Merle Haggard called him "the best damn fiddle player in the world." A New York Times obituary said he was "a super-giant before there were super-giants, an Elvis Presley of the nineteen-thirties and forties." In Texas, at least, according to Waylon Jennings, Bob Wills is still the king.
"Until Hank Williams came along, it was just Bob Wills," says Willie Nelson. "He was it." And indeed he was, especially for the thousands in the Southwest who knew and loved Bob Wills. The colorful bandleader-composer-fiddler from Turkey, Texas, was the one performer who for years lassoed the emotions of country-and-western fans nationwide. For a while in the early forties, his records sold better than those of any other recording artist. He was voted not only into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, but also into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, the only performer other than Gene Autry to be so honored.
Wills brought country music closer to the city when he created western swing, a dynamic hybrid of New Orleans jazz, blues, and folk fiddle music that kept a Depression populace on its feet. For more than fifty years, Wills and his several bands -most notably, the Texas Playboys - entertained the nation with such classics as his "San Antonio Rose," "Faded Love," "Steel Guitar Rag," and "Take Me Back to Tulsa."
What caught on first in Texas and Oklahoma later spread across the country, and in the process Bob Wills became a legend. More than a dozen cowboy movies which he and his Texas Playboys made in the forties helped swell the legend to mammoth proportions.
On May 13, 1975, Bob Wills died. But the reverence for the man and the respect for his music live on. His influence can be noted in much of what is heard today under the "country" heading. As a successful melder of several musical styles, he left an indelible imprint on the music world. The country rock band Asleep at the Wheel is only one contemporary group in which the legacy is apparent.
Wills lives on, too, in this compelling and warm narrative. Affectionately written by a Texan who responded to the legendary fiddler's magnetism, SAN ANTONIO ROSE is a meticulous recapturing of Wills and the musical excitement he created.
Charles R. Townsend traces Wills's colorful and dynamic life, from his birth into a family of frontier fiddlers (1905), through the development of his career and the poignancy of his last recording session (1973), to his death in 1975. He shows how Wills brought black and white musical traditions together and examines the tremendous impact he had on both popular and country music through the more than 550 selections he recorded and the forty years he and his Texas Playboys performed in dance halls and on radio. Wills's cigar, fiddle, and big white hat were his trademarks; his "ah haa" was a badge that endeared him to thousands. They are all part of SAN ANTONIO ROSE: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF BOB WILLS. Townsend has mined the rich lode of personal insights and anecdotes found among Wills's family, members of his various bands, business associates, friends, and fans. Fortunately, to complete this definitive study, he was able to interview Wills many times, and, in fact, sat in on Wills's last recording session. A comprehensive discography by Bob Pinson of the Country Music Foundation details all Wills's recordings, from 1929 to 1973. Pinson also presents a Wills filmusicography.
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