Since 1938 the Singing Wills Family has left a legacy to their fans of a love for God, family, and gospel music. Originally the Wills Family Quartet, the group experienced many changes throughout the years which ultimately landed them their own television program, Wills Family Inspirational Time, numerous recordings, and gospel music awards.
Aaron Burr “A. B.” (known as “Pop”) Wills and his wife Leah Wills, parents to seven children—Eva Rene, Calvin, Lou, Bill, Betty, Bob, and Norma Jo—inspired their family through love and music. “Pop” Wills, first cousin to western swing bandleader and fiddler Bob Wills, settled with his family in the cotton-growing region near Memphis, Texas. In 1938 he formed the Wills Family Quartet, which consisted of himself and his three older children, Eva Rene, Calvin, and Lou. Twins Betty and Bob joined in 1948. Little sister Norma Jo joined the group in the early 1950s. During the group’s early years, the family sang at Stamps-Baxter singing conventions, and the Wills children attended Stamps Music School in the summers. “Pop” and Leah encouraged all of their children to sing and take up musical instruments.
Changes within the group became inevitable. In 1959 after more than twenty years of performing together, Bob was presented with an opportunity to sing with the Inspirationals, a gospel-singing male quartet. He became the leader of the Inspirationals in 1964, and they performed throughout the United States, including the Grand Ole Opry. Along with Bob leaving the group, Betty left after getting married and starting a family. When Bill and Norma Jo began singing with Calvin and Lou, a new sound emerged while remaining a “Wills sound.” The new Wills Family Quartet began singing in more churches, and the group was booked every Sunday of the year.
Despite various changes over the years, the Wills family carried on the legacy begun by “Pop” Wills; there was always a Wills singing group performing somewhere—as the Singing Wills Family, the Bob Wills Family, or the Inspirationals—in the United States. The Junior Wills Family, consisting of Calvin’s son and daughter, Randy and Cindy Wills, as well as Lou’s children, David and Kathy Hildreth, represented a new generation of Wills singers. In 1963 at the National Quartet Convention in Memphis, Tennessee, the Junior Wills Family won first place after singing “The Old Country Church.” The group eventually began playing backup instruments for the Singing Wills Family.
In 1965 the television program Wills Family Inspirational Time began airing and was the first full color gospel TV show syndicated in the world. The show consisted of thirty-two cast members, most of whom were family. A total of 108 shows aired in fifty markets across the United States, with four shows taped once a month on a Friday. Each show featured the Singing Wills Family, the Inspirationals, and the Junior Wills Family, with Betty and Bill performing solos and “Pop” singing along with the family. The show ended in 1968.
Beginning in the 1960s and into the 1980s Calvin and his sister Lou owned a record label, Sword & Shield Record Co. out of Arlington. The label produced recordings of sacred music, many songs by the Wills Family, as well as other gospel artists, including the Gatlin Quartet, a very early incarnation of what later became the Gatlin Brothers. Lou Wills Hildreth established herself as a leader in the gospel music industry as the first woman to own a gospel artist agency, Nashville Gospel Talent, founded in 1969.
A. B. “Pop” Wills died in 1971. His wife Leah had passed away in 1963. But the Singing Wills Family carried on their tradition of gospel music. They were inducted as pioneers in gospel in the Texas Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Bob Wills was honored with individual induction in 1988. “Pop” Wills was inducted in 1989, and Calvin Wills was inducted in 1997. Lou Wills Hildreth was inducted into the Texas Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1998, and she was inducted into the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2008 the family celebrated seventy years of family-based gospel singing. In the 2010s the group consisted of Bob Wills, Sr.; his sons Bob Jr., Don, and Ron; his daughter Angel; and Bob Jr.’s wife Annette. Their repertoire covered traditional and Southern gospel songs as well as intricate six-part harmony arrangements, and Bob Wills, Jr., wrote a majority of the songs they performed.