Billy Jack Wills and his Western Swing Band, early 1950s. From left: Vance Terry, Kenny Lowery, Dick McComb, Charlie Moore, Billy Jack Wills, Cotton Roberts, Tiny Moore. Click to enlarge.
The late 1940s were tumultuous times for Bob Wills and his extended family. At first glance, it may have seemed like the Texas Playboys were at the apex of their popularity. They were the top draw in western swing, commanding huge crowds wherever they played, and the records for their new label, MGM, continued their hit streak on the charts. The ballroom era was still in excelsis, so it seemed a wise investment when Bob purchased the Aragon Ballroom and Swimming Pool on the northern outskirts of Sacramento in June, 1948. Renaming it Wills Point, perhaps with the notion of making this a permanent home for the band and his family, Bob was intent on recapturing the magic of the Tulsa years, when Cain's Dancing Academy had been an oasis amid dust storms and Depression.
But a closer look reveals cracks forming underneath this glitzy facade. The Hollywood musical western had swiftly become a thing of the past at the close of WWII, cutting out an important film component to recordings. The craze for all things western was starting to crest, and would soon enter decline in popular culture, particularly in California, where a restless urban youth culture was converting old cars to hot rods, and starting to embrace black music and records, like Wild Bill Moore's "Rock and Roll" (from early 1948) -- shunning western swing. Crowds may have still been large, but Bob would have noticed a tapering off as the months went by. It was starting to become financially impossible to carry ten, twelve, and fourteen-piece bands. Virtually the entire Texas Playboy band, led by Tommy Duncan, quit over money in September, 1948, a terrible blow from which Bob never fully recovered. New recruits were easy enough to assemble, and many good records continued to be made, but the camaraderie and chemistry would never be the same again.
Into this void fell Bob's youngest brother, drummer and vocalist Billy Jack Wills (b. 1926). Eager to get back to familiar territory after the disaster of ’48, Bob moved his base of operations away from Sacramento and back to Oklahoma, then Dallas in 1950, where he leased a new ballroom, Bob Wills' Ranch House. At first, Bob was content to have electric mandolinist-fiddler-vocalist Tiny Moore manage and lead the band at Wills Point, a band which in early 1950 included trumpeter Dick McComb and drummer Charlie Moore (no relation to Tiny). This band may not have been drawing enough of a crowd, so Bob directed Billy Jack to leave the Texas Playboys and take it over as lead vocalist, hoping that the Wills name would boost ticket sales. This was probably not long after the Texas Playboys' April 27, 1950, session for MGM which produced “Faded Love,” and Billy Jack singing “Rock-a-Bye Baby Blues.” The group, with shifting personnel, lasted about six years, cutting many excellent records for 4-Star and MGM. But they didn't sell. Wills Point then burned to the ground in June, 1956. Although ads can be found for Billy Jack making personal appearances as late as October, 1960, by the early sixties he was largely out of music and working regular day jobs back in Oklahoma.
Billy Jack Wills' Western Swing Band had a strange afterlife. They were completely forgotten until the 1980s, when Western records released two well-received albums of non-commercial transcriptions. These were followed by a few scattered appearances on rockabilly compilations of the MGM singles (which don't feature the original band). Only in the 21st century have their 4-Star records been widely reissued. Thus, in a reverse of the usual way these things go, the records that were best-known in their own time, and best captured the band's original sound at its peak in 1951, were the last to be reissued.
Because of the unusual nature of this reissue program, the group's original drummer, Charlie Moore, went unmentioned in writing about the group. The photographs used for the Western reissues featured drummer Tommy Perkins, and nearly all subsequent writing has assumed that Perkins was the group's main drummer.
But Perkins actually didn't join until 1954 (a newspaper clipping from March of that year refers to Perkins as their “newest member”). Charlie Moore was the drummer from 1950 to 1953, and drives the beat on the 4-Star recordings.
I interviewed Charlie Moore by phone on February 8 and March 19, 2000. A portion of these interviews were printed in the Western Swing Newsletter, but this is the first time that the complete interviews have appeared. By then a devout elder statesmen, Charlie did not want to have his comments about the boozing in the parking lot printed.
Looking over Billboard magazine and newspapers from the 1950-53 period gives one the impression that these were still the glory years for live music, but Charlie provided the keen insight that "the band business" (as it was called) had already gone into terminal decline by 1950. “There just wasn’t money in all of this stuff,” he said. “It wasn’t like it was when Bob was playing (in the ’40s) – and all the big jobs that paid big money. We didn’t get that. It was over by the time we came along.”
CHARLIE MOORE: I was born in Guthrie, Oklahoma, in ’26. We went to Blackwell (Ok.) after that, then Kansas. I started out (playing drums) at about 12. I didn’t play with anybody, I just played with the radio, records, and what-have-you. I made a set of drums out of cardboard boxes.
Smokey Dacus lived in Blackwell. He went with my sister. He was Bob Wills’ first drummer, and I was Billy Jack’s first drummer.
ANDREW BROWN: What was the first real band that you worked with?
The Medicine Valley Boys. That was a group that played modern music with a “touchy” touch. Saxophone, piano, bass, guitar, and once in awhile a trumpet. And drums. I played part-time with them. They had a drummer, but he liked to loaf. That was in Medicine Lodge, Kansas. I was in high school.
Then I came out to Sacramento and went to school out here, and that’s where I learned a lot of my stuff – more professional licks.
You moved to Sacramento approximately what year?
Was anything happening musically in Sacramento at that time?
Not at that time, but after the war, there was plenty going on here. ’Cause Bob Wills had moved out to California – and then there was the Maddox Brothers and Rose. She used to sing on streets up here in North Sacramento for what money they’d throw at her. But they got really big around here.
Did you work with any western bands before Billy Jack Wills’?
Have you heard of Bud Hobbs? I played about a year-and-a-half with him. That man could drink more whiskey faster than anybody I ever saw. He took the cure so many times, it was unbelievable. I think he killed somebody – I always thought he would, driving that Cadillac 100 miles an hour everywhere he went.
Was that band based in Sacramento?
Yeah. And there was a place they named after Bud down in Lodi. I played in the Oakland Arena with Bud. I played with Ole Rasmussen, too.
Down in Los Angeles?
No, he come up here.
Who influenced your playing during these years?
Whitey Simpson played western swing (in Sacramento), and he had this drummer, Bert Reef. What a guy he was. I bought my first set of drums from him. I listened to him a lot, ’cause he had a swing beat. (Simpson’s band) was pretty popular in this North Valley area. It was over and finished by the time Billy Jack got here.
Charlie Moore and Tiny Moore, "The Wizard."
Who were you working with right before Billy Jack’s band?
Well, I was working with Tiny Moore. Tiny, he was the manager of Wills Point. Bob wanted Billy to sing – he needed another leader in the family, I guess. This is why he sent him out. And, of course, they wanted somebody that was going to be steady at Wills Point, and have a really top-notch band.
He (Tiny) just had a bunch of the local guys that had been working there with (steel guitarist) J.L. Jenkins, and that trumpet player that worked with Bob, Alex Brashear. We played with these guys for some time before Tiny came out. But then Tiny came, and – I don’t know how many months it was before Billy came. It was a few weeks or months. See, Billy came out, and they went down south lookin’ around to see what they could find. I guess they were down there for a week – Modesto and Stockton, Lodi, and all through the Valley – and they found these guys playing in a club: Tommy Varner (steel guitar), Cotton Roberts (bass/fiddle), and Kenny Lowery (rhythm guitar).
Dick McComb and I were the only ones that was kept (from the earlier band). Billy kept us, but then he got these other guys. They played the first night as the Billy Jack Wills band.
Covina, Ca., Argus ad, November 9, 1951
Why didn’t Billy and Tiny want to use the other guys, like J.L. Jenkins?
Well, J.L. had been back in Oklahoma for quite awhile. We went by his name for a while there at Wills Point.
Billy wanted to take it a step farther ahead than what Bob had been doing. And he did. Tiny always said Billy Jack had more talent than all the rest of 'em put together. But let me tell you something – it was Tiny Moore’s wizardry that made our sound. He had jazz in his make-up. He listened to Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw – our version of “Summit Ridge Drive” used to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I couldn’t believe I was playing this.
Tiny made these arrangements without writing a note down. He’d say to Dick McComb: “All right, on trumpet you play: dah-dah-de-duh-duh.” Then he’d tell Vance (Terry) to hit two notes a lot of the time. Vance would play it two or three times by himself. Dick would play his (part) two or three times by himself. And then Tiny says, “Well, I’m gonna play this.” And he’d pick what he was going to pick. And there they were. Then he’d say, “Okay, let’s hear it.” You wouldn’t have any idea what it was going to sound like until you heard them all hit their notes.
"Tobacco Chewing Boogie" (4-Star) 1951
Piece by piece, this was the way he went through all those riffs, and all those real jazzy horn sections. They would play that about four or five times, and it was memorized right there on the spot. Now, that’s wizardry. I have to give Tiny this credit. He had jazz in his guts.
I belong to the jazz society (in Sacramento), and they remember Tiny something fierce. One of the top trumpet players in the jazz society told me, “When I was a kid, we used to go to Wills Point to hear swing. We couldn’t hear it anywhere else.”
Tiny could make us sound just like the big bands’ sound – this was what knocked their heads off.
So, Tommy Varner got drafted pretty early on?
He played steel for just a little while. Varner went into the army. He also got married, I think. I thought he was a pretty good steel guitarist until Vance come along, and then – Vance was better. He had a great talent. The girls went crazy over that guy. We couldn’t keep him under wraps, ‘cause he was out and gone…until it was time to play.
Wills Point Ballroom
So, Billy Jack just fronted the band – he never played the drums?
Very seldom. I was the full-time drummer. I didn’t play at the radio station (KFBK), because it was kind of a small place, and Billy could sing and play the drums at the same time. I only played there, oh, about half-a-dozen times. Billy was real strict about how he wanted the drums played, and I had to play ’em that way. “Water Baby Boogie” is the one he used to like to set up there and play.
But Billy seldom played the drums on stage, because we were a real busy band. For seven people making that much music, we had to be busy. Some of those songs, they’d change around a couple of times during one song. Dick McComb would double on the bass when the fiddles were playing and Billy was singing. Tiny would play the second fiddle when he laid down the mandolin. Cotton, the only time he sat the bass aside was when he would be playing the fiddle, either a solo, or twin with Tiny. He was a bass player – I didn’t have to keep time, that man kept time. He had a special bass amplifier – we called it “The Coffin.”
We had a piano player on certain occasions, (such as) when the union said, “You’ve got to have ten people on stage” – stuff like that. We very seldom had a piano player on the road. We may have had one when we played a tour with Little Jimmy Dickens…
The song, “Faded Love,” those words was Billy Jack’s words. Nobody else’s. (Note: the songwriting is co-credited with Bob Wills on the label.) I was with him in the bus when he was making up most of that lyric. The part about the mating of the dove – he worked on that all the way from Fresno to Sacramento.
Fresno Bee, December 4, 1951
Do you recall how Billy Jack got hooked up with 4-Star Records?
He’d tried Capitol. We had all these tapes that we’d made at Lloyd Frankini’s. He had his own recording studio (in Sacramento). He had miles of tape of us. (Billy) had a whole bag full of these tapes we’d made. And Capitol told him, “You’re too hot, Billy Jack. You’re gonna have to cool them boys off.”
Billboard, April 7, 1951
So, those records were made at 4-Star’s studios in Pasadena?
Yes. And guess who was over there? Terry Preston (aka Ferlin Huskey). He’s on all those records (playing) rhythm guitar. He got us invited to several jam sessions while we were down there.
That “Cattle Call” was the one where they couldn’t get Kenny’s whistle. In person, he had a whistle in his throat when he’d do that yodel. And it just wouldn’t record.
I’m pretty sure there were two sessions for 4-Star. The first one, where you’re doing “Water Baby Boogie” and all that, sound like they were recorded at a local studio…probably Lloyd Frankini’s. The second one was obviously done in a more professional studio, so that must’ve been at 4-Star.
Now, “Water Baby Boogie,” you’ll notice there’s a bit of syncopation on the beat. And that’s the difference between the way I played it, and the way Billy Jack played it. He played it with just a straight lick. That’s why I’m sure that was me on that one.
We used to get lots of requests for that thing. And they used to go crazy dancing.
I can’t imagine playing a song that fast, much less dancing to it…
Those were the days of the jitterbugs…we used to have a guy that played bass fiddle out at Wills Point, his name was Tiny Gibson. And if he was out on the floor dancing, the girls all wanted to dance with him. He weighed about 300 pounds, but you should’ve seen him dance that song. I’m telling you, it put a strain on that doggone floor.
But none of this music (i.e., 4-Star recordings) is really the best stuff we did in those days. The records are just something that Billy Jack thought would be commercial at the time.
So you’re saying those 4-Star records don’t capture the band’s full potential?
Oh, no. If we could’ve had somebody that could record this sound, and get it like it really sounded…we had a sound like nobody else. You can’t hear that on those transcriptions.
Did the group play out much at other venues besides Wills Point?
We played all over the state. We played out at Washington Beach in Fresno. We played San Jose quite a bit at the Garden of Allah…
We played down at the Riverside Rancho (in Los Angeles). The people went nuts. People couldn’t believe what they heard. Nobody danced. We went over to Town Hall (in Compton) and got the same thing. We played a battle of the bands there with Bob Wills. We played an hour or so, and they played an hour so. (During a break), we was out having a drink with Tex Williams. And he said, “You got the best sound in the country right now. Come down here and we’ll put you to work. You’ll get rich and famous.” Billy had to say, “Well, we’ve got to play up at Wills Point. We can’t leave up there.”
Who won the battle?
Just ask Tex Williams!
I’ll bet Bob didn’t like that.
Oh, he was a good guy. We played the last half-hour or so all together, see.
Do you have any information on the dancehall where Disneyland was built? It was a real fancy ballroom. Ole Rasmussen had played there quite a bit. This was out in Anaheim…
Quincy, Ca., December, 1953
Would that have been the Harmony Park Ballroom?
That’s probably it. We played there several times, too.
Most of the dance halls didn’t have permits for anything but light beer, low content beer and wine. So (patrons) would come with their booze in their car, and, besides that, they liked to get out there in the car and do all kinds of things. Anything from fooling around to fighting. A lot of people got punched in the nose when they were outside. Of course, in a lot of those places, they watched real close about minors. But out in the dark parking lot, there was plenty of minors who got a snootful too. ’Specially if they were cute little girls. And then, some of the wives would get loose out there, to get away from their husbands – when their husbands wanted to get loose, too. So, the parking lot used to be quite a scene, too.
The band never sounded the same after Dick McComb left. The sound was gone.
The band never sounded the same after Dick McComb left. The sound was gone.
Why did he quit the band?
His wife said that Billy wasn’t paying him enough. She talked him into going to the union, and tried to stir up this thing and, well, they went round and around. The band, you see – there was so little money in it. It was so meager. There just wasn’t money in all of this stuff. It wasn’t like it was when Bob was playing (in the ’40s) – and all the big jobs that paid big money. We didn’t get that. It was over by the time we came along.
I figure I played three years with Billy. I quit and went into religion. I was a Sunday school teacher and all that for about 30 years. I just quit the music cold turkey, and I lost track of a lot of it.
Indian Valley Record article (Greenville, Ca.), March 4, 1954. Refers to Tommy Perkins as "drummer and newest member."