“Pull another chair at the table,” comes the invitation that opens Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys’ Riding Your Way, the new deluxe 2-CD set from Real Gone Music (RGM-0244). “Make room in your heart for a friend,” goes the second song on this collection featuring 50 of the never-before-released Lost Transcriptions for Tiffany Music circa 1946-1947. You’ll want to pull up that chair, and make room for Wills, with this remarkable (and remarkably entertaining) historical find filled with good, old-fashioned cowboy music. Real Gone has given the royal treatment to the King of Western Swing.
Songwriter, fiddler and bandleader Bob Wills carved out his niche in the realm of western swing, playing the music before it even had a name and continuing to do so until his death in 1975. Wills and his band The Texas Playboys flourished in the era of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Sammy Kaye, Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. They fused acoustic and electric country-and-western guitars, fiddle and banjo with prominent steel guitar, drums, piano, horns and reeds to create music that combined the excitement of urbane big-band with the rural, downhome charm of country and folk – and above all, was danceable.
1940’s “New San Antonio Rose,” written by Wills, propelled his group to widespread fame. A recording by Bing Crosby – onetime band singer for Paul Whiteman – sold over one million copies. Wills and the Playboys travelled to Hollywood to star in films like Take Me Back to Oklahoma opposite singing cowboy Tex Ritter, and challenged conventions by bringing horns and drums onto the hallowed stage of the Grand Ole Opry. In 1946 and 1947, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys recorded almost 400 full songs for Tiffany Music, Inc., a body of work that came to be known simply as “the Tiffany Transcriptions.” (Wills was a partner in Tiffany Music.) These recordings were distributed only to radio stations on 16-inch transcription discs, intended for airplay as part of a syndicated radio program featuring Wills and his band.
Recorded by the busy band on Mondays in between tour stops, these recordings consisted of largely on-the-spot arrangements of a wide variety of material from familiar Wills hits to standards, ballads, blues and swing instrumentals. In addition, the 16-inch, 33 1/3 rpm recording format allowed the arrangements room to breathe beyond the standard, three-minute limitation of the era’s typical 10-inch, 78 rpm commercial records. Many of these “Tiffany Transcriptions” were uncovered over the years. Vinyl LPs arrived from the Kaleidoscope label, followed by CDs from Kaleidoscope and Rhino. Then, all of the material on those discs was released in box set form by Collectors’ Choice Music in 2009. The 10-disc box, the label’s first, has since become so rare that a second-hand copy can’t even be found on the usually-redoubtable Amazon.com!
Before 2014, however, less than half of Wills’ transcriptions had been released. For Record Store Day 2014, producers Gordon Anderson, Patrick Milligan and Mike Johnson unveiled a limited-edition EP with ten never-before-released sides – yes, its tracks were never even pressed on transcription discs! Six of those songs appear on Riding Your Way, plus 44 more, drawn from thirteen sessions in 1946 and 1947. (Four songs remain exclusive to the EP, at least for now.) All are sequenced chronologically and grouped by session, with the sessions having taken place between March 25, 1946 and December 30, 1947.
Swing along with us after the jump!
While Riding Your Way will be a particularly special treat for those collectors who have already acquired the previously issued recordings, it also makes for a fine introduction to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. The line-up during this period included such incomparable talents as star vocalist Tommy Duncan, steel guitarists Noel Boggs, Roy Honeycutt and Herb Remington, guitarists Eldon Shamblin and Lester “Junior” Barnard, fiddler/mandolinist Tiny Moore, fiddlers Joe Holley and Louis Tierney, pianist Millard Kelso, banjoist Ocie Stockard, bassist/vocalist Luke Wills, drummer Johnny Cuviello and additional vocalists The McKinney Sisters. These 50 recordings, which have been superbly remastered by Bob Fisher as to hardly sound their age, crackle with energy and vivacity. The improvisational nature of the transcriptions lend considerably to their immediacy, even on the most laconic and easygoing tracks; listening to these two discs, it’s easy to see why audiences would turn up in droves to listen, and dance, to Wills’ group.
By and large, the Playboys followed the standard big band template, with the band stating the melody first, then the vocalist (or “boy singer,” as often was the case) entering, and so on. Happily, there are plenty of solos for the individual musicians in the group to shine. There’s an infectious quality to the best of these transcriptions. Wills and co. deliver a loose, spirited “The Covered Wagon Rolled Right Along” with Duncan on lead, and a delightfully freewheeling “Columbus Stockade Blues” with group vocals featuring Duncan and the McKinney Sisters. The Duncan-led romp through “El Rancho Grande” conjures a jaunty fiesta with Wills’ group on the bandstand. Duncan, also a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, was capable of a croon or a yodel; his resonant, flexible instrument made him the most renowned of the vocalists to sing with Wills’ group. Trumpeter Alex Brashear appears on many of the earlier sessions here. “Ride On (My Prairie Pinto)” puts the swing in western swing, with Brashear’s hot licks leading the way. A Dixieland veteran who had played with Jack Teagarden, Brashear embellished Gene Autry’s lightly swinging “A Year Ago Tonight” with his tasty jazz notes.
The instrumental selections particularly show off the band’s ingenious arrangements and tight interplay. Wills’ fiddle leads the hoedown of “Brushy Fork,” while the tropical “Paradise Isle” is driven by (what else?) the steel guitar of Noel Boggs. The instrument lent a touch of the exotic while the smoky trumpet still rooted the sound in big-band jazz; it’s just one example of the groundbreaking fusion that defined the sound of western swing. The Texas Playboys enjoy their musical freedom on “Liberty,” and “Brown Skin Gal” features fine solos from Brashear, pianist Kelso and of course, Wills himself.
The Wills treatment enlivens many standards here. A countrified version of the ballad “Love Letters in the Sand” gains a dance rhythm in Wills’ treatment. Bob’s younger brother Luke Wills modestly warbles the classic “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” with vibrant accompaniment from Wills’ lead fiddle, Kelso’s barroom-style piano and Brashear’s brass. Junior Barnard takes a delicious solo on an upbeat “You Are My Sunshine,” sung by Wills and Duncan. They share ragged the saloon-style harmonies on “My Wild Irish Rose,” with Wills taking an affectionate solo lead on “Goodnight Little Sweetheart.”
Much of the music here is quintessential classic country-and-western, like the slow dance of “I Wonder If You Feel the Way I Do” and the three-hanky weeper “I Knew the Moment I Lost You,” with Kelso’s honky-tonk piano. The Playboys also paid tribute to “the singing brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers with “Travelin’ Blues” and “Dear Old Southern Home,” and as in the C&W tradition, found room for spirituals such as “Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan.” Songwriter Cindy Walker (“You Don’t Know Me”) was a favorite of Wills’ band; the group recorded over 50 of Walker’s compositions, and two tracks here – “Bubbles in My Beer” and “Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age” – represent the earliest recordings of both tunes. “Don’t Fence Me In” and “I’m an Old Cowhand” are fun examples of Tin Pan Alley cowboy tunes, penned by the legendary likes of Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer, respectively.
The top-notch quality of this set extends to its packaging as designed by Tom D. Kline. It’s housed in a large digipak (similar to the size of a standard DVD release) with a deluxe 24-page booklet. Within its pages, you’ll find not just copious credits, but an introduction from co-producer Mike Johnson and fine, informative liner notes from Cary Ginell including biographies of each band member. Best of all is an updated, definitive discography of the Tiffany Transcriptions indicating where all of the released tracks can be located on disc.
Steel guitarist Herb Remington, lone surviving member of The Texas Playboys’ Tiffany Transcriptions roster, opines in the liner notes that “it was fun music, it was happy music; there were no messages in it and no politics. It was strictly happy, good music in any direction it took.” For sheer escapism, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys’ Riding Your Way can hardly be beat. Grab your Stetson and put your dancing shoes on. Yee-haw!