Bob Wills’ and his Texas Playboys
When Texas Playboys front man Jason Roberts steps onto a stage with his fiddle and utters his first “AH-ha” of the evening, western-swing fans know they’re seeing and hearing nothing less than the living embodiment of a tradition that stretches all the way back to 1933. That was the year the charismatic fiddler Bob Wills and several other musicians in a group called the Light Crust Doughboys broke away from Fort Worth’s Burris Mills and its autocratic business manager, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, to form their own band. As Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, they became one of the most popular touring and recording acts in the nation, offering audiences the highly danceable musical mixture that came to be known as western swing.
Following Bob’s 1975 death, a group of ex-Playboys led by former Wills steel-guitarist Leon McAuliffe and hand-picked by McAuliffe and Bob’s widow, Betty, came together to keep the Bob Wills sound alive. Those men made a promise to one another that when the first of their number died, they would disband – and, true to their word, the group dissolved in 1986, following the death of piano player “Brother” Al Stricklin.
Eventually, with the blessing of the Bob Wills estate, guitarist-producer Tommy Allsup, a longtime Wills collaborator, and Leon Rausch, the Playboys’ last great vocalist, took over Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. They continued squarely in the Wills style, delighting old fans and making new ones, until 2018, following the death of Allsup and the retirement of nonagenarian Rausch.
Today, the Bob Wills sound continues, as big and bright and brassy as ever. The newest Texas Playboys aggregation is led by two-time Grammy winner Roberts, hand-picked by both the Wills estate and Leon Rausch, whose nearly two decades in the famed western-swing band Asleep at the Wheel includes an eight-year stint actually playing Bob Wills in the Wheel’s nationally touring musical-theatre production, A RIDE WITH BOB. And, like Bob’s original band, this group of Playboys includes some of the best swing musicians both Oklahoma and Texas have to offer.
The Okies include trombonist Steve Ham, trumpeter Mike Bennett, drummer Tony Ramsey, and fiddler Shawn Howe. The contingent from south of the Red River boasts piano player Wayne Glasson, steel-guitarist Dave Biller, saxophonist Larry Reed, and bassist Albert Quaid. Many of these top-notch players from both states have already done stints with the band’s earlier incarnations.
Together, Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys forge on through the 21st Century, bringing a nostalgic glow to longtime Wills fans and the joy of discovery to those who might not have even been born when Bob died. Once again, the baton has been passed, and the hands that grasped it are crafting some of the finest examples of Bob Wills-style western swing anyone could ever want to hear.