“The Texas Playboys are on the air!” With two quick pizza-ricotta fiddle strokes to set the time the boys were off and running with The Playboy Theme.
“Now listen everybody from near and far
If you want to know who we are
We’re the Texas Playboys
From the Lone Star State”
I just heard one of you sigh. I heard it.
That theme opened up an unimaginable number of radio shows for Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys and continued for decades in stations across the Southwest and California. In 1931 The Playboys started out as a band named The Light Crust Doughboys and formed as a radio advertising gimmick by Willie ‘Pappy’ O’Daniel for the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company in Fort Worth. I know, I know, Pappy O’Daniel. I swear. Look it up. He even looked a little like Charles Durning and later became Governor of Texas. Honest.
By the way, I love the way they named companies in those days.
The band later changed their name to The Texas Playboys. Definitely a happy circumstance. “We’re the Light Crust Doughboys” might work in meter, but doesn’t have the same june-sequoia.
While the kids are googling Pappy O’Daniel let me give you a little background on how I got here.
In 1967 my dad bought an album The Glenn Miller Story. Great movie, greater soundtrack. I could do an article just on the making of that soundtrack, and maybe I will dagnabit. Better yet, we should talk Duncan into writing that article, a great recording story and success. Short story is that album blew me away as much as even Jimi. Later I picked up Benny Goodman’s Greatest Hits. Hey, that was the extent of my sophistication in those days. Anyway the album is a hoot, with recordings from his 1938 concert and small combo stuff as well, that to this day still has me shaking my head.
One evening I was researching Goodman for an article and listening to Bob Wills. Benny hit me in the late 60’s but I didn’t find the Playboys until the mid-70’s. Because that experience was nominally later than the first I always loved the way Bob’s band used fiddles and guitars to do the horn parts to copy the swing masters, and never thought about who discovered what and when. It turned out their backgrounds were similar enough from a timing standpoint, no one was really doing anything first. These guys were just developing styles towards the same end, dancing to swing, but in different mediums.
I’m continually fascinated by how changes develop, and this was an example of musical serendipity seen through a shot glass. My focus shifted to Texas.
Bob Wills was born in 1905. Benny was born in 1909, and both played their first professional gigs at a very young age. Goodman at 12 played at the Central Park Theater in Chicago. Ten year old Bob had to play the fiddle at a barn dance in Turkey, TX when his dad didn’t show for the gig. In the 1920’s they both played professionally, Benny was in a band with Bix Beiderbecke at 14 for cryin out loud. Bob had to develop his own style and musicians. It was a whole lot harder to find musicians in Turkey TX, that could get what Wills was up to, than in Chicago. Wills once auditioned 67 singers before he found Tommy Duncan who became the signature voice on Playboy hits until after the war. 1935 found the Playboys in their first recording session with guys who would become famous Western musicians. That band featured Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Smokey Dacus on drums, and Al Stricklin who would stay with Bob for decades and with him were instrumental in defining Western Swing. Smokey and Stricklin, man those guys could pound.
At the same time Benny was taking music lessons at Kehelah Jacob Synagogue in Chicago, Wills was picking cotton and playing fiddle with his father at barn dances all over the Texas panhandle. Neither occupation was lucrative and the family was dirt poor. Dad however was a Texas state champion fiddler and Bob learned at his knee, both in ability and passion.
Bob’s earliest musical memories included the black blues sung in the cotton fields that amazed the boy and stuck with him his entire career. In his early 20’s Wills rode 50 miles on horseback to see Bessie Smith. Later in life he was quoted “I rode horseback from the place between the rivers to Childress to see Bessie Smith … She was about the greatest thing I had ever heard. In fact, there was no doubt about it. She was the greatest thing I ever heard.”
The Texas Playboys with their unique pot of old time folk, blues, and swing and using western style instrumentation, sometimes with horns when Wills could afford them but with fiddles and guitars doing the horn parts when he couldn’t, had a run of hits, radio shows, movies, and sold out appearances that rivaled Goodman and the rest.
WWII broke up bands, baseball teams, and families and the Playboys were no exception.
But like bands, baseball teams, and families they got back together after the war. Post-War musical tastes changed and swing bands fell on hard times. But in that period Wills and the Playboys enjoyed some of their greatest success and out sold the big dance bands including Goodman all over the Southwest and California.
The music is just so much damn fun. Certainly Bob was more poppish, with a lot of novelty hits like Big Balls in Cowtown and Bubbles in My Beer but the audiences ate it up, and man, could you dance to it.
Wills had some tough years in the 60’s that were more personally related than musically. He was still in demand. But he had two heart attacks in the early 60’s and two strokes before 1972 that left him unable to use his right arm. In 1973 he played a gig in a wheelchair with Hoyle Nix, with Hoyle bowing the fiddle and Bob fingering with his left. Kid had guts.
Also in 1973 Wills wanted to record once more. He knew he was short on time and had been doing some bucket list items like accepting an award in Nashville from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. And Circus Clowns. The last item on the list was getting the band back together.
In December 1973 these guys who hadn’t played together in 12 years met at Wills’ home in Texas. The next day they started what would be a two day session that features most of the Playboy’s repertoire and a few new ones. Many cuts were done in one take. After 12 years. Some of these clowns had been with the original 1935-38 bands and sounded like they were 25 years old.
Wills was in the studio the first day, directing from his wheelchair and hollering, all musicians’ eyes on their leader. But the night before the second day Bob Wills slipped into a coma that he would not recover from. The story of that second day in the studio is incredible, and you cannot tell from the recordings which were done with Bob there and which were done with devastated hearts. Pros.
The recordings from those two days were released in 1974, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, For the Last Time. Certainly one of the definitive swing albums of all time and always will be. And was kind of a ‘let’s have a barbecue and do some pickin’ kind of a thing. Crazy. Crazy enough for Merle Haggard to beg his way into the studio where he sang and played fiddle. Betty Wills said “Merle just wanted to be a Playboy for a day”. I hear that.
Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.
In doing research on Benny Goodman, in the very first sentence the author used the word eponymous. In a like amount of research on Bob Wills I never came within a drunks breath distance to a word like that. God bless the writer who doesn’t make us look up shit. No, I did not look it up. Yer missing the point.