Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys--Empty Chair at the Christmas Table.
Today’s Christmas nugget is a rarity that I am pretty sure you never heard before. Although a vintage recording made during the Golden Age of American holiday music it never became a hit. But it hits a couple of my favorite things—western swing music and World War II separation songs. Empty Chair At The Christmas Table was actually recorded in October of 1945 after the war was over but while millions of GIs, sailors, and airmen were still overseas by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
Fiddler Bob Wills did not invent western swing, but perfected it and led it to huge popularity. He was born as James Robert Wills on a farm in Kosse, Limestone County, Texas. His father, a former Texas champion fiddler, taught the boy the instrument. Other than his siblings most of his playmates were the children of black sharecroppers from whom he learned a lot of blues and field calls as well as how to jig. The family moved to the Texas panhandle where they supplemented their farm income hosting country dances in their four room home and playing ranch dances.
For whatever reason Wills left home at 16 hopping freight trains and living as hobo taking what jobs he could find and occasionally playing fiddle at honkytonks. After a few years he attended barber college, got married, and moved to Roy, New Mexico, then returned to Turkey in Hall County, Texas where his family had yet another far. He went to work in the local barber shop. By 1929 he moved to Fort Worth where he continued to cut hair while he sought to establish himself as a musician.
He played medicine shows with a minstrel act. He had two guitarists and a banjo player while he played fiddle and mandolin. He was the group’s comic working in blackface and dancing. Their music also incorporated influences from Bessie Smith who he said he once rode 50 miles on horseback to hear, and the blackface minstrel Emmett Miller who was also a major influence on Jimmie Rogers. Wills punctuated instrumental breaks with yips and yells which he said were just an expression of his excitement with the music.
In 1930 he teamed with Herman Arnspiger to form the Wills Fiddle Band which became the Aladdin Laddies when Milton Brown joined the band as a second singer. When they got a steady radio show they became the Light Crust Doughboys in honor of their flour sponsor. Brown left the group in 1932 to form his own Musical Brownies which he claimed was the first true western swing band.
Wills moved to Waco and formed a new band the Playboys featured on a local radio station. They were so popular Wills decided to move to a bigger market—Tulsa, Oklahoma where he renamed the band the Texas Playboys in 1932 and began broadcasting noon shows over the 50,000-watt KVOO. The show became a veritable institution in the region while the band was in demand to play dances in the evenings, including regular ones at the Cain’s Ballroom on Thursdays and Saturdays.
The band was constantly evolving as Will experimented and innovated. He added trumpet and saxophones—unheard of in the string band tradition and even more daringly drums. It featured steel guitar by steel guitar whiz Leon McAuliffe who doubled as a vocalist.
Bob Wills in 1946.
Wills largely sang blues and sentimental ballads. Texas Playboys made their first recordings in September 1935. Sessions over the next two years produced songs like Ida Red, a raucous new setting to a folk fiddle song. But the band exploded in nationwide popularity when their recorded The New San Antonio Rose in 1940. It became their theme song and sold a million copies—more if you count several later versions with various new line-ups to the band that were included in 78 rpm and later vinyl albums.
The same year they appeared with Tex Ritter in the film Take Me Back to Tulsa. More B westerns followed.
At what seemed like the peak of their success, the band broke apart as many members went into wartime service. The 37 year old Wills himself enlisted in the Army but was discharged for medical reasons—probably due to his heavy drinking—in 1943.
With the post-war tour bus--Bob on horseback to the left.
Perhaps expecting to resume a film career, Wills moved to Hollywood after his discharge and re-formed the Texas Playboys with a mix of old hands and West Coast swing musicians. He quickly established an audience drawing on the large numbers of Texas and Oklahoma Dust Bowl refugee and those who had come more recently to work in the massive defense plants in the Golden State. He began another noontime broadcast, this time on KMTR in Los Angeles and played regular Friday, Saturday, Sundays nights at the Mission Beach Ballroom in San Diego. The band would take other bookings almost every night around California as long as they could get back to L.A. in time for the broadcasts. He was outdrawing such big band attractions as Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey.
With their new popularity the band began their first national tour in 1944. That included a stop in Nashville to play the Grand Ol’ Opry. Once again Wills defied convention and strict Opry rules by sneaking a drum kit on stage just before his performance.
Wills had now firmly established not only the band, but his own outsized personality. Out front clutching or playing his fiddle Wills was a handsome if slightly portly figure in a cowboy hat and a big smile chomping on the stub of a cigar. He bounced around stage, did little jigs, and let out his signature yee haw yelps as the spirit moved him.
The band now featured a front line of two fiddlers, two bass fiddles, two electric guitars, electric steel guitar, and a trumpet plus the drums and vocalists. It was a tight band.
A radio broadcast from the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.
In this configuration during the postwar period, he began a syndicated radio show from KGO radio in San Francisco recorded at the Fairmont Hotel. It was from these broadcasts at the height of his powers that the recording of Empty Chair At The Christmas Table was made.
Sadly binge drinking began to damage his career as he missed many tour dates or stumbled on stage drunk. By the 1950’s musical tastes were changing. Wills moved back to Tulsa to regroup and continued to tour to diminishing audiences. By the early 1960’s the Texas Playboys split off on its own and Wills played solo with house bands in Las Vegas lounges and elsewhere. He suffered two heart attacks and then a crippling stroke. He died at the age of 70 on May 13, 1975 in Fort Worth.
But he left behind a great legacy.
Empty Chair At The Christmas Table was issued as a single on the flip side of another war related song, White Cross On Okinawa. Although the record did not sell well, Wills made the song a holiday staple of his post-war shows along with Christmas on the Range. Empty Chair was written by Cliff Sundin with lead vocal by Tommy Duncan with Bob on fiddle and adding a yip or two.