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Johnnie Lee Wills

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Fiddler Johnnie Lee Wills led the most popular pre-war Western swing band around the Oklahoma area; that is, after older brother Bob moved his Texas Playboys to California in 1940. He was born in Jewett, TX, on September 2, 1912, the second of four musical sons and seven years behind Bob. Johnnie Lee learned about music from his father, and began playing banjo with Bob when the Texas Playboys moved to KVOO-Tulsa in 1934. He formed the Rhythmairs in 1939, but returned to the fold the following year when Bob split the Playboys into two groups. Johnnie Lee took over the second unit (switching from banjo to fiddle), with younger brother Luther Jay on bass. A few months later, Bob moved to California and left Johnnie with his own band, christened Johnnie Lee Wills & His Boys. The brothers remained close though, and when Bob needed a substitute as leader, he called Johnnie. Johnnie Lee Wills & His Boys signed with Decca in 1941, and recorded ten initial sides. The group played on another session when a recording ban was lifted after World War II, but moved to Bullet Records in 1949. Wills' Bullet recordings proved to be the most popular of his career. Early in 1950, "Rag Mop" spent five weeks at the number-two spot in the country charts, and crossed over to the popular Top Ten; though a version by the Ames Brothers did even better. Later that year, "Peter Cotton Tail" also hit the country Top Ten. He moved to RCA Victor in 1952, but none of his recordings sold very well. Western swing's popularity was declining, though Wills' regional fame remained unchanged and he continued to appear regularly on KVOO until 1958. Wills recorded several albums for Sims in the early '60s, but his band broke up in 1964. He continued to work occasional shows and dances, and opened a Western clothing store in Tulsa with his son, John Thomas Wills. By the late '70s, the Western swing revival took notice of Johnnie Lee Wills, and releases of his early-'50s material appeared on Rounder and Bear Family. He also recorded reunion albums for Flying Fish and Delta with many former Texas Playboys. ~ John Bush

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1912 in Kosse, TX

Years Active:

'40s, '50s, '60s, '70s