Wills, James Robert (1905–1975)

By: Charles R. Townsend

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: November 25, 2015

James Robert (Bob) Wills, musician and western swing pioneer, was born near Kosse, Limestone County, Texas, on March 6, 1905. He was the first of ten children of John and Emmaline (Foley) Wills. In 1913 the family moved to Hall County, where they settled on the Ogden Ranch, between Memphis and Estelline. In the early 1920s they moved to a combination farm and ranch between the Little Red River and the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River.

In Hall County Wills learned to play the violin; in 1915 he played at his first dance. He played for ranch dances in West Texas for the next fourteen years, and his life and career were greatly influenced by that environment. During that time he brought together two streams of American folk music to produce western swing. He had first learned frontier fiddle music from his father and grandfather, but he also learned blues and jazz from black playmates and coworkers in the cottonfields of East and West Texas. He played fiddle music with the heat of blues and the swing of jazz; his new music could as properly have been called western jazz as western swing.

In 1929 Wills moved to Fort Worth and was performing in a medicine show when he met guitarist Herman Arnspiger. That same year the two made their first recordings in Dallas for the Brunswick label. By 1930 he had formed the Wills Fiddle Band with Arnspiger and was performing on radio. Another western swing pioneer, Milton Brown, joined as vocalist. The group eventually became the Light Crust Doughboys and was run by future governor of Texas and United States senator, W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel. Wills left the Light Crust Doughboys in 1933, and by 1934 he had moved to Oklahoma and was establishing his own band, dubbed Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. He made radio and musical history with his broadcasts in Tulsa over Station KVOO, though he was embattled in a lawsuit filed by O'Daniel over quitting the Light Crust Doughboys. Wills eventually won the court case. During his years in Tulsa (1934–43) he and his group continued to develop the swinging western jazz he had pioneered in West Texas, adding drums and a horn section of brass and reeds. They made their first recording in 1935 in Dallas for Brunswick (then a label of the American Record Corporation aka ARC or American Record Company). Wills's recording of his composition "New San Antonio Rose" in 1940 made him a national figure in popular music. He went to Hollywood that year and made the first of his nineteen movies.

Wills joined the United States Army in December 1942. After World War II he had his greatest success, grossing nearly a half million dollars during some years. In 1957 he was elected to the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. In 1968 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, although he never thought of his music as "country."

Wills was married and divorced several times. In 1923 he married a woman named Edna. They had one child. He married and divorced Ruth McMaster in 1936. His marriage to Mary Helen Brown (widow of Milton Brown) in 1938 soon ended in divorce. In 1939 he married Mary Louise Parker. They had a daughter, but the marriage ended in 1941. On August 10, 1942, he was married to Betty Anderson, and they remained married until his death; they had four children.

In 1969 the governor and legislature of Texas honored Wills for his contribution of western swing to American music, one of the few original music forms Texas and the Southwest has produced. The day after the ceremonies in Austin, Wills had the first in a series of crippling strokes. By 1973 his health had improved to the extent that he could lead some of his former Texas Playboys in a recording session for United Artists. The album, For the Last Time: Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, sold more copies than any other in Wills's career and was awarded a Grammy by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the highest achievement of any Wills recording or any other recording in the history of western swing. Bob Wills died on May 13, 1975, and was buried in Memorial Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The western swing pioneer has continued to receive accolades after his death. His “New San Antonio Rose” was honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998. On March 15, 1999, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, Bob Wills was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under the category "Early Influence." His plaque is near those he influenced and those who loved him—Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, and others. Other honors include induction into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame (1988) and the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame (2000). In 2007 he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and he was an inaugural inductee into the National Fiddler Hall of Fame. Wills is also honored in the West Texas Music Hall of Fame. Turkey, Texas, in Hall County, where Wills spent much of his childhood, is home to the Bob Wills Museum. A monument on Main Street honors the "King of Western Swing," and the town hosts the annual Bob Wills Reunion each April.

Wills bridged the gap between the race music of the 1930s and 1940s and rock-and-roll. Along the way he recruited a remarkable stable of talented musicians, including Tommy Duncan, Leon McAuliffe, Johnny Gimble, Tiny Moore, Al Stricklin, and others. His Texas Playboys, inducted with Wills in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, were also honored on their own in the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1990. Wills is one of the few persons inducted in both the Country Music Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His magical sound has endured into the twenty-first century in both musical genres.

Dwight Adair, Faded Love: The Life and Times of Bob Wills, DVD (Seadera Productions, 2006). John Mark Dempsey, The Light Crust Doughboys Are on the Air: Celebrating Seventy Years of Texas Music (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2002). Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A., 2nd rev. ed., (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002). Ruth Sheldon, Hubbin' It: The Life of Bob Wills (Kingsport, Tennessee: Kingsport Press, 1938). Charles R. Townsend, San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976). Bob Wills.com (http://www.bobwills.com/), accessed September 16, 2015.

  • Music
  • Genres (Country)
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Fort Worth

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

Charles R. Townsend, “Wills, James Robert,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/wills-james-robert.

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November 25, 2015

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