The fiddles and mandolin drew toe-tapping and spirited applause, but the standing ovations were reserved for the first-person stories about the King of Western Swing.
The Oklahoma History Center was packed on Wednesday for “Bob Wills @ the OKPOP,” a reference to the Museum of Popular Culture being developed by the Oklahoma Historical Society in the Brady Arts District of Tulsa.
The late singer's family, represented on stage Wednesday by his daughter Carolyn Wills, has donated the Bob Wills archival collection to the historical society to feature in the museum.
And biographer Charles Townsend, a retired history professor from Wills' native Texas, told the crowd he has given 150 tapes of his interviews with the band leader and his Playboys to the historical society.
Carolyn Wills shared family photos and talked about growing up in California, Texas and Oklahoma as her father made moves to further his career and accommodate his love for horses and ranch country.
“We really weren't raised in the music,” she said. “He thought that was kind of a rough business.”
Horses and humility
Bob Wills “always wanted a place where he could raise horses, and his family and the band could live close,” Carolyn Wills said. In California, she said, “he bought a ranch in Fresno and mowed down the orange trees” to make room for the horses.
The singer, who died in 1975 at age 69, “was amazingly humble,” his daughter said.
His biographer agreed.
“I don't think Bob wanted a book,” Townsend said. “He was so humble, I don't think he thought he deserved a book.”
Townsend said when he started his research, he told his grant funders “society is not sophisticated enough now to appreciate Bob Wills, but someday they will.”
He was nervous about calling Wills' home and asking for an interview, Townsend said, but once permission was granted, he drove all night to get there. It would be the first of many sessions.
“He was so gracious,” Townsend said. “My manuscript was finished before he had his last stroke, and I went over the whole thing with him.”
Devoted fans in the mostly gray-haired audience included Lloyd Corlee, 89, of Norman. In 1940, Corlee said, Bob Wills played for his junior-senior prom at the Elks Club in El Reno.
“That would be like the Beach Boys performing in my generation,” said Corlee's son, Michael.
Lloyd Corlee, who left high school to enlist in the military nine days after Pearl Harbor was bombed, said he started going to “honky-tonk” dances as soon as he got his driver's license in 1939. “San Antonio Rose” is his favorite Bob Wills tune.
The Red Dirt Rangers drew cheers for their renditions of “Oklahoma Hills” and “Faded Love,” and one couple danced in the aisle to the finale, “Take Me Back to Tulsa.”
Townsend, who said he saved his childhood earnings from shining shoes to buy Bob Wills records, explained why two states can claim Bob Wills and his style of music.
“Western swing was born near Turkey, Texas, where Bob played his first dance,” he said. “Fort Worth was the nursery. But when he came to Oklahoma, that's when it matured.”