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Johnnie Lee Wills


    Johnnie Lee Wills was born September 2, 1912  in Hall County, Texas. He grew up loving and playing music. As a young adult, he found himself picking cotton and driving a delivery truck for Burris Mills, supplying grocery stores with flour. At age nineteen, realizing he would rather do just about anything than remain in the cotton patch, he went to work for his brother Bob, playing tenor banjo in a small band. In 1934, this small band came to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Johnnie Lee Wills had the unique distinction as being one of the six truly original members of the "Texas Playboys."

    Bob Wills made an agreement with Mr. W.B. Way, to have a trial broadcast at midnight over Tulsa radio station powerhouse, KVOO. The agreement reached was, if the response to the band was favorable, Bob would have a job at the station. If not, no harm done, and Bob would move on. The response was not merely favorable, but positively overwhelming. The station received cards, letters, and phone calls from as far away as California wanting to hear more of this new "western swing" brand of music. After such amazing reaction and acceptance to the Wills music, Mr. Way welcomed "Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys" onboard with open arms.

    Bob remained in Tulsa for only eight years and in 1942, he left Tulsa to go to California. At this time, Johnnie Lee took over the band and the live broadcast, replaced his banjo with his fiddle, and renamed the band "Johnnie Lee Wills & All The Boys." Johnnie Lee remained on the air with KVOO for 25 consecutive years. When the live broadcasts ended in 1958, Johnnie Lee had the longest running live radio broadcast in the nation. Johnnie Lee broadcasted Monday through Saturday at noon and had the opportunity to promote where his band would be performing on the weekends. "Johnnie Lee & All The Boys" played to standing room only crowds throughout the Southwest for many years.

    Johnnie Lee did syndicated transcriptions for General Mills' Red Star Flour. These transcriptions were aired on radio stations all over the United States.

    Johnnie Lee's recording career began in the 1940's, and spanned three decades. He recorded for Bullet, Decca, Sims and Delta record companies. His most famous recordings were his hit songs "Rag Mop" and "Peter Cottontail."

    During these years, "Johnnie Lee Wills & All The Boys" traveled throughout the Southwest as one of the nation's most versatile western swing bands. They played everything from Johnnie Lee's signature song "Milk Cow Blues" to the band's pop hit, "Blub Twist" featuring the saxophone of Glenn Rhees. The band's tight arrangements, outstanding musicians and excellent vocalists ranked it among the "elite" of the bands in the western swing field.

   In 1982, the state of Oklahoma celebrated its Diamond Jubilee Anniversary. Dr. Guy Logsdon, former head of libraries, at the University of Tulsa, was appointed to assemble an entourage of people from Oklahoma to travel to Washington D.C. to the Smithsonian Institute. The people selected to go were to represent the most noteworthy facets of life in Oklahoma. Dr. Logsdon invited "Johnnie Lee Wills & All The Boys" to showcase Oklahoma's prominence in the development and contribution to the longevity of "Western Swing" music. The band performed twice a day for ten consecutive days to "standing room only" crowds. Videos of the band's performances are now in the archives at the Smithsonian Institute.


    Johnnie Lee's first love, was of course, his music. However, Johnnie was also a businessman. He and his family owned and operated the "Johnnie Lee Wills Western Store" for twenty-five years and also produced the "Johnnie Lee Wills Tulsa Stampede" PRCA Rodeo at the Tulsa Pavilion which ran for forty-six consecutive years. This rodeo drew the nation's top professional cowboys from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.


    Johnnie Lee has a display area devoted to him at the "Cowboy Hall of Fame" in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and has a street bearing his name directly in front of the main entrance of the Tulsa State Fairgrounds where his rodeo was held for so many years. 

Click HERE to read the appreciation speech  given to the city of Tulsa for this street dedication.

    Upon two different occasions, Tulsa mayors proclaimed it "Johnnie Lee Wills Day" honoring his contributions to the city. On October 19, 2001 Johnnie Lee Wills was inducted into the "Oklahoma Music Hall Of Fame."

     Bob Wills left Tulsa after only eight years, but Johnnie Lee spent his entire life there until he passed away from heart complications on October 25, 1984.


    Johnnie Lee Wills was loved and revered by all who knew him. He had vast hosts of friends and admirers who were not nearly as awed by his accomplishments as they were by his genuineness, humility, and concern for others.

Special thanks to John T. Wills for this biography of his father.

Visit his website by clicking here

 

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