Alton Meeks Stricklin, jazz pianist, the son of Zebedee Meeks and Annie (Benton) Stricklin, was born in Antioch, Texas, on January 29, 1908. He began playing piano at age four but never "had a paid lesson." The principal musical influence in his formative years was jazz. He claimed, "I never heard anything like country music. Jazz was all I ever tried to play." The greatest impact on Al Stricklin's career was the noted jazz pianist, Earl "Fatha" Hines.
Stricklin's background in jazz made him ideal for the Bob Wills band because Wills played music for dancing, and the jazz idioms Stricklin learned were basic to dance music and dance bands. The "first commercial group" Stricklin played with was called the Rio Grande Serenaders. It was a standard Dixieland band with trumpet, trombone, clarinet, drums, banjo, and Al playing piano. After he graduated from Grandview High School in 1927, Stricklin spent two years at Weatherford Junior College near Fort Worth. In Weatherford he played with both the Rio Grande Serenaders and another jazz band called the Texans. After two years at the junior college he entered Baylor University, not to study music, but to major in history. It was music, however, that helped pay his way through the Baptist university. First, he began giving private lessons to aspiring piano players through what he called a "short method," an infamous method frowned on by the school of music. The short method did not earn Stricklin enough money to pay expenses at Baylor; so he began playing in a jazz band called the Unholy Three. When Samuel P. Brooks learned the Unholy Three had played for dancing at the Knights of Columbus Hall, "he suspended the band from the university." Dean W. Sims Allen interceded for them, and "Dr. Brooks let us back in," Stricklin remarked.
In 1930 Al Stricklin was the assistant program director at radio station KFJZ in Fort Worth. A frightened secretary cried out one morning: "Mr. Stricklin, will you please come in here a moment." He rushed into the reception room and saw "three guys standing there, and they were hungry looking, and they needed a shave. One of them had something in a flour sack; the other one had a guitar strapped across his back, hanging over his back like he was carrying a rifle or something." Stricklin was almost as startled as the secretary. "It was Mr. Bob Wills," he said, "with his fiddle in a flour sack." Wills asked Stricklin for an audition. Wills and his band then performed on KFJZ. "They called two days later from the post office and said there was so much mail for the station one man couldn't carry it, better bring a pickup or something." Stricklin had given Wills a break, and when the management of the Aladdin Lamp Company learned of the success of the Wills Fiddle Band on KFJZ, the firm sponsored the band under the name Aladdin Laddies over WBAP, a much more powerful station.
Ironically, Stricklin, who at the time did not take Wills seriously, actually thought the music was intended as comedy. He left Fort Worth to become principal and sixth and seventh grade teacher in Island Grove, Texas. By 1934 he was back in Fort Worth playing piano with a dance band called the Hi-Flyers. Tommy Duncan had tried to double on piano and vocals ever since Wills moved his Texas Playboys to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1934. Duncan admitted that he "only banged on [the piano] and didn't know what [he] was doing." During a trip to Fort Worth in August of 1935, Wills visited the Cinderella Roof, where Stricklin was performing with the Hi-Flyers, and offered Stricklin a job. Later that month Stricklin wrote Wills, and Wills wrote back with an offer of thirty dollars a week.
In a few days the jazz pianist, who had never played in a western band, joined Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Other than the frontier fiddle music Wills often performed, Stricklin said, "There was no difference in playing with Bob and jazz bands I'd played with. Since I was the first piano player Bob ever worked with, I set the style for piano players in western swing bands. Bob didn't want the piano to play melody." When he told "the piano to tear it up, you went into orbit. I played hokum, we called it. I can't play the same way twice. I write as I go. To save my life I can't play the same way twice. You compose and create as you play. When Bob Wills gave me a chorus, I played jazz," Stricklin concluded.
The style set by Stricklin between 1935 and 1941 became the style every other Wills pianist followed. Al Stricklin was in the Bob Wills band during what the pianist called the "glory years" of the band. He played in Wills's first recording session for Columbia Records (now a subsidiary of Sony Music Entertainment) in September of 1935 and in all of the other recording sessions Wills made through 1941. In all, Stricklin played piano on more than 200 Wills recordings, including the recording that made Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys national musical figures, "New San Antonio Rose" (1940).
When World War II began, the big orchestras like Glenn Miller's, Harry James's and Bob Wills's began to break up. Stricklin left Wills in May 1942 to take a job with North American Aircraft. When the war was over, he thought of joining Wills in Hollywood, but he "married in 1943 and decided to settle down." With the "exception of a few little jobs," Stricklin was out of music for the next thirty years. He thought his musical career was over. It would have been, but United Artists asked Wills to get some of his former Texas Playboys together and record a double album in 1973. Wills asked Al to play in that historic session. It was historic because it turned out to be Wills's last recording session, because the album sold more copies than any in Wills's career, because the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awarded a Grammy to the album, and because it helped to bring on a revival of western swing.
When that session was over, Stricklin again thought his musical career had ended. But record companies such as Capitol encouraged the musicians who played in Wills's last session to form a group called the Bob Wills Original Texas Playboys, to make recordings and public appearances. Wills's widow, Betty, gave her blessing to the project, and the Original Texas Playboys had nearly ten years of remarkable success. They became very popular; western swing underwent a revival that continues to the present, with many young popular artists performing Bob Wills songs and playing in the Wills style. The Bob Wills Original Texas Playboys actually got much higher guarantees for their appearances than Wills himself, though they could never draw the crowds he drew.
Honors were heaped upon Al Stricklin and the Bob Wills band. The Smithsonian Institution invited the Original Texas Playboys to play a tribute to Bob Wills in one of its halls in Washington. The house was packed. While the band was in Washington, the State Department invited the group to play a show and a dance at an international gathering in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1983. People from many nations of the world danced to Bob Wills's music as Al Stricklin played that happy, jazzy background and lilting jazz choruses for such Wills classics as "Faded Love," "Take Me Back To Tulsa," "Maiden's Prayer," and, of course, "San Antonio Rose." When the band returned home, it was named the band of the year by the Country Music Association. In 1985 Stricklin and the Playboys were in the movie Places in the Heart, playing all the music except the hymns. Other honors received were Instrumental Group of the Year in 1977 by the Country Music Association and Touring Band of the Year, 1978, by the Academy of Country Music. Stricklin was also a chronicler of his music. In 1976 he published his personal memoirs in a volume entitled My Years With Bob Wills. Stricklin is in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Stricklin married Arbutus "Johnny" Watson in Tulsa, and they had a daughter. He wrote in his book that after the death of his wife, he received unrequested financial help from Bob Wills for her funeral. He later married Betty Jo Zeigler, and they had a daughter and a son.
Al Stricklin will be remembered for what he did best—playing western swing in the Bob Wills band. He played almost to the end; his last appearances were just a few months before his death in Johnson County, Texas, on October 15, 1986. He was buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Cleburne. He was inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1999 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and was honored as an early influence of the genre.