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The Genius of Bob Wills – Twenty Essential Songs from the 1930s

Bob Wills without his cigar

Bob Wills without his cigar

It was during the 1940s that Bob Wills, the uncontested King of Western Swing music, became a major radio and movie star. He scored twenty country Top Ten hits during with six of those going to #1. However, he truly displayed the versatility of the Texas Playboys during a stretch from 1935 to 1938, when the band recorded material influenced by blues, jazz, jug band, big band, pop, and country sources to make his uniquely rhythmic and upbeat brand of dance music. Here are twenty essential songs during that period, with many of his most popular/enduring songs of that era waiting on the sidelines for completest identification. Songs are listed in chronological order.

1. “Osage Stomp.” This comes from the first recording session by the Playboys that occurred in 1935 in Dallas, Texas. “Osage Stomp,” obviously based on “Memphis Shakedown” by the Memphis Jug Band, sounds like a cartoon runaway train. The thirteen-piece band included twin fiddles, banjos, and saxophones. Wills directs traffic with a steel guitar solo from Leon McAuliffe and a slap bass solo from Thomas Lansford.

2. “Spanish Two Step.” According to some sources, this instrumental fiddle number was the first song that Wills wrote. It would later be reworked and become “San Antonio Rose.”

3. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Bob digs into the (at the time) brand new American songbook with this tune that originated on Broadway in the late 20s. Before the vocalist takes the spotlight, there are saxophone, piano, and fiddle solos. The rhythmic banjo playing gives the performance a slight Dixieland feel.

4. “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” Vocalist Tommy Duncan adds some bizarre Jimmie Rodgers yodeling to this Dixieland meets jug band interpretation of “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” which had been a hit in the 1920s for Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, and Louis Armstrong. Duncan won the lead vocalist slot in the Playboys by performing this song during a tryout session.

5. “Who Walks In When I Walk Out.” Harry Roy and His Orchestra released this Al Hoffman composition in 1933. The breakneck paced Wills version sounds like Django Reinhardt colliding with “Istanbul Not Constantinople.”

6. “Old Fashioned Love.” Wills takes a falsetto lead turn on the Frank Loesser/Fritz Miller composition.

7. “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” Wills updated this 1930 Big Bill Broonzy recording and tossed in a hint of “Hesitation Blues.” Tommy Duncan croons like a man with no worries in the world, despite the downhearted lyrical theme.

8. “She’s Killing Me.” The call and response and backup chorus vocals give this upbeat tale about an unreliable woman an odd gospel feel.

9. “Basin Street Blues.” On this 1936 session, Wills had added trumpet and clarinet to his horn section, giving him the ability to replicate Louis Armstrong on that street where the dark and the light folks meet.

10. “Bring it on Down to My House, Honey.” The melody for this rambunctious 1936 booty call was popular during this timeframe. You will also hear it in Robert Johnson’s “They’re Red Hot” and Blind Boy Fuller’s “Truckin’ My Blues Away.” Go back to 1928 and you’ll hear the same song structure in the please-don’t-answer-the-question “What Is It That Tastes Like Gravy” by Tampa Red.

11. “Right or Wrong.” Written in 1921 as a “fox-trot ballad,” many jazz and swing orchestras performed this number in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but it was the Emmett Miller version that lead to this recording. (The blackface performer was Tommy Duncan’s favorite vocalist). Due to the popularity of the this version, “Right or Wrong” has become a Western swing standard.

12. “Playboy Stomp.” A fast paced, jazz influenced, horn driven instrumental number. Legend has it that the Dallas recording studio was so hot during this session, the band stripped down to their skivvies to perform.

13. “Blue Yodel (T for Texas).” Another opportunity for Duncan to show off his yodeling chops. It was Duncan’s effortless versatility as a vocalist that truly set the Playboys apart from any other Western swing outfit.

14. “Black Rider.” African American singer Georgia White recorded this blues number in 1936 with Les Paul (how weird is that?). Jesse Ashlock provides a mournful fiddle solo in the Wills version.

15. “Pray for the Lights to Go Out.” Known as a “Negro shouting song,” another time when gospel met Western swing. Melodically, similar to “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy (from Dumas).” It was during this 1938 session that Eldon Shamblin first played with the band. A few decades later, Rolling Stone magazine labeled him as “the world’s greatest rhythm guitar player.”

16. “Keep Knocking (But You Can’t Come In).” Originally recorded as a piano based blues number by James “Boodle It” Wiggins in 1928, who tossed in a kazoo solo. Milton Brown did a Western swing version in 1936. Bob Wills cut his version in 1938, which was followed by Louis Jordan’s 1939 cover. All were markedly less frenetic than Little Richard’s 1957 Top Ten pop hit.

17. “San Antonio Rose.” By December of 1938, Wills had dropped the trumpet and clarinet from his band and was moving toward the traditional Western swing that he would make him famous. Following “Osage Stomp,” this is the second step toward “New San Antonio Rose” – the instrumental version.

18. “My Window Faces the South.” First performed by Fats Waller, a performer almost as irrepressible as fiddling Bob, Wills relocated this song from pop/blues/jazz territory into Western swing. Notice how the rhythm guitar is synced with the drums, which became a standard practice in the genre.

19. “That’s What I Like About the South.” Penned by Andy Razaf, who also wrote “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and “Black and Blue.” This became one of Wills’ most enduring numbers, although lyrically the dedication to “dear old mammy” sounds offensive to the modern ear. It later became the signature song for singer/actor Phil Harris.

20. “Don’t Let the Deal Go Down.” Wills updates Charlie Poole’s 1925 hit as a showcase for the band’s twin fiddle prowess. Who needs lyrics?

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