by Frank M. Roberts - October 2015
Foreward: Even though it was 1982 since I correspondend with a lady friend of mine who was also close to BOB WILLS AND THE TEXAS PLAYBOYS. Of all the genres of music, western swing tops my list and, on my radio show rch103 I play as much of it as possible. The producer, to put it mildly, doesn't care too much for it. We have an ongoing but, so far, bloodless battle. I must add that we are close friends.
Speaking of battles (what a segue) I was curious about the Playboy (no, not Hefner) problems. Here is what she told me - a front line account, as it were.
First of all, there was an organization - the name escapes me - that closely followed the music and activities of Wills and company. It was sort-of like a fan club. She sent me what she called a condensed version of the 'will' of Wills and his excellent crew of musical greats.
There was a lot of feudin', fussin', and fightin' going on within this outstanding musical organization. She said there was a variety of reasons: Too many hours on the road, too much drinking - simply spending too much time together, plus, vocalist, Tommy Duncan had growing pains and wanted to go out on his own.
"Bob was hitting the bottle and missing some dates, and Tommy resented it," she said. "But, also, Tommy failed to realize, money-wise that although Bob defaulted, THAT everybody in the band was paid anyway, and Bob personally took the loss."
She put it rather vaguely, but there is no problem in correctly interpreting what she meant. When I wrote her, initially, I asked about the problems between Wills and Duncan.
She said, "Tommy always wanted to (handwriting illegible at this point, but, translated, she was noting that Tommy always wanted to be sort-of a Bing Crosby). "He led himself to believe he could go on his own and be a success, so actually both men misled themselves that they didn't need each other.
"Finally, they both survived, but popularity-wise they both faded badly." These thoughts were written on official Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys stationary - from South Hudson Street in Oklahoma City. Duncan formed his own Texas swing band but, in the end, he couldn't make it.
I also asked her about Wills' chief rival, Spade Cooley (except on the west coast where Cooley reigned). I knew the tragic story of Cooley, but I wanted to see what she would say about him. She said, to be direct, "Spade was pilled up and drunk when he killed his wife." She was a former vocalist with his band.
"Spade was very well off financially, (a lot of real estate holdings) but he had a tremendous ego. His wife was mixed up with a crazy religious cult in California, and supposedly running around on him, so during a drunken binge, he brutally murdered her. What really closed the case on Spade was that his 14-year-old daughter actually witnessed the beating and testified against him in court.
"Spade HAD BEEN (her emphasis)charged various times by the L. A. police during his career for assault and battery on various lady friends. Smokey Rogers (a western swing artist) once said Spade knew a lot of people, but had few friends."
She added a p. s., part of which was repetitive. It concerned Bob Wills latter days before he fired his long-time vocalist. "Tommy had those growing pains so, all combined, plus the previous years of overnight stands, ballrooms, dance halls, smoky rooms - everything simply collided. I, myself, have wondered why Bob was hitting the bottle so much during the '47-'48 period. He was, basically, a very insecure man."
She mentioned that the main purpose of her organization, "is to operate as a clearing house between new and advanced collectors of Bob Wills music. This includes records, photos, movies, radio shows, business papers, and anything related to Bob's music."
Although I have most of the Texas Playboys releases, I know there are quite a few I don't have. I must add one note. After Tommy left, Bob hired vocalists that just didn't work out. Bob and Tommy, musically, meshed so well. You Tube has some good Wills and Cooley stuff. In case you didn't know it - Spade looked like Roy Rogers twin brother, and, in films, often doubled for him.
There was another outstanding western swing band. It was fronted by Milton Brown (leading the Brownies). Just before he reached his peak he was killed in an automobile accident.
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When I'm asked - what's your favorite Bob Wills recording, I give the flip, but true, answer: "All of them."
Toward the end of his reign, he featured two very lovely gals, The McKinney Sisters - just as good as some of the pop singers of the period - better than some. The young ladies, Evelyn and Dean, were from Birmingham. Dean married Tiny Moore, a band member who played electric mandolin and fiddle.
The young ladies travelled with Wills and company for several years - touring and recording dates. Dean stayed with the Texas Playboys and, by this time, The McKinney Sisters became solo acts - Evelyn doing radio and television - Dean, of course, concertizing with her hubby.
The girls began, professionally, when they were 14-years-old, guesting on several programs but, soon, they had their own shows and, I supposed, their own guests. Their program, incidentally, was broadcast on a 13-station network. Eventually, they went pop as vocalists for Ted Weems and his Orchestra. (Remember "Heartaches"?) They did broadcasts for the Armed Forces Radio Network (my former employer).
One final tale: After an ultra-succesful date in Oakland, the crew got on the bus. Their leader went to the back end, then marched to the front, carrying the bundle of money from that night's date, in a paper bag. He stopped where each of the musicians were sitting, dipped his hand in the bag and, at each stop, took out $300, and said at each stop, "here's $300 for you - here's $300 for you - here's $300 for you." At the time, of course, the Playboys were on salary.
Me? I've had some generous bosses, a few of whom tossed bucks at me come Christmas. Most warmed the cockles (what the heck are they?) of my heart with - with - with Christmas cards. Lovely, but nothing that would bring a tear to the eye. I worked for one or two s.o.b's, but most of the guys I worked for became friends.
Currently, you can catch my show on rch 103. We broadcast 24/7. My producer/boss is not enthusiastic about western swing and grimaces when I play it. However, we are good friends - so I often sneak in some of Wills, Cooley, etc. music. He suffers in silence.
You can also hear their music anytime here: Bob Wills and the Playboys >>>