Dean McKinney Moore learns the answer to her musical question at last

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I received an e-mail today with a question about Billy Jack Wills, youngest brother of Bob Wills and a great western swing band leader in his own right. A search for the answer turned up the sad news that Billy Jack's sister-in-law, Dean McKinney Moore, had passed away on November 9, 2009, age 87.

Dean McKinney and her sister Evelyn sang with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys in the late '40s. Their duets were featured on the Tiffany Transcriptions and a number of the band's commercial releases on Columbia and MGM. A special Tiffany Transcriptions CD (intended to be the first in a "For Collectors Only" series) includes 22 cuts with Evelyn and Dean in duet or singing in trios and quartets with Joe Holley, Tiny Moore, and Eldon Shamblin.

While with the Playboys, Dean met and married mandolinist Tiny Moore. Wills Point dance hall in Sacramento became Bob Wills's home base in the late '40s. When Bob decided to take the band back on the road in about 1952, Billy Jack set up his own band to hold down the fort at Wills Point. Tiny and Dean decided to stay in Sacramento with Billy Jack, and the city was home for the rest of their lives. After leaving the band in 1954, Tiny hosted a local children's TV show, opened a music store, gave music lessons, and performed from time to time. In 1970, he joined five other former Texas Playboys (Johnnie Lee Wills, Alex Brashear, Eldon Shamblin, Joe Holley, and Johnny Gimble) on Merle Haggard's Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, and went on to join Haggard on tour. Tiny died in 1987.

The family obituary provides some personal glimpses:

Dean and Tiny were among the founding members of the First Baptist Church of Carmichael. Dean and Evelyn frequently ministered to the congregation with songs of praise. Two LP's of sacred music were produced: "Softly and Tenderly" and "Heaven's Harmony." Dean was an unwavering presence in her children's lives and was active in the PTA throughout their early school years. She enthusiastically supported every activity that interested her children. She and Tiny entertained often with lavish dinners for friends and family. They performed as a duo joined with their daughter Kimberly and appeared at concerts and private gatherings. After Tiny's death in 1987 Dean became active in the Sacramento Western Swing Society, serving as their President for many years. Dean traveled extensively and continued to sing with Evelyn at musical festivals across the United States.

Oh, the musical question: "Will There Be Any Yodeling in Heaven?"

Will there be any yodeling in heaven?
That is what I'd like to know.
There can't be any wrong
In just singing a song
With a yo-delady-oh-mylady-dee.

In the heaven above
Will they sing the songs I love
With a yo-delady-oh-mylady-dee?

As I climb the golden stairway up yonder
And life's journey on this earth is o'er
As I cross the great divide
Will they welcome me inside
With a yo-delady-oh-mylady-dee?

My personal favorite McKinney Sisters' song is "Feudin' and Fightin'."

Finally, here are Dean and Evelyn joining in on the chorus of "Goodbye Liza Jane."

RELATED: Tiny Moore played a five-string electric mandolin (as opposed to the traditional acoustic mandolin with four pairs of strings). This article on building a five-string electric mandolin explains the advantages of the "biggest little instrument in the world":

The mandolin offers a wider interval of notes within one hand position compared to a guitar, and this can be incorporated into a playing style. (There are stories of electric guitarists frustrated in trying to learn Gimble or Moore solos.)

MORE: Dean Moore reminisces in a September 26, 1991, story in the Sacramento Bee:

The telegram from Fresno arrived in Feb ruary 1946. Come at once, it said. Am sure salary and job will make you both happy.

Little did the singing McKinney Sisters know when they left Alabama to tour with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys that they would forever have a foothold in the rich history of Western swing.

I just wish I had kept a journal, Dean McKinney Moore says now. So many things you forget as years pass.

Bob Wills, an ace fiddler, had come to California to find a new base for the music he helped to popularize in Texas. He and his band, including Dean and Evelyn McKinney, made their way to Sacramento in 1947.

He bought the old Aragon Ballroom out on Auburn Boulevard and called it Wills Point (it burned in 1956). Wills Plunge was the swimming pool, filled with ice-cold well water. Band members lived in small apartments under the dance floor. The ballroom itself held 4,000 people, and the Playboys came close to filling it. They also did a live broadcast every day on KFBK radio.

Soon, Wills got itchy to get back on the road, so he left California and went home to Texas. But he left behind a legacy of Western swing that is still thriving in Sacramento. ...

Dean McKinney Moore didn't hear Western swing back home in Birmingham. She and her sister sang on a local radio station that broadcast as far away as Dallas and Fort Worth, from the time they were 14 and 12 years old, respectively. They also traveled with an evangelist. They sang on Ted Weems' show.

Then one day, Bob Wills came through town, and somebody at the radio station asked him to listen to Dean and Evelyn.

We didn't expect to hear from him, Moore says while having soup at a Sacramento coffee shop. We came to California, and that was the beginning of a whole new life. It was our first experience with Western swing. Where we came from, if you carried a guitar, you were just a hillbilly.

THE SWEET-VOICED McKinney Sisters traveled allover the country with Bob Wills. One night they played a gig in Port Arthur, Texas. Moore remembers that Wills and Tommy Duncan, the Playboys' vocalist, were riding in a car, and she and her sister were on the band bus.

There was no drinking on the bus, unless Bob got on the toot. (Wills' drinking was legendary.) And if he did, it was open for everybody, says Moore. When he was not drinking, he was such a great guy. He insisted that the guys not tell off-color stories around us.

Wills and Duncan stopped for a bite at a Pig Stand, an early Texas fast-food joint. Tiny Moore who was not tiny at all, but a stout 6-foot-3 and a musician friend were there, with their loaded-up car, headed to Oklahoma to find work.

Tiny asked Bob for a job, says Moore. Bob asked him what he played, and when Tiny said "mandolin,' Bob must have cringed. Mandolin is like Bill Monroe music. But he sent Tiny to the car to get it, and Tiny came back and set up on the counter. He got a job.

She and Tiny, whom she called brother for the first few months they knew each other, married in 1948. Evelyn, who still lives in Sacramento and is caring for her ill husband, had married Billy Jack Wills the year before.

Dean Moore continued to travel with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys until late '49, when Wills hired her and Tiny to run the ballroom in his absence. The first of the Moores' three children was born in 1950.

She continued to sing with her husband as their children grew. Tiny died four years ago while performing in Jackpot, Nev., and Dean Moore says she's only now beginning to live again. She sings occasionally and expects to perform at the Western Swing Society's hall of fame event.

I think singing is what Tiny would want me to do, she says, her blue eyes seemingly fixed on some distant memory. The hardest thing I ever did was to walk back on a stage without my husband.

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Stephen said:

How can I obtain more information regarding Will's Plunge? We swam there in the 50s...

Thank you.

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