Bob Wills Place in the Western Swing World

Everybody knows Bob Wills. Well, there are kids with earphones on round-the-clock who don’t. But that is another story for another bottle of red wine.

As a ten year-old, Bob played fiddle at his first ranch-dance in Limestone County, Texas. By age twenty-four he was in Fort Worth, had made a record and was playing dances at the famous Crystal Spring Ballroom in White Settlement. Radio and a wider audience were on the horizon.  The year was 1930. By 1936 he was a true “star.” During the WWII years he made eight movies for Paramount.

Most people don’t know the two “real” pioneers of Western Swing.

A one-time guitar picker/lead vocalist for Wills, Milton Brown and The Musical  Brownies were the real crowd favorite at the Crystal Spring dance hall. They packed the floor every time they played. After leaving Wills and getting away from the heavy-handed management of W.O. Daniels (who later became governor of Texas) Milton developed a sharp dance-edge style to his music that Wills was several years catching up to. The two did remain friends until the end.   

Brown had a weakness for pretty young girls, especially the ones who really moved on the dance floor. At 4:00 AM on a spring Sunday morning Brown fell asleep at the wheel    do you suppose that this is from where Ray Benson gets the name for  Asleep At The Wheel, today’s primary bastion of the Western Swing genre?   Brown  ran into a bridge abutment. The seventeen year-old fan sharing the front seat was killed instantly. Milton died five days later from complications of pneumonia.   

The real wild-card in the mix, however, was Warren Strings Jennings. Jennings ran away from home, the southwest corner of Mississippi between Natchez and Baton Rouge, hard against the Louisiana line, with a Texas string band at age eighteen. He had learned his guitar style at the feet of an old country blues picker and later the whore houses and dance halls of Storyville ( New Orleans ), from whence came Louis Armstrong and Lonnie Johnson, among others.

He had decided early on that the guitar played by A.P and Mama Maybelle Carter was not the country music guitar of the future.

Warren, along with Red and the Boys played ranch-dances and the beer/dance halls in northeast Texas: Tyler, Longview, Gladewater, Palestine. That part of Texas had not heard much about Prohibition.   A radio station owner, who needed an answer to Bob Wills and the Light Crust Doughboys  noontime show urged them, ” … come to Fort Worth.”

History gets a little murky here. We do know that by early 1931 the group was playing five days a week from 12:30 — 1:00 PM on KFWR, whose signal reached from Waco all the way to Ardmore, Oklahoma … and covered all of Dallas. Their mid-day audiences were consistently larger than those of both Bob Wills and Milton Brown. On weekends they played dances within a 200 mile radius of Fort Worth, a hard day’s drive in the early ’30s. There is evidence that a record contract was in the works.

Then, in late 1931 both Jennings and the band disappeared. There is no mention of them in either the Fort Worth newspapers or by contributors to the Crystal Spring Ballroom blog later than September of that year. Local genre aficionados recall veteran musicians from the early ’30’s, i.e. Tommy Duncan, telling the story that Jennings and Red Bonner, the band leader, had a serious altercation and that Jennings never again played in north Texas. Without Jennings Red and the Boys  ceased to be major players on the Texas music scene.

A twist of fate uncovered a possible answer to the mystery. In 2008 an amateur, but knowledgeable, Western Swing fiddler player discovered the following newspaper article while doing research on land-use development in Wilkinson County, Mississippi.  

The Other Brother:                                     October 27, 1931

In a recent development related to the Wylie Jennings murder trial in Ashe County, we have learned that Mr. Jennings brother, Warren, was killed last weekin a tragic accident in Cairo, Illinois. Apparently, Jennings, sometimes known as Strings due to his guitar playing ability, had ‘jumped’ a freight train bound from Cairo to Chicago.

According to witnesses there was a scuffle between Jennings and an Illinois Central RR brakeman and the Ashe County man fell from the moving train. He was declared dead-on-arrival by the Alexander County, Illinois coroner’s office.  The body has been returned to Churchill.  Funeral arrangements are not yet available.

Wylie Jennings was declared innocent of the murder of Marcus Kyle, Jr,  of Churchill and Ashe County.  According to the trial transcripts, Warren Jennings, a last minute witness in the trial of his brother,  testified that his brother did not commit the murder, and testified further that ” … I might have done it myself.”  Before the trial could be resumed on Monday morning past, Mr. Jennings disappeared.      

Mrs. Victoria Jennings,  mother of the two men, reports that such is not unusual.  The older of the two, she said, would just leave, without telling anyone,  for the Fort Worth,  Texas area where he played guitar on the radio and in local dance halls. Mrs. Jennings  is unaware of any reason her son would be going to Chicago.

Willie Nelson, various state governors in Texas, have declared that Bob Wills is Still the King. Two deaths to early Western Swing pioneers may have forever altered the well known refrain:

Take me back to Tulsa, I’m too young to marry
Take me back to Tulsa, I’m too young to marry

 

Had Milton Brown and Warren Jennings not met untimely deaths … what songs would still be being sung on Old-Time country radio?

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About Tom Honea

the south mississippi i grew up in did not yet have paved roads or telephones or televisions. it did have great story tellers, on front porches in the summer or around the fire place in the winter. we were poverty stricken, financially but not culturally. we didn't know it. everybody up and down the road was in the same boat. . after forty years of day jobs i am approaching my "fishing years." i plan to spend them writing. i have a finished and edited deep south novel in the "marketing" stages. currently i'm deep into a WW II home front piece set in the Hampton Roads, VA area. notes and character sketches are already underway for "From Hiroshima to Elvis" ( the ten years after the war ) on the coastal areas of South Carolina. . visit asheville ... come and see me.
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