Perhaps the most underrated Western swing bandleader ever was Billy Jack Wills, the youngest brother of Bob, whose Western Swing Band broke new ground for the genre in the early '50s. Born February 26, 1926, in Memphis, Hall County, TX, Billy Jack was exposed at an early age to the music of his famous brother, as well as his father, champion fiddler John Wills. After beginning his professional career in brother Johnnie Lee Wills' Tulsa band in the early '40s, Billy Jack went to California to work as a bassist and drummer for the Texas Playboys. In that group, he played a significant role both as a vocalist and songwriter, lending his bluesy voice to "Cadillac in Model A" and providing lyrics to the massive hit "Faded Love."
After six years as a member of the Texas Playboys, Billy Jack got his chance as a leader when Bob moved his base of operations from the Wills Point Ballroom in Sacramento to Oklahoma City. Tired of touring, mandolinist Tiny Moore stayed behind to manage Wills Point. Needing a new band to fill the void left by Wills' departure, Moore suggested Billy Jack. Bob agreed, and Moore and Billy Jack assembled a band that included trumpeter and bassist Dick McComb, fiddler/bassist Cotton Roberts, rhythm guitarist Kenny Lowery, and steel guitarist Tommy Varner. The group, dubbed Billy Jack Wills & His Western Swing Band, began broadcasting over Sacramento's KCRA radio in 1950, soon moving to the considerably larger KFBK.
The band truly came into being, however, after the start of the Korean War. Looking to replace the drafted Varner, Wills hired a local teenager named Vance Terry, a disciple of Noel Boggs whose crisp, driving style added the final element to the group's adventurous sound.
The enormous age difference (20 years) between Billy Jack and Bob meant that the younger's musical interests were considerably more advanced. While Bob had drawn inspiration from the primitive blues and jazz of the 1910s and '20s, Billy Jack's muse lay in the developing genres of jump blues, R&B, and be-bop. These fixations gave his group a progressiveness that was found nowhere else, characterized by its hard-swinging jazz rhythms and bluesy, shouted vocals, which drew heavily from the styles of Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown. Between 1950 and 1954, the group enjoyed a strong Northwest following, touring and building up an eclectic repertoire of radio transcriptions. They covered many of the popular black hits of the time, including Ruth Brown's "Teardrops From My Eyes" and Larry Darnell's "For You, My Love." In 1953, the group cut a version of Roy Brown's "There's Good Rocking Tonight"; later that year, they turned in a rollicking arrangement of Bill Haley's first hit, "Crazy, Man, Crazy."
The group's success, however, was short-lived. In 1954, Bob Wills disbanded the Texas Playboys and returned to Sacramento to perform with Billy Jack. The idea was to increase business at Wills Point, but the results were disastrous. Bob quickly took charge of the group and against the wishes of most involved, immediately set off on tour, at which point Tiny Moore quit to host a children's television show.
Out on the road, energies were soon sapped. Under Wills' control, the boldness that had characterized the band's radio broadcasts began to fold, channeled into what was by now the rather stale sound of the Texas Playboys. That and the emerging television craze effectively ended the group. Vance Terry quit to enroll in college; he later joined Jimmie Rivers and the Cherokees. Tiny Moore went on to play with Merle Haggard & the Strangers. Billy Jack struggled on without success until 1960, when he retired from music. He died on March 3, 1991. ~ Jim Smith