoma and Texas, and Duncan to California. Duncan never had a band of note after his All Stars disbanded in the late 1940s, although he continued to make personal appearances with various bands.
He never compromised his style in order to be more popular and commercial. He would never sing like vocalists of mainstream country or rock and roll or pop, though at times he appealed to almost all audiences. Among the singers who felt his influence were Elvis Presley, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, John Denver, Merle Haggard, Ray Benson, Red Steagall, George Strait, Clint Black, Randy Travis, and Garth Brooks. Duncan died on July 24, 1967, in San Diego, after a performance at Imperial Beach. He was buried in Merced Cemetery District in Merced, California. Duncan was inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1991. In 1999 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the category of Early Influence as a member of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. He was also an inductee in the Texas Music Hall of Fame.