Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys

While he may not have invented Western swing (Milton Brown, Leon Selph, Ted Daffan, and Bill Boyd deserve some credit), Bob Wills defined the genre.

Take fiddle-based old-time string-band music from the 1920s and '30s, move it to a city such as Tulsa or Fort Worth, add jazz, blues, pop, and sacred music, back it with strings and horns played by a dozen or so musicians, add an electric steel guitar along the way, and you have Western swing. And when you talk Western swing, you start with Bob Wills. Though the sound began in the 1930s, the '40s proved its heyday, with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys filling dancehalls across the South. Wills picked his musicians carefully: bluesy crooner Tommy Duncan was the vocal lead, Leon McAuliffe played electric steel guitar (doing much to popularize it country-wide), and the great Eldon Shamblin played lead guitar. Wills, a fiddler himself, always featured one or two of the hottest players around, including the incredible Johnny Gimble. One of country music's best-known songs, "San Antonio Rose," was written by Wills and sold a million copies in 1940.

Wills and his Texas Playboys sold so well that they appeared in eight movies, Westerns in which the solitary singing cowboy was replaced by a hot-playing swing band. The mania for Western swing had ended by the '50s, and though Wills played dates (including Las Vegas) throughout the '60s and recorded occasionally, his heights in the '40s were never again reached.

In 1973, Wills called together a group of his best Playboys (plus Merle Haggard, one of his greatest fans) for one last recording session. In a wheelchair, Wills was present for the first day only, suffering a stroke and never regaining consciousness. This final album was titled For the Last Time. ~ David Vinopal, Rovi

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