Al Stricklin remembers Bob Wills at Glenoak

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On Friday, September 6, 1935, Al Stricklin arrived in Tulsa with his wife to take a job as piano player for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. After joining Bob and the band for the noon broadcast at the Barrel Food Palace and then rehearsing that afternoon at the home of Bob's parents, Al went along on his first dance gig at a little place called Glenoak, Oklahoma. This account of that dance is excerpted from Chapter 4 of Stricklin's memoir, My Years with Bob Wills, Austin: Eakin Press, 1980. It's a highly entertaining book, with lots of vivid detail. You really get a sense of the times, the people, and most of all, the larger-than-life, magnetic personality of Bob Wills.

Al_Stricklin-My_Years_with_Bob_Wills.jpgIt didn't take long for me to learn about the musical magic of Bob Wills. I learned that first night after that first rehearsal. It was at a place called Glen Oak, a frame building dance hall about fifteen miles east of Bartlesville, Oklahoma....

It was Bob Wills who was leading us in the bus that day as I made my first trip with the band to Glen Oak. It was the beginning of seven years of experiences that many men with money would have given a powerful part of their personal coffers to share....

The guys told me that the women in Oklahoma were wild over the band. So wild that they would gang up on you and take you out and attack you.

They weren't that bad. But I will say that there did seem to be plenty of them who were most agreeable to being most friendly if a man was interested.

"something else you have to watch for, Al. The men in these dance halls like the one we are going to do some powerful drinking. They get crazy drunk, and their eyes get red and watery like an old dog that's been chasing his tail in the sun all day long. And they get to wanting to beat up on us musicians because their women will smile at us and those crazy drunks don't take to that very nice at all," said one of the men.

"So what do I do?" I asked.

"Just keep yourself in the bus if you are afraid to fight. Just sit in here and listen to us," said one of them.

That brought another wild round of laughter.

Our old bus finally clanged into Glen Oak. When I said Glen Oak was out in the coutry, I mean it was out in the country. There were maybe two families living there. One of them owned the dance hall.

The sun was just dipping down into a hall of black when we arrived. There wasn't a car in sight. I thought: "How in the world is this guy Bob Wills going to pay guys like me $30 a week without any customers?"

Then I began worrying that maybe I wasn't going to get paid, just like it used to always happen. I remembered a time when a bunch of us in Waco rented a hall about ten miles out in the sticks. We paid $10 for it. We started playing about 9:00 p.m. There wasn't anybody there. By 10:00, still nobody had shown up. Then we saw the lights of a car turn in and the sax man said, "Let's hit 'Dinah,' men. A car just drove up."

That's how I was feeling. Until about 9:00 p.m. That's when they began coming to the dance at Glen Oak. Cars were pilling up outside. Some people were coming on foot. Some were riding horses. By 9:00, they were having to turn them away.

We started playing. Bob hadn't arrived yet. And nobody paid us much mind. About thirty minutes later, while we were playing, I heard the wildest racket I had ever heard. There was applause, yelling, and whistling. People were just going wild. Bob Wills had finally arrived.

He got up there wil us and drug his fiddle out of its case. The crowd had gotten as close as they could to the bandstand. They were packed like three dozen eggs put into a one-dozen egg container. When Bob started, the applause drowned out the music.

Bob was grinning and playing, and every so often he would point that fiddle bow of his at one of the boys and tell him to get with it. We would. And again would come that wave of applause. Maddening. Deafening. I had never heard or seen anything like it. It wasn't a dance. It was a show. A "happening."

The boys had impressed on me during the trip up there that one of the most important things was to watch Bob at all times. You never knew when he would call on you to take it. And if he called on you and you weren't looking at him, that was the unpardonable sin.

They had also told me to smile like crazy when Bob gave me the cue and then to smile again when I had finished my break. And there wasn't any taking a break. By that, I mean you didn't shut down the music any time. That began to hurt me. We had drunk a bunch of coffee right before the dance had started and about 11:00 p.m. I was crossing my legs so many times that if somebody out in the audience was watching me, the probably would have thought that I was doing the Charleston.

Finally, I leaned over to Sleepy and asked, "Sleepy, when are we going to have an intermission?"

"We don't take intermissions. If you've got to go to the bathroom, just forget it," he said.

He was right in a way. We didn't take intermissions. But, every once in awhile, one of us could get down and go back and get some relief. When that time finally came for me, I know I overstayed my allotted time in front of the trough. But man, it sure did feel good. As I was leaving, the first man in the long line behind stopped me and said, "Fellow, I want to shake your hand. You skin them keys on that piano like you were peeling a stalkful of bananas." He laughed and then added, "What I am trying to say is that you are a piano player. One of the best I've ever heard!"

I don't know how I got through that night. But I did. After it was all over, the people crowded around and kept yelling for more, and when they realized there wasn't going to be any more, they started asking for autographs. It was a long ways for a country boy from Grandview to come. I thought later as we were sopping up some chicken fried steak and cream gravy in a cafe before we headed back for Tulsa, "Man, I came awfully close to not coming up here. If every night is like this one, then I think I'll go kick myself for ever even thinking slightly that way."

I went to sleep happy that night. That old moon was outside our bedroom window, still pretty high in the sky considering how late it was. It looked like it was winking happiness at me.

Old county maps pinpoint Glenoak on US 60, just east of the Washington-Nowata County line, with a cluster of homes and a commercial building (probably the dance hall) on the southside of the road.

MORE: Jerry Stevens writes with a story of Glenoak, where his grandfather had been a bouncer for Bob Wills.

My Grandpa used to say that there would be model "T"'s parked all the way around the east curve along the highway. There was also chicken wire across the front of the stage to protect the band from thrown bottles. It was a wild place alright. My Grandma told of a time that she drove down to the dance (my dad and Uncle were with her) to pick up my Grandpa after the dance and when he came out the front 5 men jumped him and beat him up for kicking them out of the dance. They knocked him out and went over and were standing there talking in the parking lot. He woke up and went over to them and knocked out the one that hit him last and they beat him up again. Grand Dad had a permanent knot on his head from a whiskey bottle he was hit with in the fight. Dad said he (Grand Pa) later caught up with each one of them and paid them back. I guess a lot of people from all around used to go there.

The east curve is over two miles east of where Glenoak is marked on the map. Imagine having to walk for over half-an-hour to get to the dance and half-an-hour back to your car when it was all over.

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Along US 60, halfway between Bartlesville and Nowata, there are a pair of curves that shifts the road south by a mile as you go east. On the northside* of the road, near the western curve, there was a gas station and a few houses. Once upon a time, way... Read More

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