Welcome to ‘The Music of Bob Wills’ as told by historian and writer David Stricklin. David heads the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock. He received his Ph.D. in U.S. history from Tulane University, where he studied with legendary country music authority Bill C. Malone. His father, Al Stricklin, played piano with Bob from 1935 to 1942, from time to time with him in the 1950s and ’60s, and with the Texas Playboys after Bob’s death in 1975 until Al’s death in 1986. This synopsis largely focuses on Bob’s earlier years and is an information piece prepared for the Bob Wills Swing School.

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Sing it, Tommy...

Wills sang, and his unusually high voice often shocks people the first time they hear it. He sang melody and harmony or provided commentary alongside other vocalists. A lot of his “talking” consisted of lines from medicine show routines he had learned as a young man.

Other band members also sang, especially Leon McAuliffe and Joe Ferguson and, in later years, lead vocalist Leon Rausch, who kept the Wills sound alive both with Bob in the 1950s and ‘60s and with the reconstituted band after Bob’s death.

The quintessential Texas Playboy vocalist, whose work inspired Leon Rausch and countless other vocalists, was Tommy Duncan. He worked with Bob off and on for decades and put his stamp not just on Bob’s music but on all of Western Swing and much of the music that grew out of it. If a professional is someone who can make something difficult seem easy, that was certainly true of Tommy Duncan. He sang a remarkable variety of songs with Bob and had an impressive range, both in the sense of having the ability to hit notes purely and in his versatility. Everything he sang had a relaxed sense to it. He was a truly gifted vocalist with a prodigious memory for lyrics.

Dance music had to have a solid rhythmic base, as is illustrated perfectly in the rhythm section’s backing of Leon McAuliffe’s steel guitar solo after the first verse of “Blue Yodel No. 1” from 1937. William E. “Smoky” Dacus is the drummer, Joe Ferguson is on bass, Herman Arnspiger and C. G. “Sleepy” Johnson are playing acoustic guitars, Al Stricklin is on piano, and Bob’s brother Johnnie Lee is on banjo. It’s as if they are playing one instrument, the rhythm is so pure. The only thing outside the basic beats is the syncopated right hand work on the piano.

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