Willingham, Foy Lopez [Foy Willing] (1914–1978)

By: Gary Hartman

Type: Biography

Published: December 8, 2006

Updated: October 16, 2015

Foy Willing, western singer, was born Foy Lopez Willingham in Bosque County, Texas, on May 14, 1914. As a teenager, Willingham sang solos on radio and performed with a local gospel chorus. From 1933 to 1935 he worked in radio with the Crazy Water Crystals Gang in New York City, then returned to Texas to continue his musical career. In late 1942 or early 1943 he moved to California. There, in 1943, he took over as leader of the band the Riders of the Purple Sage, a designation inspired by Zane Grey's romantic novel of the same name. Other members at the time included Jimmie Dean and Al Sloey. Over the next nine years, the group would include Scotty Harrell, Johnny Paul, Billy Liebert, Paul Sells, Jerry Vaughn, Neely Plumb, and Freddy Taveres.

The Riders of the Purple Sage soon became one of the most popular singing groups during the "singing cowboy" craze of the 1930s to 1950s. During that era, dozens of bands, such as the Cowboy Ramblers and the Lone Star Cowboys, dressed in gaudy western attire and played highly romanticized "cowboy" songs based on Hollywood's rather idealized image of life in the American West. Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage performed on numerous radio shows and in film. Willing appeared in some thirty-two movies between 1941 and 1951, including eleven with the Riders of the Purple Sage. The group recorded for various labels, including Capitol, Decca, Columbia, and Majestic, and had several major hits, including "Cool Water" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky."

The Riders of the Purple Sage also had an important impact on many younger musicians. One of the premier country-rock bands to emerge during the late 1960s, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, named itself after Willing's original group. The New Riders of the Purple Sage, which became a regular opening act for the Grateful Dead, helped inspire the Eagles and many other country-rock bands of the 1970s.

Foy Willing disbanded the Riders of the Purple Sage in 1952, although the members reassembled occasionally to perform. By the late 1950s Foy was manager of KSBW radio station in Salinas, California. He moved to Hollywood in 1961, and on November 6, 1966, he married Sharon Lee. Willing continued to write and record songs and appear at Western film festivals until his death in Nashville on July 24, 1978. Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage are honored in the Western Music Association Hall of Fame.

Fred Dellar, Alan Cackett, Roy Thompson, eds., The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music (London: Salamander Books, 1986). Gary Hartman, The History of Texas Music (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008). Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975). Bill O'Neal, Tex Ritter: America's Most Beloved Cowboy (Austin: Eakin Press, 1998). O. J. Sikes, “Foy Willing and Riders of the Purple Sage,” Western Music Association (http://www.westernmusic.com/performers/hof-willing.html), accessed December 13, 2011. Sharon (Mrs. Foy) Willing, Email correspondence with author, July 12, 2005. Sharon Lee Willing, No One to Cry To: A Long, Hard Ride into the Sunset with Foy Willing of The Riders of the Purple Sage (Tucson, Arizona: Wheatmark, Inc., 2006).

  • Music
  • Genres (Country)

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Gary Hartman, “Willingham, Foy Lopez [Foy Willing],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 21, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/willingham-foy-lopez-foy-willing.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 8, 2006
October 16, 2015

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: