Bob Wills was, first and foremost, a fiddler. But he began his career in childhood, strumming guitar and mandolin chords at rural Texas parties and dances behind his father, ace fiddler Uncle John Wills. As leader of the Texas Playboys from 1934 to ’64, Wills not only helped define the guitar’s role in western swing, but the innovations of Playboy guitarists and steel guitarists deeply influenced country, rock, and jazz music. Wills was also one of the early high-profile musicians to endorse the amps and steels made by his friend Leo Fender.
While Wills employed a number of talented steel guitarists and guitarists in the 30 years he led the Playboys, eight in particular – five steel and three standard guitarists – were true innovators, and the reason Wills’ recordings still sound thoroughly modern.
Leon McAuliffe (1935-’42)
Leon McAuliffe set the standard for Playboy steel players, and Western swing steel guitarists in general. Born in Houston in 1917, he learned standard guitar before delving into steel, influenced by Sol Hoopii and other Hawaiian greats. He was leading a pop and Hawaiian trio that performed on Houston’s KTRC radio in 1933 when a local sales rep for Burrus Mill and Elevator (sponsors of the popular Light Crust Doughboys daily radio show) recruited him to join that band in Fort Worth. By the time McAuliffe joined, Doughboys co-founders Wills and Milton Brown had moved on.
While working with the Doughboys, McAuliffe heard Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies at Fort Worth’s Crystal Springs dance hall, and became friendly with their pioneering amplified Western swing steel guitarist, Bob Dunn, who played a Martin standard acoustic, its strings raised, using an amp and early removable magnetic pickup made by Volu-Tone. Dunn occasionally invited McAuliffe to try his gear with the Brownies while he went for a drink or two.
Wills, who’d brought the Texas Playboys to Tulsa from Waco in early 1934, was expanding the group in early ’35. When his acoustic steel guitarist departed, two new members, both ex-Doughboys, recommended McAuliffe, who showed up in Tulsa with his standard and steel guitars. He soon convinced Wills to order him a Dunn-like Volu-Tone setup and switched the pickup between instruments. McAuliffe also brought an instrumental, “Steel Guitar Rag,” a song he claims he wrote in Houston, but is undeniably based on guitarist Sylvester Weaver’s 1923 instrumental “Guitar Rag” and more specifically, a 1930 cover version recorded by country guitarists Roy Harvey and Jess Johnson; its arrangement is identical to Leon’s.
In September, 1935, when Art Satherley, of the American Recording Company (later part of Columbia Records), recorded various acts, including the Playboys, most of McAuliffe’s solos were on amplified standard guitar. While Satherley recorded another western band at those sessions – Roy Newman and his Boys ,with electric guitarist Jim Boyd – Wills’ session came first, making Leon’s snappy, aggressive lead on “Get With It” the first on any country or western record, at least until someone finds an antecedent. At that first session, Satherley rejected “Steel Guitar Rag,” but the Playboys’ phenomenal record sales by the time of their second session in October, 1936, gave them carte blanche. They recorded “Rag” in Chicago, with Bob extemporizing his famous spoken “Take It Away, Leon!” on the intro. By then, Leon had two Rickenbacker B-6 lap steels with different tunings.
He began as a raw, young player blending Hawaiian sounds and the Dunn influence. Over the next four years, however, McAuliffe graduated to a Rick D-16 doubleneck and evolved into a swinging, nuanced stylist, a difference particularly notable on 1940’s “Blue Bonnet Rag.” The instrumentals he and guitarist Eldon Shamblin created, “Twin Guitar Special” and “Takin’ It Home,” invented the concept of the electric-steel-and-lead-guitar ensemble.
McAuliffe stayed with the Playboys until Wills dissolved the band to enter the Army late in 1942. A licensed pilot, McAuliffe became a Naval Flight Instructor in Texas. Back in Tulsa in ’46, he formed a pop dance orchestra. Given his identification with western swing, that band went nowhere. A switch to a smaller western swing band soon packed the region’s dance halls.
While few noticed their 1947 records for the short-lived Majestic label, after joining Columbia in ’49, they had hit instrumentals with “Pan Handle Rag” and “Red Skin Rag.” McAuliffe later renamed the band Cimarron Boys. They toured the Southwest through the ’50s and ’60s, recording for several other major labels. With the popularity of western swing diminished in the ’60s, he tended to KAMO, his radio station in Rogers, Arkansas.
Merle Haggard’s 1970 Wills tribute album, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, recorded a year after the bandleader’s stroke, introduced western swing to a broader, younger audience and rebooted the performing careers of many ex-Playboys. McAuliffe and other alumni appeared with a wheelchair-bound Wills at Texas tribute shows. In 1973, he worked on Wills’s final album, For the Last Time. From the time Wills died in 1975 until 1986, McAuliffe led “The Original Texas Playboys,” made up of former Playboys and Cimarron Boys. He died of cancer in ’88.
Eldon Shamblin (1937-’43/’46-’55)
Playboy bassist/vocalist Joe Ferguson called Eldon Shamblin “the chord wizard,” and credited him with modernizing the band. True enough.
Born in Weatherford, Oklahoma, in 1916, Shamblin didn’t begin playing until age 17. Completely self-taught as a guitarist and arranger, he briefly worked in Oklahoma City with Dave Edwards and his Alabama Boys. Wills discovered him when Shamblin led a small band playing his swinging rearrangements of classical numbers over Tulsa’s KTUL.
Wills loved the big bands that dominated American pop music in the mid 1930s. He wanted the Playboys – a raw, freewheeling band of reading and non-reading musicians – to master disciplined swing arrangements, so he could add that music to his varied repertoire and thus lure younger dancers. Shamblin gave them two for one; not only could he arrange for readers and non-readers, as a rhythm guitarist, his passing chords, arpeggios, and bass runs gave the band cohesion, apparent in his subtle work on 1940’s “Take Me Back to Tulsa.”
Wills allowed the Playboys unparalleled musical freedom, but he strictly controlled onstage presentation and felt a guitarist should look like a guitarist. When Shamblin began using Rickenbacker’s semi-solidbody Electro B, its body tiny, like the company’s lap steels but with a Spanish guitar neck, Wills took him aside. Shamblin recalled Wills declaring, “I like the sound of that thing, but hey, man, they don’t know you’re playin’ a guitar.” Unconcerned, Shamblin used one of two Gibson Super 400s Wills bought for the band to play rhythm, and later played leads on a Gibson ES-150.
While Shamblin’s single-string work was lean and terse, the ensemble he and McAuliffe created on “Bob Wills Special,” “Twin Guitar Special,” and “Takin’ It Home” was revolutionary. McAuliffe recalled its genesis – he and Shamblin jamming on “Joe Turner Blues.”
“Eldon started playin’ harmony to this bass pattern that I played,” McAuliffe recalled. “Then we decided we’d write us a chorus, so we made up a 12-bar blues chorus.”
In the spring of 1942, Shamblin joined the Army. Discharged in late ’46 (as a Captain), he rejoined the Playboys in California, the old Super 400 now sporting a DeArmond pickup. Wills had taken the Playboys to California after his 1943 discharge and downsized them, using amplified guitars to replace horn sections. Shamblin immediately organized himself, steel guitarist Herb Remington, and amplified mandolinist Tiny Moore into a roaring, horn-like string trio that helped define Wills’s post-war sound.
The ensemble stood out on both the band’s commercial recordings for Columbia and MGM, as well as for their transcription discs for Tiffany Music, in Oakland, California, which sold as prepackaged radio shows. The ensemble’s remarkable performances included Benny Goodman’s instrumental “Mission to Moscow” for the Tiffany Transcriptions, 1947’s “Cowboy Stomp” (Columbia) and “Papa’s Jumpin” after they moved to MGM Records that same year.
Wills may have been antsy about solidbody guitars in the 1930s, but didn’t object in ’54 when Leo Fender gave Shamblin a gold-finished Strat prototype, a guitar he’d use until selling it in the ’90s. Fender also later gave a Strat to Shamblin’s successor, Lou Walker. Other Playboys, including bass player Luke Wills, occasionally used Precision Basses. Shamblin left the band in ’55 and began working day jobs back in Tulsa. He later became a piano tuner, and eventually resumed local musical jobs.
The western swing revival relaunched Shamblin’s performing career. He not only played on Haggard’s tribute and Wills’ Last Time album, he appeared with the McAuliffe-led Original Texas Playboys, recorded and appeared with Jethro Burns, Tiny Moore, Joe Venuti, and Asleep at the Wheel. In the late ’70s, he and Tiny joined Merle Haggard’s Strangers to help re-create the Wills sound onstage. Shamblin, who also taught music theory at Oklahoma colleges, played until poor health forced him to quit. He died in 1998.
Noel Boggs (1944-’45)
Oklahoma City native Noel Boggs (b. 1919) worked for several legendary Western bandleaders. He spent part of 1939 with Hank Penny and his Radio Cowboys, then accompanied his Oklahoma friend, cowboy singer Jimmy Wakely’s Trio (1940-’41) to Hollywood. The Playboys were in Hollywood in ’44, when Boggs added his brittle, futuristic chord sound and clean, smoothly articulated single-string work to their lineup.
Using an Epiphone doubleneck, his solos stood out on the Wills hits “Roly Poly,” “Smoke on the Water” and his biggest post-war single, “New Spanish Two-Step.” While “Texas Playboy Rag” became Boggs’ signature tune, Wills actually gave him the idea, using harmonies from the traditional fiddle tune “Waltz in D.” To achieve desired chord voicings, Boggs often jumped between the necks of his Epiphone doubleneck steel, even mid-solo. He remained with Wills barely a year before joining Hank Penny’s new band in Hollywood. Penny featured him on his 1946 hit “Steel Guitar Stomp.”
Boggs, who introduced Bob Wills to Leo Fender, left in 1945 to join Hank Penny, and in the spring of ’46 replaced Joaquin Murphey in Spade Cooley’s band. Around that same time, Boggs received Fender’s first prototype double-neck steel. He played Fender Stringmasters for most of his career, working on and off with Cooley into the ’50s, and did session work and recorded himself for Columbia (“Steelin’ Home”) and other labels. His refusal to switch to pedal steel, however, hindered his career. He played in Southern California clubs until he died of a heart attack in ’74.
Jimmy Wyble (1944-’45)
The most technically sophisticated of all Playboy guitarists, Jimmy Wyble (b. 1920) was yet another young musician enamored of Charlie Christian’s work with the Benny Goodman Sextet. He played twin lead guitar with his friend, Cameron Hill, in the Houston-based western band The Village Boys. During World War II, Wyble spent ’42 in the Army, then returned to Houston in ’43. During the war, tens of thousands of Texans and Okies relocated to Southern California to take high-paying jobs with defense contractors, which meant L.A. needed musicians who played western music. Most of the Village Boys headed West in mid 1944 and several – Wyble and Hill included – joined the Texas Playboys.
Wyble and Hill preferred Gibson ES-150s, but, prior to a 1944 tour of Midwest theaters, the visually-minded Wills bought Wyble and Hill matching blond Epi Emperor acoustics, each with an attached DeArmond pickup. There were also matching amps.
The two first recorded with Wills in January, 1945, but Wyble’s famous octave run on “Roly Poly” was actually Wills’ idea. Normally, he let the band work out their solos, but so loved Wyble’s octave work onstage that he suggested the guitarist work it into his break. Wyble’s playing on “New Spanish Two-Step” and “Texas Playboy Rag” impressed other guitarists, most notably Chet Atkins and a young Hank Garland.
In mid 1945, Wyble and Hill turned in their Epis and briefly returned to Texas before returning to Hollywood to join Boggs in Spade Cooley’s band. Wyble also recorded an unreleased blues session for King Records, with vocals by ex-Playboy fiddler Buddy Ray. Cooley’s band remained Wyble’s home base into the ’50s, even when he made his first jazz recordings for Clef Records. Though one Fender ad depicted Cooley and Boggs with Wyble playing an early Esquire, he always favored hollowbodies.
After a brief reunion with Wills on the West Coast (playing an early Strat), Wyble joined jazz vibes legend Red Norvo’s band and remained with him into the early ’60s, including an appearance in the classic Rat Pack film Ocean’s Eleven. Off the road, Wyble worked in Hollywood as a studio musician and became a respected teacher, renowned for instruction books on contrapuntal playing. Even so, he never lost his deep, abiding pride in his work as a Texas Playboy. Now 85, he resides in San Francisco.
Junior Barnard (1945-’48)
Heavily influenced by blues guitarists and Chicago jazz great George Barnes, Lester “Junior” Barnard (b. 1920) had none of Shamblin’s subtlety or Wyble’s finesse. In fact, Herb Remington, who played steel guitar alongside Barnard in the Playboys from 1946 to ’48, recalled, “When he went to play a chorus on the bandstand, he just looked like he was gonna rip the neck off the body of the guitar.”
Nonetheless, six decades later, his style – characterized by a thick, distorted tone, string bending, and swooping, slurred runs – remains unique and unforgettable.
Born in Coweta, Oklahoma, Barnard worked with various Tulsa bands before joining Wills’ organization in 1937. He first worked as a side man in two short-lived spinoff bands led by Wills’ relatives, briefly worked as a Texas Playboy, then joined Johnnie Lee Wills and his Boys, led by Bob’s younger brother. He tore off a memorable solo on their 1941 Decca recording of “Milk Cow Blues.” In mid ’45, Bob summoned Junior from Tulsa to California as Wyble’s replacement. After inheriting Wyble’s blond Epi, Barnard customized it, adding a steel-guitar pickup and running it through a separate channel in the amp. Bob called it the Blond Tiger.
Recording the Tiffany Transcriptions required tons of material at each session, which forced the Playboys to work up arrangements on the spot. Wills frequently turned Junior loose to improvise. At a May 20, 1946, Tiffany session, he created a bracing improvisation Bob titled “Fat Boy Rag” in honor of Junior’s bulky physique. When they recorded the song for Columbia, the melody of another Barnard original, “Soppin’ Syrup,” became “Fat Boy’s” theme. In 1947, Bob moved Junior to younger brother Luke Wills’ Rhythm Busters. When they disbanded, Junior rejoined the Playboys in 1948. He left later that year, and by 1949 led his own Fresno-based band, the Radio Gang. In April, 1951, he died in a car crash near Fresno.
Herb Remington (1946-’49)
In the summer of ’46, 20-year-old steel guitarist Herbert Leroy Remington, just discharged from the Army, auditioned in a L.A. hotel room for the job of steel guitarist in Luke Wills’ new band. When Bob Wills, who attended the audition, heard Remington, he sent Playboys steel guitarist Roy Honeycutt to Luke. Unexpectedly, Remington became a Texas Playboy.
Like fellow steel virtuoso Buddy Emmons, Remington (b. 1926) was a native of Mishawaka, Indiana. Like McAuliffe, as a young man he devoured Hawaiian steel, paying little mind to most western swing until he visited California in 1943 and joined singer Ray Whitley’s western swing band the Rhythm Wranglers. A 1944 draft notice ended his tenure.
With Wills, Remington’s aggressive style was apparent on the Columbia instrumentals “Punkin’ Stomp (named for Bob’s horse) and “Hometown Stomp.” Remington also confronted problems traveling through various climates with his aluminum-bodied Rickenbacker. “The darn thing would change temperature,” he complained. “And when I’d leave one neck to go to the other, (the first) would go out of tune. Then I had to play off-fret to compensate.”
One day, when the Playboy bus pulled into Leo Fender’s shop in Fullerton, California, Fender gave Remington another prototype: a doubleneck with four removable screw-on legs. It was certainly a step up from the prototype he’d given Boggs. For Remington, it was a vast improvement. Musician feedback did more than merely enhance Fender’s designs. Many musicians who attended Wills dances checked out the band’s gear. “When we got back from a tour,” Remington remembered,” Leo’s desk would be just piled with orders from these people who would see our equipment.”
Like McAuliffe, Remington created two signature tunes with the Playboys. In the wake of McAuliffe’s 1949 hit “Pan Handle Rag,” Wills directed Remington to create a new steel showcase. The resultant “Boot Heel Drag” showcased the band’s electric string ensemble of Shamblin with twin amplified mandolins from Tiny Moore and Johnny Gimble. Remington left late in ’49 and spent early 1950 in Hollywood with the Penny Serenaders, led by Hank Penny. During Penny’s final sessions for King Records, an additional tune was needed, and Remington volunteered an untitled original that Wills had rejected. After the band recorded it, the producer, King owner Syd Nathan, named it “Remington Ride.” Remington left soon after. He settled in Houston, married, and spent years performing Hawaiian music with his wife, Mel, recording locally and teaching. He continues working in western swing bands, currently with the Wills alumni band Playboys II. Since 1986 he has manufactured a line of non-pedal Remington single-, double-, and triple-neck steels, his spin on the old Fender Stringmasters.\
Bob Koefer (1951)
Billy Bowman became the Playboys’ newest steel guitarist in 1950, but with the Korean War raging, the Army snatched him away. Replacing him was one of the band’s most remarkable and unorthodox steel guitarists, Bobby Koefer (b. 1928), from Clay Center, Kansas. With no frame of reference as he learned, nearly everything about Koefer’s style was unconventional. He used only a thumbpick, anchoring his right hand fingers on the steel body as he strummed and picked. Nor did he use the usual chromed steel cylinder for fretting. His was a unique, angled unit.
While Koefer’s thumbpicking gave him a soft, creamy texture, he could tear loose during his days with Wills and often did. One can hear him do that on the Playboys’ 1951 MGM recordings of “Sittin’ On Top of the World” and “Hubbin’ It.” That year, Koefer could be seen with the band in a series of filmed performances (the “Snader Telescriptions,” produced for TV in L.A.) playing both these numbers, as well as “Ida Red.” By year’s end, Koefer had joined Pee Wee King’s successful Louisville-based swing band the Golden West Cowboys.
Koefer created explosive moments on the Cowboys’ 1953 RCA recordings of the “Dragnet” theme and “Steel Guitar Rag,” along with 1955’s “Seven Come Eleven” and “Farewell Blues,” recorded shortly before Koefer’s departure. He also played superb accompaniment on Cowboys’ vocalist Redd Stewart’s early-’50s solo records for King. After working with Billy Gray’s Western band, Koefer left music to work in Alaska. He eventually returned to the lower 48 and remains active today, still playing a 1953 triple-neck Fender Stringmaster in his distinctive style.
Billy Bowman (1951/’53-’54/’55-’57)
Bowman, who rejoined the Playboys after returning from the Army, was a rare Southeastern-born member. The native of Johnson City, Tennessee (b. 1928), was a nephew of Charlie Bowman, who was a member of Al Hopkins and his Hill Billies, one of the first popular country string bands. Appalachian country was conservative, yet Bowman gravitated to western swing early on. By ’46, he played with Paul Howard’s Arkansas Cotton Pickers, one of the Grand Ole Opry’s few swing bands. Two other teens eventually joined him – Hank Garland and future modern jazz drum legend Joe Morello.
His one concession to his Tennessee roots was singing the high harmony on Wills’ 1950 original hit recording of “Faded Love.” His seamless blend of aggression and twang emerged on his signature song “B. Bowman Hop,” recorded with Wills in ’53, and 1954’s “St. Louis Blues.” He was briefly out of the band when Wills relocated to his Wills Point ballroom in Sacramento, but returned that Fall. The Playboys backed him on the ’56 Decca recording session where he recorded his second signature tune, “Midnight in Old Amarillo.” But by then the popularity of western swing was in a tailspin, and Bowman left in ’57. He died in 1989.
Wills had other steel players, most for brief periods, including Les Anderson (composer of “This is the Southland”), Roy Honeycutt, Hal Clampitt, and in ’55, 19-year-old steel guitar prodigy Vance Terry.
Terry, who sat in on Bob Wills’ 1953 MGM recording of “Bottle Baby Boogie,” was better known as a member of Bob’s brother, Billy Jack Wills’ progressive band, and later as a member of Jimmie Rivers and his Cherokees.
The Playboys’ last steel guitarist was Gene Crownover, a Johnnie Lee Wills side man who joined in ’58 and remained, playing competently, until Wills gave up the band in ’64 following his second heart attack.
Other less innovative but capable guitarists come through the band, including the little-known Dick Hamilton, gifted Oklahoma guitarist Benny Garcia, who’d worked with Hank Penny and Tex Williams in California, Lew Walker, and Playboy vocalist Leon Rausch, who led the band after Wills pulled out in 1964. Guitarist/vocalist Gene “Tagg” Lambert remained with Wills, who began performing as a solo act in ’65. The pair toured and performed with house bands around the country.
Wills died May 13, 1975. He would have turned 100 this year. Today, Wyble, Remington, and Koefer survive, the latter two still active. The legacy of all the Playboy guitarists and steel players continue in the playing of, among others, Ray Benson, Lucky Oceans, Cindy Cashdollar, Biller and Wakefield, and for that matter, every amplified twin-guitar duo still out there, be they rock, jazz, or country. It’s another reason Bob Wills holds – and deserves – his dual membership in the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.
This article originally appeared in VG March 2006 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.