[20 March 2009]
The world of music has its fair share of royalty, even though, as in the real world, the tendency to crown rulers of newly created principalities is on the wane. We didn’t even get a King and Queen of Grunge! Also like the real world, the rulers of bigger kingdoms are household names, while those rule over smaller domains are more likely relegated to footnotes and trivia questions. King of Pop? Queen of England? Easy. Prince of Liechtenstein? King of Ska? A little more obscure.
(Incidentally, it’s Hans-Adam II and Desmond Dekker, respectively.)
Not surprising then that the King of Western Swing is relatively unknown to all but the most dedicated music fans. For one thing, Bob Wills wasn’t crowned until just a few years before his death in 1975. And for another, the majority of listeners couldn’t point to Western Swing on a musical map, even though it’s arguably one of the most important precursors to the vast empire known as Rock and Roll.
Western Swing developed during the Big Band area, pioneered largely by Bob Wills and Spade Cooley, among others, and primarily in the Southwest. The form had an obvious affinity with Big Band or swing music, but substituted strings for horns: guitar, fiddle, steel guitar and pedal steel filled out the bands. While a professional Western Swing band’s repertoire would include a fair number of waltzes and ballads, most of the numbers played would be simple two-steps and the purpose was simple: to get people dancing. Western swing drew on elements of jazz, particularly gypsy or hot jazz, blues and country to get people out of their seats and onto the floor.
It’s a feat at which they were wildly successful. Wills and his Texas Playboys regularly drew audiences in the thousands and were at one point a bigger commercial draw than massively popular big bands like the Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller orchestras. Wills maintained his roots in Texas throughout his career, running a handful of dance clubs in the Lone Star State, but as the Depression ravished the Southwest and displaced its inhabitants and the ramping up of the defense industry on the West Coast drew even more Okies, Arkies and Texans to California, much of the audience for Western swing ended up in and around Los Angeles and San Francisco. Club owners and radio stations were anxious to tap into the new market and when Wills brought his band to L.A. to work in a couple film projects, he found himself inundated with job offers. The first long term gig he took was with the Army, but after seven months of service, Wills returned to the Bay Area and established himself as one of the leading practitioners of Western Swing.
Wills was a certainly a more kinetic bandleader than more famous bandleaders like Goodman or Miller, although Count Basie gets a pass on the mobility front since you really need to be seated to play piano and Duke Ellington is off the hook because… well, he’s Duke Ellington. Wills would walk around the stage, cigar in one hand and fiddle in the other, weaving between band members and now and then offering a quick fiddle part, an introduction, a cry of encouragement or a simple whoop of excitement.
In sheer terms of fans at the dances, Wills was undeniably King, although a showdown between Wills and fellow fiddler Spade Cooley, at the Venice Pier Ballroom, Cooley’s home club, awarded the title of “King of Western Swing” to Cooley. In the style of the cutting contests that were common among jazz musicians, these contests were decided largely by audience approval, so Cooley may have benefited from the home court advantage.
The numbers were rather staggering. In Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, Wills and the Playboys regularly sold out ballrooms, sometimes playing to audiences of nearly ten thousand. A band member said that at one Oakland show, you could’ve walked off the stage and across the crowd to the back of the hall it was so packed. Of course, that all changed in 1945.
By the end of the year, 1945 had been a good year for the war effort, but the war’s effect on the music industry was just beginning to be assessed. Many musicians had joined the armed services, whether as entertainers or combatants, and not all of them had come back (Glenn Miller, perhaps most famously, disappeared on a flight over France in 1942). But perhaps even more devastating to Western Swing and its adjectiveless counterpart was the cabaret tax levied first at the federal level in 1944 and then at the state and local level in the closing months of the war. Implemented to raise money for the war, the cabaret tax targeted establishments that both provided liquor and “furnish[ed] music, dancing privileges or any other entertainment”. When compiled with similar local taxes, this cabaret tax amounted to 30% in parts of California and made live band performance financially untenable for most venues.
Just imagine a 30% tax on dancing. If you live in New York City, it might not actually be that hard, but imagine that any club or bar you went to that might possibly include dancing, you had to pay a third more to get in, a third more for every drink.
Living room dance parties would begin to sound like a pretty good idea, eh?
The tax decimated the California dance scene and threatened to put a lot of swing bands out of work. After all, a swing band is a whole lot of mouths to feed. Wills attempted to find other sources of income and devised a scheme to turn his popularity into dollars through an early form of syndication. Along with an Oakland DJ and a local businessman, Wills formed the short-lived Tiffany Music, a company that would market radio shows by the Texas Playboys to radio stations. These transcriptions were originally recorded on sixteen inch discs similar to the acetates on which the recently recovered Hank Williams Mothers’ Best radio shows were cut, although more durable than the acetate used on the Williams recordings, which were only intended to last through a couple plays. Long bootlegged and recently re-released on CD, the Tiffany Transcriptions, recorded mostly in 1946 and ’47, present the breadth and depth of Wills’ band, able to record for the first time in a form longer than the constrictive 78 rpm records they were used to, and provide a fuller explanation as to why Wills is cited as a forefather of rock music.
In addition to the band’s hits, which tended to be based largely in the swing tradition, the Tiffany Transcriptions showcase the band trying out material from other Western Swing bands along with traditionals, minstrel songs and blues hits. The diversity and proficiency of the band is astounding, but even more so is their ability to bring these songs together and create a sound that is fluid, consistent and recognizable. Cover songs as varied as the swing hit “In the Mood”, the traditional Southern tune “Cotton Eyed Joe” and the Dixieland standard “Basin Street Blues” (with the original lyric, “where the dark and light folks meet” rather than “where the old and young folks meet”, as the Playboys recorded it for the single version) sit comfortably next to Wills’ originals.
Growing up picking cotton in the fields of Texas, Wills had been exposed to early blues music since childhood and remained a devoted fan throughout his life. Rosetta, Wills’ daughter, tells a family story of Wills riding fifty miles on horseback to see Bessie Smith perform. This reverence and respect somehow managed to survive Wills’ early forays into show business, when he performed in minstrel shows as a blackface comic.
One of the most popular forms of live entertainment in the US before and after the Civil War and considered the first genuinely American theatrical form, the minstel show and its specters continue to haunt American culture. Artists and critics from Eric Lott to Spike Lee have grappled with the legacy of minstrelsy, but its popularity, longevity and ubiquity mean that it is deeply encoded into America’s cultural DNA. Created by whites claiming to be presenting “real” black culture, the minstrel show not only used white music to shape the perception of black culture by audience, but its songs so pervaded the early music industry that it shaped the kinds of music by black performers that would be marketed and sold. By the time Wills would have corked up for the minstrel stage, the form was in decline, soon to have its racist overtones swept under the rug by a rise in awareness of black music, art and literature by white audiences, as well as the early rumblings of the civil rights movement.
Whether Bob Wills was a true lover of the blues or just a skilled appropriator, the Tiffany Transcriptions showcase a mix of country and blues that might have lead directly to the development of rock and roll, had it not been for the cabaret tax and the preference of the Nashville country establishment for a more subdued and produced sound over the unstoppable energy of Western Swing. While the Western sound fell out of favor in Nashville and the LA dance club scene dried up, the seeds planted by Wills took strong root in Bakersfield, California in the early 1950s. Musicians like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens turned their backs on Nashville, embraced the vibrant combination of blues and country practiced by Wills and his contemporaries and, dropping in a backbeat that would be one of the crucial components in early rock music, created the Bakersfield sound, a raucous version of country that would come to be a heavy influence on early rockers, including the Rolling Stones.
Around the same time, Pennsylvania-raised Bill Haley, who’d spent much of the late 1940s heading up a band called the Four Aces of Western Swing, changed the name of his backing band, then the Saddlemen, to the Comets and recorded “Rock Around the Clock”, whose 12-bar structure was a mash-up of a blues progression and Hank Williams’ “Move It on Over”, effectively putting rock and roll on the map (although his first big hit was a cover of bluesman Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll”). Not long after, Texan Willie Nelson left the Nashville scene where he’d had more success as a songwriter than as a performer and “retired” to Austin, where he began playing the Western Swing-influenced country that made him famous, and a decade later, fellow Outlaw Waylon Jennings would quietly lift the King of Western Swing crown from Spade Cooley and place it on Bob Wills with a song titled “Bob Wills is Still the King”.
Today, many performers, from Asleep at the Wheel to Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, play a revivalist form of Western Swing, but even more may be tipping a hat to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys without even knowing it. Chomping down on his cigar, Wills and his legacy strut around the stage of musical history, rarely taking the lead but now and then giving a holler of approval.