Fiddler, bandleader, songwriter
Known as “the king of western swing,” Bob Wills left an indelible mark on country-and-western music across five decades, and has been an influence to numerous modern country artists. A top-notch fiddler, songwriter, and the bandleader of his Texas Playboys, Wills blazed a trail from the 1920s onward with his innovative style of up-tempo, dance-beat swing music, which combined elements of bluegrass, jazz, blues, and Texas folk music—all tinged with the distinct aura of the American West. A popular performer at dancehalls and concerts across the Southwest and West, and an equally popular recording and radio artist throughout the United States, Wills wrote such classic songs as “San Antonio Rose,” “Texas Two Step,” “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” and “Texas Playboy Rag.” Open to whatever music made for good dance rhythms, Wills introduced instruments that had never been used in country-and-western bands before—such as horns, reeds, and drums—and produced a fiddle-based swing sound that brought him national recognition. According to Bill C. Malone in Country Music U.S.A., Wills was “an influence for change that has seldom been equaled in country music history.”
Wills, who was born in East Texas and moved to West Texas when he was eight, came from a very musical family. Both his father’s and mother’s sides had many experienced fiddle players, and as a boy he played backup to his father at local ranch and square dances. Although the mandolin was his first instrument, he became adept at the fiddle, and learned a vast repertoire of songs from his father and other fiddle-playing relatives. He performed solo for the first time when he was fifteen, after his father was late for a dance they were to perform at. Growing up in Texas, Wills was exposed to the various music of the region, including Spanish music, cowhand songs, and the folk music of blacks; he was especially fond of blues and once rode fifty miles on horseback to see the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith, perform. In Stars of Country Music, Charles R. Townsend noted that “the blues idiom contributed to the distinctiveness of Wills’s fiddle style and helped give his music the ‘heat of jazz’that was so necessary in the popular music of his generation.”
In 1929 Wills moved to Fort Worth and, with guitarist Herman Amspiger, formed the Wills Fiddle Band. Vocalist Milton Brown, guitarist Durwood Brown, and ban-joist “Sleepy” Johnson joined the following year, and the band became known as Aladdin Laddies after their radio sponsor, Aladdin Lamps. They later were sponsored by Burrus Mills Flour Company and became
For the Record…
Born James Robert Wills, March 6, 1905, near Kosse, Limestone County, TX; moved to Hall County, TX, 1913; died May 13, 1975, in Fort Worth, TX; son of John and Emmaline (Foley) Wills; married Edna Posey, 1926 (divorced, 1935); married Ruth McMaster, 1936 (divorced, 1936); married Mary Helen Brown, 1938 (divorced, 1938; remarried, 1938; divorced, 1939); married Mary Louise Parker, 1939 (divorced, 1939); married Betty Anderson, 1942; children: (first marriage) Robbie Jo, (fifth marriage) Rosetta, (sixth marriage) James Robert II, Carolyn, Diane, Cindy.
Fiddler, beginning 1915; bandleader, beginning 1929. Formed Wills Fiddle Band, 1929 (later became Aladdin Laddies and then Light Crust Doughboys); formed Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, 1934. Appeared in several movies, 1940-46. Military service: U.S. Army, 1942-43.
Awards: Gold record, 1940, for “New San Antonio Rose”; elected to Country Music Hall of Fame, 1968; Pioneer Award, Academy of Country and Western Music, 1969; recognized by the Texas state legislature for his contributions to American music, May 30, 1969; inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Association, 1970; citation from American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), 1973, for lifelong contributions to American music.
known as the Light Crust Doughboys. In 1931, the Doughboys appeared on their own radio show on Fort Worth’s KFJZ; their announcer, manager, and spokesman at the time was W. Lee Daniel, president of Burrus Mill and later, governor of Texas. The show became extremely popular and was eventually broadcast on stations throughout Texas and Oklahoma. However, after a dispute with Daniel, who did not want the Doughboys to also perform at dances, Brown left the group in 1933 to form his own band—Milton Brown and his Brownies—and was replaced by singer and pianist Tommy Duncan. Wills also left in 1933, and moved to Waco where he began forming the group that would become the renowned Texas Playboys.
Joined by Duncan, trumpeter Everett Stover, guitarist brothers June and Kermit Whalin, and Wills’s own banjo-playing brother Johnny Lee, the Texas Playboys were successful performers in Waco, but moved to Oklahoma in 1934 where they got their own radio program on Tulsa’sKVOO. Based in Tulsa for the rest of the 1930s and into the early 1940s, Wills and the Texas Playboys reached their greatest popularity. They played an extensive road schedule to packed dancehalls in Texas and Oklahoma, and their radio program became a fixture for music listeners throughout the Southwest. During his Tulsa years, Wills put together what is considered his greatest band. In addition to the previous members, the Playboys were joined by bass player Son Lansford, saxophonist and clarinetist Robert McNally, guitarist Herman Amspiger, trombonist and fiddler Art Haines, fiddler Jesse Ashlock, guitarist and banjoist Clifton Johnson, drummer William Eschol Dacus, steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe, and pianist Al Stricklin. With this large set-up—which would see various musicians come and go over the years—Wills popularized what came to be known as western swing, combining, as Townsend describes, “traditional jazz instruments with string instruments, and all of them performing in a jazz or swing style…. A key to Bob Wills’s success was the fact that he felt free to add instruments, songs, and stylistic innovations that were foreign to traditional string bands.”
“The second half of the 1930s and the early 1940s amounted to a golden era for the Playboys,” noted Irwin Stambler and Grelun Landon in the Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music. They played to sold-out concerts throughout the Southwest and as far away as California. Wills became famous for his entertaining performances, playing his fast-paced fiddle as he skirted around the stage, smoking a cigar, engaging the audience and his band members in playful banter, and letting out his trademark cries of “Ah, ha, San Antone!” or “Take it away, Leon!” The Playboys’radio program was broadcast across the United States, and by the 1940s their recordings appeared on jukeboxes nationally. They had their biggest hit single in 1938 with Wills’s composition, “San Antonio Rose”; however, a subsequent 1940 version entitled “New San Antonio Rose,” with lyrics cowritten by Wills and vocals by Duncan, became an even bigger hit for the Playboys, and earned them a gold record. “New San Antonio Rose” remains Wills’s best-known song and has been recorded by numerous other artists, including Bing Crosby who also had a hit with it in the 1940s. Other hits by Wills during this time included “Texas Playboy Rag,” “Mexicali Rose,” “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” and “Faded Love,” the latter cowritten with his father. Also in the 1940s, Wills and the Playboys began a movie career, and performed their songs in several western films.
After World War II, the demand waned for dance music by swing bands, and Wills moved to California in 1943 where he formed a new, smaller Playboys band. (He enlisted in the army in 1942, but was discharged shortly thereafter for health reasons.) During the rest of the 1940s and 1950s, Wills and the Playboys never reached their previous level of popularity, yet they continued to command sold-out concerts of loyal fans and sell many records. Heart attacks suffered by Wills in 1962 and 1964, in addition to other health problems, seriously reduced his output during the 1960s, yet his earlier recordings were released as sets by various record companies.
Wills’s influence was beginning to show during the early 1960s on a new generation of country performers. Emerging artists such as Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard all cited Bob Wills as the primary influence in their country careers. Later, in the 1970s and into the 1980s, the “Austin musicians,” comprised of folk and country musicians centered in Austin, Texas, and featured on the music program “Austin City Limits,” frequently referred to Wills as their figurehead. Malone wrote that “the Texas mystique clearly affected the imagery that Austin musicians used to describe themselves. The name and music of Bob Wills were often invoked because they supposedly embodied the spirit of liberation and innovation that Texas had contributed to music and on which the Austin musicians now drew.”
In 1968, Wills was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame for his lifelong contributions to country music. Among other honors late in his life Wills received a special citation from the American society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1973 for his lifelong contributions to American country music. In 1973, Wills and several of the Playboys were reunited for what would be his last recording session, a collection of 27 selections of Wills’s standards which were released in the mid-1970s by United Artists as a multi-disc set, For the Last Time. Wills suffered a stroke in 1973, from which he never recovered, and died in 1975 in Fort Worth, where he had lived for the last 12 years.
Wills recorded over 550 records in his lifetime, and numerous collections of his recordings have been issued.
The Best of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, MCA.
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, MCA.
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys in Concert, Capitol.
Bob Wills Anthology, Columbia.
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys: The Golden Era, Columbia.
Bob Wills in Person, MCA.
Bob Wills Keepsake, Long horn.
Bob Wills Plays the Greatest String Band Hits, MCA.
Bob Wills Sings and Plays, Liberty.
Bob Wills Special, Harmony.
(With Asleep at the Wheel) Fathers and Sons, Epic.
For the Last Time, United Artists.
Hall of Fame, United Artists.
Here’s That Man Again, Kapp.
Home in San Antone, Harmony.
King of the Western Swing, MCA.
Living Legend, Liberty.
Mr. Words and Mr. Music, Liberty.
Time Changes Everything, MCA.
Together Again, Liberty.
A Tribute to Bob, United Artists.
A Tribute to Bob Wills, MGM.
Western Swing Along, RCA.
Western Swing Along with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys,
Vocalion. Anthology, Rhino, 1991.
Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
Malone, Bill C. and Judith McCulloh, editors, The Stars of Country Music, Avon Books, 1975.
Marschall, Rick, The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music, Exeter Books, 1985.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell,1974.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, 2nd edition, St. Martin’s, 1983.
Stricklin, Al, with Jon McConal, My Years with Bob Wills, Naylor Company, 1976.
Townsend, Charles R., San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills, discography and filmusicography by Bob Pinson, University of Illinois Press, 1976.
White, Timothy, Rock Lives: Profiles and Interviews, Henry Holt, 1990.
—Michael E. Mueller
Bandleader, fiddler, songwriter
Before attaining notoriety for the murder of his second wife in 1961, Spade Cooley had earned a reputation as a consummate purveyor of western swing music through live performances, audio and film recordings, and radio and television appearances. Sometimes labeled "cowboy jazz," western swing is a hybrid of jazz and country music, combining swing orchestra instruments with such traditional country instruments as fiddles and steel guitars. Labeling himself the "King of Western Swing," Cooley led a large ensemble of musicians that rivaled Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys in popularity in the 1940s' heyday of western swing. As public musical tastes shifted in the late 1940s and 1950s, Cooley pioneered television variety programming that paved the way for such successful music programs as Lawrence Welk's music variety show. Interest in Cooley was revived in the late 1990s with the release of the anthology Spadella! The Essential Spade Cooley, which revealed the timelessness of Cooley's best work. In 2004 actor Dennis Quaid announced plans to produce and star in a film biography of Cooley.
Cooley was born in Pack Saddle Creek, Oklahoma. His birth name was Donnell, but he nicknamed himself Spade after a series of successful poker hands. His parents were poor, and moved to Oregon in 1914, where his father's friend offered to provide the younger Cooley with classical violin lessons. Cooley subsequently played violin and cello in school orchestras, and also began playing fiddle at country barn dances. In 1931 the Cooley family moved to a farm in Modesto, California. Seeking an escape from farm work, Cooley traveled to Los Angeles to try his hand as a Hollywood singing cowboy in the mold of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Unsuccessful, he returned to Modesto and accepted a gig at a local club for $15 a night. On a second trip to Los Angeles, Cooley was hired as a stand-in for singer and film cowboy Roy Rogers, with whom he had more than a passing resemblance. In addition to his film work, Cooley was becoming a hot fiddle player on the Los Angeles club circuit, including regular performances with Rogers's touring band, Foy Willing's Riders of the Purple Sage, and with Cal Shrum, with whom Cooley made his first recording in 1941. Most important to Cooley's future, however, was Jimmy Wakely.
By 1940 Hollywood had become a hotbed of country and western music, rivaled only by Nashville. Thousands of Okies had migrated to California during the Great Depression, and their love of country music spilled over to an industry more than willing to capitalize on it. Popular film and radio singing cowboy star Gene Autry hosted the radio program Melody Ranch, which featured bandleader Jimmy Wakely. Wakely had beens hired to lead the house band at the recently opened Venice Pier Ballroom, and Cooley was brought on board to fiddle. Shortly thereafter, Cooley took over Wakely's responsibilities and put together a band that included three fiddlers and three singers. Unfortunately, no recordings of this period were made, because of the rationing of materials necessary for record production during World War II, and due to a Musicians' Union-led strike.
Cooley emerged from these setbacks to become one of the hottest acts in California. He appeared in the Gene Autry film Home in Wyomin' in 1942. By 1943, however, Cooley encountered serious competition from Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. The group had relocated from Texas to the greener pastures of California, and were selling out ballrooms throughout California. The music of the two groups was markedly different, however. According to Kurt Wolff in Country Music: The Rough Guide: "The Hollywood socialite and his orchestra were nowhere near as rowdy and loose around the edges as the great Texas swing bands of the 1930s; Cooley perfected a smoother, cooler, and in many ways slicker sound that was far more orchestrated than the music of [Bob] Wills or [Milton] Brown. The electric guitar, for instance, had a rounder sound, the strings were denser and arranged in a 'section' compared to the bright twin-fiddle sound of [Wills's] Texas Playboys." When the Venice Pier Ballroom management hired Bob Wills to replace Cooley, the Oklahoman insisted on a two-night "Battle of the Bands," which pitted the Cooley orchestra against the Texas Playboys. Cooley's band was declared victorious, and he labeled himself the "King of Western Swing," significant more for labeling Wills's and Cooley's genre of music than for the historical accuracy of the claim.
In 1943 Cooley signed a recording contract with Okeh Records. In 1944 he released "Shame on You," which was a major hit through 1945. He also recorded "Detour," "Crazy 'Cause I Love You," and "Forgive Me One More Time." The recordings were crisp and uncluttered examples of Cooley's best work. The songs were also notable for introducing radio audiences to the vocals of Tex Williams, who would go on to solo success with his version of Merle Travis's "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette)." He appeared in such movies as the Bob Crosby film The Singing Sheriff, and in other films, including Chatterbox, The Singing Bandit, Outlaws of the Rockies, Rockin' in the Rockies (with the Three Stooges), Texas Panhandle, Square Dance Jubilee, and Everybody's Dancin!.
In 1947 Cooley signed with RCA Victor. His recording career was stifled by another Musicians' Union ban on recording that lasted until 1949. The ban meant that Cooley's work with famed steel guitarist Speedy West has been lost to the ages. In 1947 Cooley turned his talents to television as host of the Hoffman Hayride television variety series on KTLA. The show was enormously popular, garnering ratings of 75 percent and consistently beating the nationally broadcast Milton Berle Show in the local California ratings market. Waning interest in western swing and several heart attacks, however, brought Cooley's television career to an end in the early 1950s. When his show ceased production, Cooley engaged in a wild real estate scheme that left him nearly bankrupt. A heavy drinker and reputed drug abuser, his behavior became increasingly erratic.
Cooley had had previous brushes with the law—in 1945, he was arrested and acquitted on rape charges—but none as shocking as his arrest for the brutal murder of his wife, Ella Mae, in 1961. According to music historian Nick Toshes, Ella Mae had boasted for many years that she once had a sexual relationship with Roy Rogers. Although she and Cooley were separated, Cooley repeatedly had tried for reconciliation. On April 3, 1961, he forced the couple's 14-year-old daughter, Melody, to observe his him as he brutalized and murdered his wife. "You're going to watch me kill her," he is reputed to have said. The scandal of the trial and Melody's testimony against her father led Cooley to suffer another heart attack. He was sentenced to life in prison at Vacaville. He was a model prisoner, and was two months from parole in November of 1969 when he died backstage while on a 72-hour furlough, in which he performed for the last time at an Oakland concert to benefit the Alameda Deputy Sheriff's Association. His final performance garnered a standing ovation.
For the Record . . .
Born Donnell Clyde Cooley on December 17, 1910, in Pack Saddle Creek, OK; died on November 23, 1969, in Oakland, CA; son of John and Emma Cooley; married first wife, Ann, 1930s; married second wife, Ella Mae Evans, 1945 (murdered, 1961); children: John, Melody, Donnell.
Moved with family to Modesto, CA, 1931; hired as stand-in for Roy Rogers and joined bands led by Stuart Hamblen, Cal Shrum, and Jimmy Wakely, late 1930s; became bandleader at Venice Pier Ballroom, 1942; recorded hit singles "Shame on You" and "A Pair of Broken Hearts," 1944; recorded hit singles "Detour" and "Crazy 'Cause I Love You," 1946-47; signed to RCA, 1947; hosted Hoffman Hayride television series, 1947; signed with Decca, 1951; murdered wife Ella Mae Cooley, 1961; performed last concert on prison work furlough, 1969.
"Shame on You," 1944.
"A Pair of Broken Hearts," 1944.
"Forgive Me One More Time," 1944.
"You Can't Break My Heart," 1945.
"Crazy 'Cause I Love You," 1946.
Spadella! The Essential Spade Cooley, Sony Music Legacy Series, 1994.
Shame on You, Bloodshot Revival/Soundies, 1999.
Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, Country Music: The Encyclopedia, St. Martin's Griffin, 1997.
Tosches, Nick, Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock'n'Roll, Da Capo Press, 1996.
Wolff, Kurt, Country Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 2000.
Additional information was taken from the liner notes by Al Quaglieri for Spadella! The Essential Spade Cooley.