Waylon Jennings' Bob Wills Is Still The King.
There are a ton of songs about or inspired by Dallas, and they say a lot about who we are. So each week in this space, we'll take a closer week at one of these songs — and we'll try to determine what, exactly, they say about this great city of ours. Check out this feature's archives here.
In 1975, Waylon Jennings earned his first No. 1 record when he released Dreaming My Dreams, the most sentimental of the albums recorded during his outlaw period.
The album, which serves as a tribute to his honky-tonk heroes, kicks off with “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” and closes with “Bob Wills is Still the King.” The latter, as it appeared on this release, was recorded live at the Austin Opry House in 1974.
Though the whole album plays as a sort of tip-of-the-hat to Jennings' predecessors, that closing number, in particular, acknowledges that western swing provided the foundation for his country upbringing.
“I grew up on music that we called western swing,” Jennings sings on that cut. “It don't matter who's in Austin, Bob Wills is still the king.”
The story of how Wills came to earn that royal status — as you no doubt suspect by now — is largely Dallas-centric. Though he performed onstage for the first time at the age of 11, when he filled in for his father, state champion fiddler John Tompkins Wills, who was too drunk to perform one night, it would turn out to be a long time before Wills would realize that music would become his career.
In the 1920s, Wills graduated from barber college and worked for a time as a barber in Turkey, Texas. Even when Wills relocated to Fort Worth in 1929, he split his time equally between fiddling and barbering. That year, though, he would make his first commercial recordings for Brunswick Records in Dallas. Those tracks, however, would never be released, and they've been lost to time in the years since.
In 1931, though, an out-of-work Wills approached W. Lee “Pappy” O'Daniel, who was president of Burrus Mill and Elevator Company, about linking radio and advertising to bring attention that company's Light Crust Flour. The idea was a clever one: Wills, along with Herman Arnspiger and Milton Brown, would perform a series of regular radio performances under the name The Light Crust Doughboys. O'Daniel agreed, and the rest is Texas music history.
In February of 1932, Willis and the Doughboys would record for Victor Records their first session under their own name — the Fort Worth Doughboys — within a makeshift studio at the Jefferson Hotel in Dallas.
By 1934, however, Wills' Doughboys days were behind him. He began performing gigs in Waco with his new Texas Playboys band. During this period, Wills and Brown fused elements of jazz (including horns, drums and piano) into their traditional string-heavy western dance bands.
By the end of the decade, their brand of music was widely known as western swing, and Fort Worth's Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion was considered something of a national hub for the genre.
In 1935, Wills recorded 20 more tunes for Brunswick, among them his hits “Maiden's Prayer” and “Spanish Two Step.” And, although Wills was gaining popularity at this point, his most notable recording sessions were still ahead.
Due to his previous sessions' popularity Wills was asked to record more cuts for Brunswick in June of 1937. Even for a Texas summer, though, that was an especially hot and humid time, and Wills' studio had no air conditioning or ventilation. To remedy this, producers filled the studio ice block-filled bathtubs and fans to blow the cool air onto the musicians. They were also sure to fill the cold tubs with plenty of beers for the band.
By the third day of that session, it was so hot that not even this clever setup seemed to help much. So the band finished recording the last of the 28 tracks they recorded that weekend while only wearing their underwear. The legend that grew from the quote-unquote underwear sessions ranks with Robert Johnson's Dallas recordings as the most storied sessions in Dallas history.
The next year, the Texas Playboys cut a tune they decided to call “San Antonio Rose.” In 1940, Fred Kramer of the Irving Berlin Co. had arranged to buy the song, giving Wills a $300 advance on future royalties with the condition that he'd add lyrics to it. So, during a session for Columbia Records in Dallas, the band recorded a rearranged version of the tune, stripping away Wills' trademark fiddle for Tommy Duncan's vocal melody. They dubbed this new version “New San Antonio Rose.” It would eventually become their signature hit.
Another signature of Wills' was that, by this point in his career, he'd begun using an 18-piece band, which was considered massive in those days. For comparison sake, consider the fact that traditional swing bandleader Glen Miller recorded his “In the Mood” hit just one year prior, with only 13 musicians making up his own “big band.”
And things only got bigger for Wills moving forward. That Dallas-recorded version of “New San Antonio Rose” would eventually be heard all over the world — and even beyond. In 1969, Apollo 12 astronauts sang the tune while in orbit. Meanwhile, back on earth, Wills was quoted as saying the tune took him “from burgers to steaks,” and he credited it with being the catalyst that launched his acting career. The year of that song's release, Wills appeared in Take Me Back to Oklahoma, the first of over a dozen films in which he'd appear throughout his life.
But “actor” wouldn't be the badge that Wills would carry to his grave. Though he is only credited with co-founding the genre, by the early 1940s, there was no denying that Wills was the undisputed King of Western Swing.
And, in the '50s, Wills would further his ties with the Bob Wills Ranch House venue in Dallas (later known as the Longhorn Ballroom) that he briefly owned. As we've mentioned in a previous edition of this column , that venue was sold in 1951 after shady dealings and unscrupulous managers brought an abundance of money troubles to Wills.
Wills still had some fight in him, though, and, as Wills' first and most important recording sessions all occurred in Dallas, it's only fitting that his last ever session happened here, too.
On December 3, 1973, Wills and a reunited Texas Playboys gathered for what was to be a two-day recording session. Father-and–son fiddle greats Hoyle Nix and Jody Nix were to appear on the album as well, and, when word about the session got out, Merle Haggard drove through the night to appear on the recording, too.
Sadly, by the time Haggard showed up, he was informed that Wills had suffered a massive stroke in the night and that the Western Swing King wouldn't be making it in for the second day of recording.
And though Wills didn't die until May 13, 1975, he was never healthy enough to ever attend another recording session. His fellow players didn't realize it at the time, but Wills' uttering of the words “Cut out the lights!” at the end of the Jody Nix-led “When You Leave Amarillo (Turn Out the Lights)” would be the last words the aging legend's voice would ever record.
But the 1974 album that hosted that track, For the Last Time, still ended up doing rather well on the charts, serving as a kind of last hurrah for the genre. By the end of the '70s, other forms of country music eventually pushed Western Swing off of popular radio..
Still, Jennings never felt he'd finished paying his debt to Wills. And though Wills' passing came a month prior to the release of Jennings' Dreaming My Dreams, Jennings continued to perform the song frequently up until the time of his own death in 2002. And, even though in Jennings' mind the genre seemed to forgotten by the rest of the world by that time, he'd continue to boast until the day of that he was “proud to be from Texas,” because at least there Bob Wills was still the king.