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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Different, Creative, Free

Al Stricklin was working at KFJZ radio in Fort Worth in 1930 when Bob Wills came to the studio with band mates Milton Brown and Herman Arnspiger. They had a string band with Wills on the fiddle, Arnspiger playing the guitar, and Brown doing most of the vocals, and they wanted a show on the station. That day, Al was the acting program director. He asked Bob what kind of music they played, and Bob answered: “Different.”

To understand Bob’s music, it is important to look back to the early days when he and Milton Brown and several other musicians in and around Fort Worth were creating something not quite like any other music. It came to be called Western Swing, but its roots are all over the place.

Bob cared about whether a song made people happy and would get them to dance. His experiences and training grew from the rich dance traditions of Southern and Texas fiddling. People would move furniture out and have neighbors over for a dance that lasted well into the night. The house or ranch dance experience helped inspire the great 1945 Wills tune “Stay a Little Longer,” the chorus of which says: “Stay all night, stay a little longer; dance all night, dance a little longer. Take off your coat, throw it in the corner. I don’t see why you don’t stay a little longer.”

Bob arrived in Fort Worth determined to play many different kinds of songs. Initially, he worked with very small groups so most of what he and his band mates did sounded somewhat like the music of other string bands. But from the very start, something about Bob’s music was different.

It drew from the strongest currents of popular music at the time, blues and jazz. The recording industry was still in its early stages, and people were listening to the songs of Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith, the great blues singers, and the exuberant jazz of Joe “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong and other soon-to-be legends who helped name the 1920s the “jazz age.”

Bob loved blues music. He especially loved the singing of Bessie Smith and later said that he styled some of his own tenor vocals on her example. He was drawn to the blues in part by the way many blues songs made fun of hard times and didn’t wallow in self-pity. He could play soulful blues solos on fiddle, as in his extraordinary solo in “Bob Wills Special” from 1940.

Blues strains were found in much of the jazz of the 1920’s, and Bob loved jazz music too. In his early years, he drew on the energy of jazz tunes, the way many were written and performed and the boisterous combination of solo and rhythm instruments.

Bob worked with some remarkable, broad-minded musicians in Fort Worth, especially Milton Brown. They played dances, created a huge fan base on the radio, and got hired to form what became the Light Crust Doughboys. They also began composing some of their own songs. When Bob left the Doughboys in 1933 and formed his own group, he had the basic outline of what became his mark on the musical world. He really brought it to its fulfillment, though, only when he got to Tulsa and set up his long-term base camp with the Texas Playboys.