Home > PublicationsEncyclopedia >  Wills, Johnnie Lee

WILLS, JOHNNIE LEE (1912–1984).

Brother of Bob Wills, Johnnie Lee Wills was born on September 2, 1912, in Hall County, Texas, the second of four sons born to tenant farmers John and Emma Wills. As a guitar player Johnnie Lee backed up his father at fiddling contests and house dances. Older brother Bob Wills, as one of the original Light Crust Doughboys playing for Burrus Mill and Elevator Company, persuaded the mill to hire Johnnie Lee. When Bob left the Doughboys in September 1933 to form his own band, he took Johnnie Lee to play the tenor banjo, a rhythm instrument common to dance bands of the era. In 1934, when the band moved to Tulsa to play on KVOO radio, Johnnie Lee Wills became one of the few "original" Texas Playboys.

Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys grew, changed sounds, and had more bookings than they could play, and Bob encouraged shy Johnnie Lee to front his own band, which he reluctantly did. In 1938 he named his first band the Rhythmaires, but they did not gain a wide following. In 1940 Johnnie Lee Wills and his father moved a band to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where, once again, popularity failed. He then reorganized in Tulsa with a few musicians from the Alabama Boys, and slowly developed his own fans as Johnnie Lee Wills and All His Boys.

In the summer of 1942, after Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys moved to Hollywood, Johnnie Lee took over the KVOO broadcasts, the Thursday and Saturday night dances at Cain's Ballroom, and the annual rodeo. He developed a band that at times was bigger and better than the Texas Playboys. Many of the musicians doubled on instruments, which often made the band sound larger than it was. Many Western-swing fans claim that they grew up hearing Bob Wills over KVOO, but they actually listened to Johnnie Lee Wills and All His Boys.

In the 1940s Johnnie Lee (not Bob), as the fiddle-playing front man, made "Milk Cow Blues" popular, recording for Decca Records. He was also the first to record "Peter Cottontail," on the Bullet label, and critics have claimed that his recording of "Rag Mop" played a significant role in the evolving sound of country/western music. In 1958, when his KVOO shows concluded, Johnnie Lee ended the nation's longest-running daytime radio program.

In 1982 Johnnie Lee Wills and All His Boys represented Oklahoma at the annual Smithsonian Institution Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C., playing for some of the largest crowds in that festival's history. Johnnie Lee Wills died in Tulsa on October 25, 1984, and was buried in Tulsa's Memorial Park Cemetery.

Guy Logsdon

See also: FOLKLIFE, FOLK MUSIC, WESTERN SWING

Bibliography

George O. Carney and Hugh W. Foley, Jr., Oklahoma Music Guide: Biographies, Big Hits, and Annual Events (Stillwater, Okla.: New Forums Press, 2003).

Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 26 October 1984.

Guy Logsdon, Mary Rogers, and William Jacobson, Saddle Serenaders (Salt Lake City, Utah: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 1995).

Tulsa (Oklahoma) World, 26 October 1984.

Copyright and Terms of Use

No part of this site may be construed as in the public domain.

Copyright to all articles and other content in the online and print Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History is held by the Oklahoma Historical Society. This includes individual articles (copyright to OHS by author assignment) and corporately (as a complete body of work), including web design, graphics, searching functions, and listing/browsing methods. Copyright to all of these materials is protected under United States and International law.

Users agree not to download, copy, modify, sell, lease, rent, reprint, or otherwise distribute these materials, or to link to these materials on another web site, without authorization of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Individual users must determine if their use of the Materials falls under United States copyright law's "Fair Use" guidelines and does not infringe on the proprietary rights of the Oklahoma Historical Society as the legal copyright holder of The Encyclopedia and part or in whole.

Photo credits: All photographs presented in the published and online versions of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture are the property of the Oklahoma Historical Society and are held in the agency's Research Division Photograph Archives (unless otherwise stated).


Citation

The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Guy Logsdon, "Wills, Johnnie Lee," The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, www.okhistory.org (accessed December 15, 2017).

About the Encyclopedia | Terms of Use | Using the Encyclopedia