Born on March 6, 1905, on a ranch near Kosse, Texas, in Limestone County, James Robert Wills was destined for show business from a young age. By age 10 “Jim Bob,” as his family called him, was playing fiddle at public dances and made his radio debut at 18. In 1929, he joined a Vaudeville-like medicine show in Fort Worth, where he met guitarist Herman Arnspiger. Soon the pair formed the Bob Wills Fiddle Band and toured around Dallas and Fort Worth. They became staples on local radio stations, including leading regional country music stations WBAP and KFJZ.
Renaming a band after title sponsors was a common practice at the time, and the group was renamed the Aladdin Laddies after signing up with the Aladdin Lamp Company in 1931. Later, they became the Light Crust Doughboys when the Burris Mill and Elevator Company—manufacturers of Light Crust Flour—became sponsors. A series of bitter arguments and lawsuits with the legendary radio emcee (and Burris Mill President) W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel motivated Bob Wills and vocalist Tommy Duncan to leave the Doughboys and form their own group. The new band was called Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and went on to become the most influential Western swing group in music history.
Founded in Waco, Texas, and continuing in Tulsa, Okla., Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys had a unique swinging sound that was rooted in American blues, country, and traditional fiddle tunes. Their music gained popularity and went on to influence country and Western music legends Merle Haggard (who released an album in 1970 titled A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World: Or, My Salute to Bob Wills) and Willie Nelson, and modern acts like Asleep at the Wheel. Even the Rolling Stones cited Wills’ influence. In a 1968 issue of Guitar Player magazine, Jimi Hendrix said of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys: “I dig them. The Grand Ole Opry used to come on, and I’d watch them.” Bob’s music even made it to outer space. As part of a worldwide broadcast, Apollo 12 astronauts sang the Texas Playboys most popular song, “San Antonio Rose,” from lunar orbit in 1969. Wills also appeared in 19 films, even co-starring with Tex Ritter in Take Me Back to Oklahoma.
In 1968, Wills was voted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Cowboy Hall of Fame. He passed away on May 13, 1975, at the age of 70. He had been in show business for 58 years, including 44 years as a recording artist.
The Bob Wills Foundation of Turkey, Texas, is a volunteer-operated nonprofit organization established in 1971 to preserve the music and life of Bob Wills. The annual Bob Wills Day Festival (806-423-1033,
www.bobwillsday.com) is held there each spring. In 2008, the Bob Wills Heritage Foundation (www.bobwills.com) was created, and through multiple programs, the foundation encourages Wills’ legacy of entertainment, motivation, and innovation.