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'Ahhhh-HA!': Discovering Bob Wills

February 23, 2005

Photo of Bob Wills in full Western costume"Bob Wills was reared in poverty among unlettered white and black musicians who expressed their deepest emotions in music," says Charles Townsend, author of "San Antonio Rose, The Life and Times of Bob Wills." The historian continued, "Like those musicians, he learned to perform and compose from the heart and soul." Townsend will visit SFSU and lead a discussion on Wills' musical legacy on March 8 as part of a salute to the musical innovator sponsored by Associated Students. SFSU Raza Studies Professor, Jose Cuellar and his musical guests will join Dr. Townsend to present a lecture-demo, "Crossing Borders with Bob Wills."

The tribute, "Bob Wills at 100," kicks off a week earlier with a March 1 screening of American films in which Wills and his band appeared. Local D.J. and music archivist Steve Hathaway hosts the screening and lecture. The tribute culminates on March 15 with a concert by the Northern California 12-piece Western swing band, Lost Weekend.

Muatta Kenyatta, Associated Students Performing Arts director and unabashed Texas bluesman, says all three events "must not be missed."

Wills, the Texas troubadour most remembered for pioneering country swing and writing and recording hits like "Faded Love" and "San Antonio Rose," spent his youth picking cotton and listening to adults sing their way through the day. "I don't know whether they made them up as they moved down the cotton rows or not," Wills once told Townsend, "but they sang blues you never heard before."

Photo of Bob Wills and the Texas PlayboysBorn John Bob Wills into a family of unschooled fiddlers on March 6, 1905, he made his musical debut on the fiddle at just 10 years old -- a last-minute dance hall replacement for his father. Wills eventually left the cotton fields for a barbershop job in Turkey, Texas and later graduated from barber school. Though unable to find work as a barber, he managed to get a gig with a medicine show.

The irony that Wills made his professional debut in blackface is not lost on Wills' daughter, Rosetta, who has helped with the SFSU tribute. "He had a lot of respect for the musicians and music of his black friends," Rosetta is quoted as saying on the Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys Web site. She remembers that her father was such a fan of Bessie Smith, "he once rode 50 miles on horseback just to see her perform live."

Dixieland, big city jazz and big bands dominated the air waves by the time Wills put his band, the Texas Playboys together. It toured the U.S. throughout the '30s, '40s and '50s, except during WWII when Wills and his band members served in the military. Eventually Wills became as popular as Tommy Dorsey, conducting his band with his fiddle bow and peppering his songs with the now-famous yell, "Ahhhh—HA!" In his first Grand Ol' Opry appearance in 1945 Wills shocked the management and audience by including drums in his brand of country music.

Hollywood eventually discovered Wills and the Playboys, who appeared in several Westerns including "Take Me Back to Oklahoma" with Tex Ritter.

Encouraged by country great Merle Haggard, Wills made his last album with the Playboys in the early 1970s,"For the Last Time." He died at the age of 70 on May 13, 1975.

For more about "Bob Wills at 100" events, visit the A.S. Performing Arts Web site.

-- Denize Springer
Photos: Courtesy of A.S. Performing Arts


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