Bob Wills Ain't Dead; Carolyn Wills visits Tulsa

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In case you missed it, there's a new documentary out about the musical legacy of western swing legend Bob Wills. The film, Bob Wills Ain't Dead was featured in a story by Joshua Blevins Peck in the September 22, 2010, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. Filmmaker Drew Wilson went around the country talking to musicians who worked with Wills and musicians who were influenced by him.

That kind of loose-limbed, off-the-cuff, made-by-one-guy aesthetic runs throughout Bob Wills Ain't Dead. It's a collection of performances of Wills' music and conversations with youngsters, oldsters, regular people, unknown and famous musicians such as Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Ray Benson and various Texas Playboys. There's flashier and more produced material on Wills but Wilson's sincere love for his subject is evident throughout the documentary.

Just what made Wills the legendary figure he's become? Known as the "King of Western Swing," Wills was the originator of what would evolve into western swing. Wills' western swing was a new musical innovation, a mash-up of styles such as country, swing and blues while giving it a good beat to make it "swing."

"Nobody put all that music together before Bob did. He was like a musical Da Vinci," Wilson said. "Merle Haggard says in the documentary that he didn't know what celebrity was as he was growing up -- there was Joe Louis, Franklin Roosevelt and Bob Wills."

Here's the trailer for the film. Tulsans (particularly those in the fiddling community) will see a lot of familiar faces: Bob Fjeldsted, Larry Schaefer, Rick Morton, Shelby Eicher, Roy Clark, Jana Jae, Regina Scott, to name a few.

The UTW story mentions that Bob left Tulsa for California in the 1940s. Although Tulsa was where he first made it big, he spent most of his career elsewhere -- California in the '40s and into the '50s, Texas and Las Vegas in the late '50s and '60s. But there was a return, around 1957, when, for a couple of years, Bob Wills reunited the Texas Playboys with brother Johnnie Lee Wills and His Boys. Johnnie Lee had taken over the daily KVOO radio show and the weekly dances at Cain's after Bob's departure for the west.

According to this story, the Bob Wills family lived in Johansen Acres -- between Sheridan and Memorial south of 21st St, and during that time his daughter Carolyn graduated from Nathan Hale High School.

Carolyn Wills visited Tulsa recently to explore the idea of a swing school and museum here honoring her father. The concept behind the swing school is intriguing:

The swing school is not a fiddle camp; it's a music camp where young students learn Western swing music and the technique of playing in a band, with improvisation, she said.

Members of the Texas Playboys always told her of her father: "You just better be ready to play when he pointed that bow at you."

Carolyn Wills wrote a tribute to her dad in the July 2010 issue of Cowboys & Indians magazine, and it includes some insight into the band's costume evolution from preppy sweaters to business suits to Western wear.

....From 1934 through 1938, Bob Wills appeared in a tailored double-breasted suit and polished custom-made boots, and the Texas Playboys dressed in business suits, white shirts, and neckties. They were on their way to becoming the largest and most famous Western band in the history of America, and their increasingly familiar image announced the dawning of "Western chic."

In 1939, my father and Mr. O.W. Mayo started the annual Bob Wills Stampede (Rodeo) in Tulsa and it was then that the Texas Playboys began to dress Western: cowboy dress shirts and Western pants, bolo or standard ties or Western scarves, vests or Western-cut sports coats, and cowboy boots with pants tucked in or out. Nowhere were there sequins, appliqu├ęs, floppy lapels, or loud colors. As the bandleader, Bob Wills became known for his trademark cowboy hat, boots, and Roi-Tan cigar. He usually wore a light-colored Stetson with a medium crease and slightly folded edges. A hat pushed too far back or pulled down to hide a man's eyes was not acceptable....

For the magazine's online presence, Carolyn put together a playlist of her father's favorite songs and her own.

MORE: Drew Wilson spoke about his documentary on the September 23, 2010, edition of KWGS Studio Tulsa.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 17, 2010 1:30 AM.

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