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 frontman, 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.
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.
© Oklahoma Historical Society