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State Capitol hosts celebration of “Bob Wills Day” with daughter, Carolyn Wills, music and dance

By the 1930's, Bob Wills had become the face of Western swing. Photo courtesy

By Darla Shelden
Contributing Writer

The public is invited to celebrate “Bob Wills Day” with song and dance at the Oklahoma State Capitol on Wednesday, April 4. from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

State Representative Purcy Walker (HD 60) from western Oklahoma and Kent Harrison, State President of the Oklahoma State Fiddlers, Inc., are working together to organize the event in recognition of the music icon.

The event kicks off with music by the Oklahoma State Fiddlers Band performing in the House Chamber from 9 a.m. to noon.

“The Oklahoma State Fiddlers have hosted the Bob Wills day at the State Capitol for many years, perhaps as long as twenty,” said Kent Harrison. “Bob Wills Day is an official day in recognition of his great music which, in my opinion, helped a lot of Oklahomans bear the misery of the great depression.”

That afternoon the event moves to the 4th floor rotunda where there will be a news conference followed by entertainment featuring Tulsa native Bob Fjeldsted and the Roundup Boys, best known for their classic country and Bob Wills repertoire. The rotunda will be filled with Bob Wills dance music and everyone is encouraged to join in.

At 1 p.m., Carolyn Wills, daughter Bob Wills, will announce the award of a $20,000 grant from the Grammy Foundation, on behalf of the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS) and the Bob Wills Heritage Foundation. The Wills family recently donated the entire Bob Wills collection to the Oklahoma Historical Society. The collection will be featured at OKPOP, a statewide pop culture museum planned for the Brady Arts District in downtown Tulsa.

The $20,000 grant, one of only 12 grants in the nation, will fund the conversion of the Bob Wills Heritage Foundation collection of glass discs from the 1940’s. The collection contains around 600 hours of material from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys that would otherwise be inaccessible, including reel-to-reel tapes that have already been digitized by OHS.

The Bob Wills Collection includes nearly 30 live recordings and 130 glass discs of his recordings, 350 photos, manuscripts, letters, artifacts, fiddles and more. Several items from the collection will be on display during the event at the Capitol.

At 1:45 p.m., Carolyn will address the House Chamber on behalf of the Oklahoma Historical Society, which is requesting a $40 million state bond issue from the state to help fund the museum.

Considered the King of Western swing music, the Texas-born Bob Wills gained popular acclaim playing music at Cain’s Ballroom, which started airing on KVOO in Tulsa in the 1930s. He is still considered one of the most influential artists in country music today.

“I inherited this job from Rep. Dale Turner who termed out about 6 years ago,” said Rep. Walker. “He knew I had an interest in it and he asked me if I’d just take the reins and keep it going.” “People come and sit down on the House floor or up in the gallery, anywhere they want to sit. They listen to the music and some get up and dance in the aisle a bit,” said Walker. “Individuals and groups come in from all over the state to listen to the music and to spend the day at the Capitol.”

In an interview for Cowboys & Indians magazine, Carolyn Wills said, “Not only did his music bring America to its feet, but his view of and pride in being Western evoked a now-classic style. His talent for synthesizing sound — whether in the vein of blues, jazz, ragtime, Hispanic, country, gospel, or big band — into the music known as Western swing translated to his equally contagious and innate sense for designing the image known as Bob Wills.”

Tulsa resident, Robert Bishop who manages a website “dedicated to the music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, the greatest Western Swing Band ever:” said, “Bob Wills was the pulse of the music and of the people. He had an uncanny knack of reading the audience to know the next song that should be played; there were no real set lists. Bob could also inspire the musicians to play better than they themselves thought they could. With its heavy emphasis on the beat, strong jazz improvisation and the silky smooth vocals of singers like Tommy Duncan, Bob Wills had the hottest band in the land.”

James Robert Wills (March 6, 1905 – May 13, 1975), better known as Bob Wills, was an American Western swing musician, songwriter, and bandleader. He was considered by music authorities as the co-founder of Western swing and was universally known as the King of Western Swing. Bob Wills and Milton Brown are deemed to be the main figures of the Western Swing genre.

Wills put together several bands before he formed the Texas Playboys in 1934 with Wills on fiddle, Tommy Duncan on piano and vocals, rhythm guitarist June Whalin, tenor banjoist Johnnie Lee Wills, and Kermit Whalin playing steel guitar and bass.

In 1939, Bob Wills and O.W. Mayo started the annual “Bob Wills Stampede” held at the Tulsa Pavilion. It was the pride of Tulsa and featured 500 riders and the best bucking broncos in the country.

Wills performed jazz inspired arrangements and the band found national popularity in the 1940s with hits like “Steel Guitar Rag”, “New San Antonio Rose” and “New Spanish Two Step.”

In 1950, Wills and the Texas Playboys had two top ten hits, “Ida Red Likes the Boogie” and “Faded Love” which would become a national country standard and was later adopted as the official state country and western song of Oklahoma on February 3, 1988.

Bob Wills has been honored with numerous awards from organizations that include the Country Music Hall of Fame, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the 2007 Grammy celebration he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for his contributions to American music.

“Bob Wills Day is a time for us to kind of show off the Capitol and hear some good music,” said Rep. Walker.

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