Vocalion 03492 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1936

In a remarkably rare occurrence, I received this record on the very day of publication (it’s not the first time it’s happened, but it’s sure not often).  I had originally intended to post it later in remembrance of vocalist Tommy Duncan, who sings on both sides, but then I noticed that it was the anniversary of its recording, and I was struck by the serendipity of it all.  Combine that with the fact that this is quite probably my favorite Bob Wills record, and I knew I’d have to rush this one on through and select a different record with which to eulogize Mr. Duncan.

In 1936, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were a year into their up-and-coming recording career, but had thus far only had one recording session, spread out over three consecutive days the previous September, part in Vocalion’s field trip down to Dallas.  Since then, a few changes had been made, notably Wills had added a trumpet player, Everett Stover—whom he had originally hired as an announcer—to the band’s pioneering horn section, which had previously consisted of reeds and trombone, the latter of which had erstwhile been dropped from the roster.  Still appearing on Tulsa’s KVOO from Cain’s Ballroom, they found growing regional success.  Exactly one year after their first sessions, the Playboys traveled northward to Chicago to make their return to the microphone of the American Record Corporation (Vocalion’s parent company).  On September 28, 1936, they entered the studio to record only four songs.  The following day, they were back for thirteen more, opening the set with their soon-to-be smash hit, “Steel Guitar Rag”, and closing with two fiddle solos from Wills, which were not released.  Mirroring their first three-day session, they finished up on the thirtieth with a final twelve sides.  Ultimately, a total of seventeen of their twenty-nine recorded sides were deemed suitable for release, many of which proved successful enough for subsequent reissue on other labels.  Afterwards, the Texas Playboys took themselves back to Tulsa, not to return to the studio until the next year, but they were already well down the path to national stardom.

Vocalion 03492 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, on September 30, 1936, the last day of Wills’ second series of recording sessions.  It carried over to Okeh with the same catalog number, and was later reissued on Columbia 37624 and 20223, the latter in their “folk” series.  The Texas Playboys are Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Sleepy Johnson on fiddles, the last of whom doubles on guitar, Herman Arnspiger on guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on tenor banjo, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Al Stricklin on piano, Everett Stover on trumpet, Ray DeGeer on clarinet, Zeb McNally on saxophone, Joe Ferguson on string bass, and Smokey Dacus on drums.

Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan sing in duet on the scalding hot “Bring it On Down to My House”, a cover—via Milton Brown—of Blind Willie McTell’s “Come On Around to My House Mama”.

Bring it On Down to My House, recorded September 30, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

On the flip, Duncan sings and yodels solo on “Mean Mama Blues”, a cover of the equally jazzified Jimmie Rodgers song of six years prior (and not to be confused with the 1941 Ernest Tubb song of the same name).

Mean Mama Blues, recorded September 30, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Vocalion 03139 & 03206 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1935

Bob Wills, pictured in the 1940 Okeh Country Dance and Folk catalog.

Fresh from Cain’s Dance Academy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it is Old Time Blues’ pleasure to bring you a program with Bob Wills and his famous Texas Playboys!

Bob Wills (then known as Jim Rob) made his first recordings for Brunswick/Vocalion in 1929, a pair of fiddle solos accompanied by guitarist Herman Arnspiger, but none were released and remain unheard.  It would be three years before Wills recorded again, this time with Milton Brown as a member of the original Light Crust Doughboys.  Still that lone 1932 session only yielded two recordings which didn’t sell too well under the Depression conditions, and both Wills and Brown parted ways with the Doughboys soon after.  It wouldn’t be for another three years that Wills began his recording career in earnest.  By that time, he had taken his fiddle band to Tulsa to make a name for himself as leader of the “Texas Playboys” at Cain’s Ballroom, and along the way had added a horn section and drums to the ensemble.  When the American Record Corporation came to Dallas in 1935, the Playboys returned to Texas.  On September 23, 1935, Wills and his Texas Playboys recorded eight titles, starting with “Osage Stomp”, borrowing from the Memphis Jug Band’s “Memphis Shakedown” and “Rukus Juice and Chittlin'”, followed by twelve more the following day.  On the third day, Wills returned to the studio solo to cut four fiddle solos backed on guitar by Sleepy Johnson.  This time, as the record industry was beginning to recover with the beginning of the swing era, his records sold many more copies, and the Texas Playboys traveled to Chicago almost exactly one year later for another three sessions. producing thirty-one more sides, including the famous “Steel Guitar Rag”.  Soon the Playboys skyrocketed to national fame, drawing larger crowds than Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey with hits like “New San Antonio Rose”, and making a string of successful motion picture appearances, ultimately winning him the title “King of Western Swing” (that Spade Cooley never deserved it if you ask me).

Vocalion 03139 and 03206 were recorded in Dallas, Texas on September 24, 1935, the second day of the Texas Playboys’ first session.  In the band are Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Art Haynes on fiddles, Robert “Zeb” McNally on alto saxophone, Sleepy Johnson and Herman Arnspiger on guitars, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar and guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on tenor banjo, Al Stricklin on piano, Thomas “Son” Lansford on string bass, and William “Smokey” Dacus on drums.

To start us out, the Playboys swing a hot instrumental: “Black and Blue Rag”, with Bob addressing his Playboys by name as they take their instrumental solos.

Black and Blue Rag, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

On the back of 03139, Bob sings the vocal himself on the Mississippi Sheiks’ blues standard “Sittin’ On Top of the World”.

Sittin’ On Top of the World, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Tommy Duncan joins the show on “I Ain’t Got Nobody”, giving a wild Emmett Miller-style yodeling performance.

I Ain’t Got Nobody, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Finally, Duncan sings again on the Playboys’ rendering of the popular song of one year prior, “Who Walks in When I Walk Out”, surely one of the hottest, wildest, most driving western swing performances ever recorded.  It’s also the first time we hear Bob holler those immortal words “take it away, Leon!”

Who Walks in When I Walk Out, recorded September 24, 1935 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Vocalion 03394 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1936

Look out friends, here’s Leon! Take it away, boys, take it away!

The last thing we heard from ol’ Bob Wills was his famous “New San Antonio Rose” of 1940.  Now, let’s get a little hotter with an early side by the King of Western Swing (and if you ask me, that Spade Cooley never deserved the title).

Following a pair of unissued recordings with his “Wills Fiddle Band” for Vocalion, and a stretch with the Light Crust Doughboys of Burrus Mill, Bob Wills first organized his Texas Playboys in Waco, Texas in 1933.  The next year, they relocated to Oklahoma, where they began a radio program broadcast from Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa.  In September of 1935, Will’s Texas Playboys recorded for the first time in a series of sessions held in Dallas that included “Osage Stomp”, I Ain’t Got Nobody”, and “I’m Sittin’ On Top of the World”, as well as four sides with only Wills and guitarist Sleepy Jackon, highlighting his own merits as a fiddler.  They followed up the next September in Chicago, cutting such classics as “Trouble in Mind” and the famous “Steel Guitar Rag”.  Wills built his band around such talents as steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe and singer Tommy Duncan, all of whom he helped make famous with his “hollers,” announcing their solo and other quips.  Over the years, Wills developed his Texas Playboys from a fairly small string band into a full-fledged swing orchestra that drew larger crowds than Benny Goodman and both Dorsey brothers’ orchestras.  In the 1940s, the Texas Playboys toured across the states, and eventually settled in California.  Throughout that decade, they made a series of film appearances, and their popularity soared, to the point that they were a national sensation.  During the War, Wills made a number of patriotic records such as “Smoke on the Water” and “Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima”.  The popularity of the Texas Playboys continued through the postwar era, and into the early 1950s, when they recorded Wills’ famous “Faded Love”.  As 1950 turned to 1955 however, musical trends shifted, and their popularity began to wane.  Nonetheless, the Texas Playboys continued to perform until 1965.  Wills continued his solo career until a stroke in 1969.  Bob Wills and many of the former Texas Playboys were reunited in 1973 at a tribute concert with Merle Haggard.  After the first day of that concert Wills suffered a stroke that led to his death two years later, in 1975.

Vocalion 03394 was recorded in the Furniture Mart Building at 666 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago on Tuesday, September 29 and Wednesday the 30 of 1936, just over a year after their first sessions in Dallas, and their first return to the studio since.  The Texas Playboys are made up of Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Sleepy Johnson—who doubles on guitar—on fiddles, Everett Stover on trumpet, Ray DeGeer on clarinet and saxophone, Robert “Zeb” McNally on alto sax, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on tenor banjo, Herman Arnspiger on guitar, Al Stricklin on piano, Joe Ferguson on string bass, and William “Smokey” Dacus on drums.  I don’t know why it is, but these “scroll” label Vocalions tend to be some of the most enticing records out there!  Lots o’ great stuff to be found on ’em.

Leon McAulliffe’s famous “Steel Guitar Rag” was derived from blues guitarist Sylvester Weaver’s “Guitar Rag” of the previous decade, which he recorded first in 1923, and again in 1927.  Wills’ Texas Playboys heat up on this side a helluva lot more than Weaver ever did, with a healthy dose of hot jazz injected in it.  Becoming one of the Texas Playboys’ best-sellers, the success of “Steel Guitar Rag” made “take it away, Leon” a household phrase in the Depression era South.  That saxophone solo at around a minute-and-a-half in is just sublime!

Steel Guitar Rag

Steel Guitar Rag, recorded September 29, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Next, cut the following day, the Texas Playboys get low-down with a vocal duet between Wills and Tommy Duncan on “Swing Blues No. 1” (yes, there was a “Swing Blues No. 2”, too).

Swing Blues No. 1

Swing Blues No. 1, recorded September 30, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Okeh 05694 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1940

I just found out that today (March 6) is the birthday of the late, great Bob Wills.  Now, I’m not about to let the 111th anniversary of the day that such a hero of Texas’ music was brought into this world fall by the wayside, so I’ve hastily put together this tribute.  What better way to pay respects to the King of Western Swing than with one of his most famous records.

James Robert Wills was born near Kosse, Texas, where he picked cotton on the family farm and learned to play the fiddle and mandolin, following in his father’s footsteps, who was the champion fiddler of the state of Texas.  The Wills later relocated to a farm near the little town of Turkey, Texas, which now bills itself as Wills’ home.  At sixteen, Bob hopped a freight train and left home to become a professional entertainer, but returned home in his twenties to become a barber.  In Fort Worth, Wills added the blues to his repertoire, and made his first recordings in Dallas with Herman Arnspiger in 1929, though they were not issued.  Wills cut his first issued record in Dallas in 1932 with the Light Crust Doughboys, featuring Milton Brown’s vocals.  In the early 1930s Bob Wills formed his famous Texas Playboys and toured the nation, becoming one of the leading music stars of the era, and an originator of the western swing genre.  Wills continued to perform until a stroke in 1969, despite the diminishing popularity of western swing.  Wills died May 13, 1975 in Fort Worth, Texas.  He is honored every year with the annual Bob Wills Fiddle Festival and Contest in Greenville, Texas.

Okeh 05694 was recorded April 16, 1940 at the Burrus Mill in Saginaw, Texas (near Dallas, which is indicated by the matrix numbers with a “DAL” prefix”).  The Texas Playboys consist of Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Lewis Fierney on fiddles, Herman Arnspiger and Eldon Shamblin on guitars, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on banjo, Son Lansford on bass, Al Stricklin on piano, and Smokey Dacus on drums.  We heard a few of those musicians with the Light Crust Doughboys seven years prior to this record.

Tommy Duncan sings the vocal on the famous “New San Antonio Rose”.  The old “San Antonio Rose” was just an instrumental of the same tune.

New San Antonio Rose

New San Antonio Rose, recorded April 16, 1940 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Bob takes the fiddle on the eponymous “Bob Wills’ Special”, a low-down old fashioned western swing riddled with those hollers that Wills specialized in.

Bob Wills' Special

Bob Wills’ Special, recorded April 16, 1940 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.