March 6: The King Of Western Swing

Bob Wills“I dig them. The Grand Ole Opry used to come on, and I used to watch that. They used to have some pretty heavy cats, some heavy guitar players.” -Jimi Hendrix on Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys

Bob Wills, born on this day in 1905, is one of the America’s greatest musicians. As one of the pioneers of western swing, Wills helped create a new blend of sounds unlike anything ever heard before.

Western swing is often categorized as a sub-genre of country music that drew influence from jazz styles and was popular in the 1930s and 1940s. It wasn’t unusual for a western swing song to feature both a fast fiddle player and a bit of Dixieland jazz. Bob Wills was widely regarded as the “King of Western Swing” and his band, the Texas Playboys were the best in the land. While many western swing bands were playing jazz influenced country, Wills and his bandmates went all in and added horns and a drummer.

The addition of horns and a drummer allowed for a unique versatility in the band’s sound that worked for song as diverse as the old folk song “Ida Red” to the eight-bar blues “Trouble In Mind” and the Dixieland jazz standard “Basin Street Blues“. Wills’ Playboys were also master improvisors. In concerts, Wills would just point his bow at one of the Playboys with little warning and they’d come up with a solo on the spot. While this was the standard for jazz bands, it was unheard of in country circles.

Of course, this new sound ruffled the feathers of a few more traditional country musicians, but Bob would always fight back in his own manner. In December of 1940,  the Texas Playboys were going to play the Grand Ole Opry. There was one problem, the Opry had a strict ban on drums as they were not a “country instrument” and the drums were the backbone of the Playboys’ style. Wills threatened to walk and after a bit of arguing, a compromise was reached: The drums would be allowed onstage, but they’d be hidden behind a curtain. So, that evening the Playboys took the stage at the Opry and during their first song, Wills personally tore down the curtain that was blocking his drummer. This action led the group to become temporarily blacklisted from the Opry; but as the group got more and more popular, the Opry had no choice but to invite Wills and the Playboys back, drums and all.

Wills’ legacy still stands in the “Bakersfield Country” sound pioneered by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, as well as the style of many “outlaw” and  alternative country acts. Of course, Wills and the Texas Playboys shaped more than just country music; the band’s recording of “Ida Red” served as the inspiration for Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene”, one of the first major rock and roll songs.

One of Bob Wills’ signature tunes was an instrumental called “Maiden’s Prayer“. The piece was a western swing adaptation of a piano piece composed by Polish composer Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska in 1856. The piece was a surprise hit all across Europe and it eventually reached the States. For the next fifty years or so, if you were ever being entertained in the home of a particularly well off family, it was not unusual for you to hear one of the family’s daughters plink out “Maiden’s Prayer” on the piano. So, this brings us to Frank Newman, a British barman working in the suburbs of Paris who included a drink called Maiden’s Prayer in his 1907 bartending book American Bar, the cocktail’s name undoubtedly coming from the song. This drink is a sweet champagne cocktail with a thin hint of mint.

Maiden’s Prayer

  • 1 ounce Dark Rum
  • 1/2 ounce orgeat syrup
  • 3/4 ounce lemon juice
  • 4 dashes Crème de Menthe
  • 4 dashes Orange Curaçao
  • Champagne

Shake all ingredients, except the champagne, with ice and strain into a chilled champagne flute. Fill with champagne.

Tomorrow: A Scottish outlaw.

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