When "swing" was the thing, in the 1930s, young people from coast to coast were dancing in urban ballrooms to the music of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Sammy Kaye, and a long list of other popular dance bands of the era. Country cousins of these youngsters were doing the same, but not in ballrooms and not to the "uptown" bands whose names most readily come to mind when the era of swing music is recalled. It was something described as "hot fiddling" when it first began to stir in the Southwest--something that was not as genteel as the string-band sounds of the Eastern Appalachians.
Beginning in the country dance halls of Texas and Oklahoma, an infectious combination of country, cowboy, polka, and folk music was blended with "swing" to create a variation played by so-called "hot string bands," which would later come to be known as "Western Swing."
The birth of Western Swing can be traced more or less to an oil lamp and a sack of flour. In 1930, a duo of fiddle and guitar players teamed up with a vocalist and rhythm guitarist to form "The Aladdin Laddies," making regular appearances on WBAP in Forth Worth Texas. Many groups in those days took their names from the sponsor of a radio show, in this case the Aladdin Lamp Company. When Aladdin pulled out as sponsor, the show continued under the sponsorship of the Burris Mill and Elevator Company. The best known product of the mill was "Light Crust Flour," so the boys were renamed "The Light Crust Doughboys." Following many changes in personnel, the Doughboys are still performing today, some 70 years later.
The personnel of this seminal group consisted of fiddler Bob Wills, guitarist Herman Arnspiger, vocalist Milton Brown, and his brother Derwood Brown on rhythm guitar. Apparently, this combination never recorded. The group did, however, make two recordings in 1932, under the name "The Fort Worth Doughboys," with Sleepy Johnson replacing Arnspiger.
Bob Wills (left) and Milton Brown (right) each went on to head one of the two most popular and important Western Swing bands. Wills assumed the title of "King of Western Swing" and remained active for many years. He died on May 13, 1975. Milton Brown, who more properly deserves the title "Founder of Western Swing," died on April 18, 1936, the victim of a tragic automobile accident. Milton Brown, only 32 years of age, was lost to us just at a time when he was preparing to rise to prominence on the national scene.
The stories of Bob Wills, Milton Brown, and the creation of "Western Swing" are so easy to find elsewhere that I shall not recount them here. Along with liner notes of the recordings mentioned below, an excellent source, available in your library or bookstore is "COUNTRY - The Music and the Musicians" published by the Country Music Foundation and Abbeville Press (1988).
In addition, there are three books that I can heartily recommend to you:
Clicking on one of the "Buy It Now" links, above, will take you directly to the order form page for that particular book at Amazon.com. Now, what could be easier than that?
Back in the days of small, independent record companies, tons of Western Swing recordings were available on LP, but a relatively small portion of this material is currently available on CD. Still there is enough to introduce you to this remarkable world. Try these on for size:
Rhino 70744 Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys: ANTHOLOGY 1935-1973
You won't find a better introduction to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys than this 1991 release. The 32 selections also provide a somewhat definitive look at the entire body of work of these important artists. As is common with product from the Rhino label, this double-disc comprehensive retrospective of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys appears to contain material from every label the Playboys recorded for and features the hit version of each of Wills' most famous songs, including "Right or Wrong," "Time Changes Everything," "Steel Guitar Rag," "New San Antonio Rose," "Take Me Back to Tulsa," "Cherokee Maiden," "Roly-Poly," "Stay A Little Longer," "Big Beaver," "Bubbles in My Beer," "Faded Love," and many others. The selections range from early studio recordings through radio transcriptions, on up to the special "tribute" session recorded on the afternoon just before a massive stroke stilled Wills' voice forever. Each of the two CDs also comes with an informative booklet full of great pictures and complete discographical data.
Rhino 71469-71477 The Tiffany Transcriptions, Vols. 1-9 -- Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys
For those of you who can't get enough of Bob Wills, I can verify that the first several of these volumes are, indeed, crammed with great music. The following review is from the All Music Guide web site:
In 1946, Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys began recording a series of radio transcriptions for Oakland, CA's Tiffany Music Corporation. Tiffany's plan was to syndicate the transcriptions throughout the Southwest, but their goal was never fulfilled. Nevertheless, the Texas Playboys made a number of transcriptions in '46 and '47, and these are the only recordings of the band playing extended jams. Consequently, they are close approximations of the group's live sound. The Tiffany Transcriptions weren't released until the '80s, when the Kaleidoscope label issued a multi-volume set of all of the sessions. These were later re-issued by Rhino in the '90s. Available in nine individual volumes, every disc of the Tiffany Transcriptions illustrates the depth and breadth of the Texas Playboys and is one of the few recordings that captures all of their eclectic talents intact. -- Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Find out more about this series and search the entire Rhino catalog at their web site.
MCA 38019 Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys -- King of Western Swing
This 1995 collection is probably still available and would also provide an excellent introduction to the best of Bob Wills. The repackaging of "Best of" and "Anthology" collections of Wills' recordings seem to come in and out of print with some regularity. Almost any of them is going to be worthwhile. For best results, however, carefully check to insure that you are getting the original late '30s and '40s versions of these recordings.
Texas Rose TXRCD 1-5 Milton Brown and the Musical Brownies
This extensive 5-CD set, released in 1996, includes the "Complete Recordings of the Father of Western Swing." I have this set and love it, but it is pricey (offered at $77.98 from Roots & Rhythm) and not everyone wants five full CDs of this sort of thing by a single artist. Once again, remarks from the All Music Guide web site:
The Complete Recordings of the Father of Western Swing 1932-1937 is exactly what its title suggests -- everything Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies recorded for both Victor and Decca Records, spread out over five compact discs. [Even the two 1932 "Fort Worth Doughboys" numbers with Bob Wills are included.] The very comprehensiveness of the box makes it appealing only to serious country music historians and dedicated fans, but within these five discs is some of the most groundbreaking, influential -- and just plain enjoyable -- popular music of the early 20th century. For those willing to make the investment, it is well-worth the money. -- Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Epic 37324 Okeh Western Swing
This 1982 release (on LP) was my primary introduction to the genre. This is a truly excellent collection of 28 sides featuring 22 different groups or artists. Seven numbers are by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. The collection includes precursors from the '20s such as Emmitt Miller's original "Lovesick Blues" right up through a 1950 recording by Leon McAuliffe and his Western Swing Band. This wonderful CD is now back in print after several years of being unavailable. If you don't love this CD, you can forget about buying any others.
Charly CDGR 182-2 Jive & Smile - Kings of Western Swing
This 1997 double-CD set is a real treasure. The two discs contain a truly impressive collection of 50 (count 'em, 50!) performances. Best of all, most of these tunes are not the same old titles that are commonly found elsewhere. Yes, there are several standards: "Right or Wrong" and "Sweet Jennie Lee," by Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, "What's the Matter With the Mill," by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and "Detour," by Spade Cooley, among them. The strength of this collection, however, lies in such numbers as "Nickel In the Kitty" ("Put a nickel in the kitty, we'll play your ditty now."), by Ocie Stockard and His Wanderers, plus the fact that songs by more than 30 different groups are included. You've got Cliff Bruner and His Boys ("Jessie"), The Swift Jewel Cowboys, Jimmie Revard, Adolph Hofner, Hank Penny, T. Texas Tyler, and Al Dexter, among many others. Where else are you going to find "Little Red Wagon" by Merl Lindsay and His Oklahoma Night Riders? Hey, even Bob Skyles and His Skyrockets are represented by the title tune. "Jive & Smile" is a German import, but I found it in February 1998 from Collector's Choice Music for the relatively agreeable price of $29.95.
Rhino 71782 Texas Music, Vol. 2 -- Western Swing & Honky Tonk
This is one of the few collections of various artists that I can say with some confidence is actually available on CD and relatively easy to find. The 18 selections (some half of which are "Western Swing") include representative songs by Bob Wills, Milton Brown, and Roy Newman, among others. Not a fabulous collection, but plenty good enough, especially if nothing else can be found.
Fremeaux & Assoc. FA 032 Western Swing -- Texas 1928-1944
This a an excellent double CD import from France, which will set you back about $30 if you can find it. The 36 selections comprise a really fine introduction to the genre. Artists include: Bob Wills, Milton Brown, Jimmy Revard, Adolph Hofner, Light Crust Doughboys, Spade Cooley, The Tune Wranglers -- just about everyone that you could wish for. Along with the "Charly" set mentioned above, this 1994 set of discs is the best of the "in print" collections. Happily, the two collections contain only a couple of duplicate numbers.
RCA 2102-2-R Under the Double Eagle -- Great Western Swing Bands of the 1930's
This 1990 CD is out of print, but might be found in a remainder bin. The 18 tracks are evenly split between Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies and Bill Boyd and His Cowboy Ramblers. If you can find this one it presents an excellent chance to pick up a mini-collection of Milton Brown recordings without spending a fortune.
If you spend time rummaging through used record bins, be on the lookout for any LP on the "Rambler," "String," "Texas Rose" or "Old Timey" label. Some wonderful collections were issued on these labels back in the '80s. Many of them also include informative essay-length liner notes. Beyond these, there are a couple of others that I would specifically recommend:
Tishomingo TSHO 2220 Rollin' Along -- An Anthology of Western Swing
This excellent collection (probably issued in the '70s) was one of, if not the, first Western Swing LPs that I ever purchased. It has held up remarkably well. The 16 cuts include some great stuff that you still can't find elsewhere from such groups as Bob Dunn's Vagabonds. Milton Brown, Bob Wills, Adolph Hofner, the Light Crust Doughboys, and the Prairie Ramblers (with the great "title" tune) are to be found here, as well.
MCA 1509 Milton Brown and his Brownies -- Pioneer Western Swing Band 1935-36
This 1982 LP was a budget album in MCA's "Collectibles" series. The 12 selections are hard to top, including such gems as: "Easy Ridin' Papa" and "Down By the O-HI-O." Frankly, any Milton Brown LP that you can manage to put your hands on will have some great stuff on it.
Origin Jazz Library OJL-8102 Roy Newman & His Boys
Roy Newman was there at the beginning. He and his "boys," though lesser known than Bob Wills or Milton Brown, could make a decent case of their own regarding "fatherhood" of Western Swing. The 14 cuts on this album were recorded between 1934 and 1938 and they are terrific. These really early groups featured stringed instruments, yes, but also reed instruments, banjos and accordians. The mixture of "string band" and "jazz" that they were playing didn't have a name yet. These guys just played what they liked, whether it was "Rhythm is Our Business," "Dinah," "Mississippi Mud," or "12th Street Rag" (all found on this disc). Don't pass up a chance to add this one to your collection if you ever have a chance. The extensive notes by Cary Ginell (author of the Milton Brown book) are worth the price of admission alone.
Rambler 102 Devil With the Devil
Subtitled "Hot Western Swing from the 1930's," it certainly is that. The picture of "The Tune Wranglers" at the top of this page is from the cover of this fine LP. Here you'll find 14 great numbers including the title tune and "I Can't Dance (I Got Ants in My Pants)," by Roy Newman and His Boys, the terrific "They Go Wild Over Me" by the Tune Wranglers, along with similarly toe tapping selections by Milton Brown, Jimmie Revard, Cliff Bruner' Texas Wanderers, and others. A top-notch collection with extensive notes by Marty Pahls and Smiley Jaxon. It's just a crime that all these great collections on LP are so slow in finding their way to CD.
Columbia 38909 Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers
The tunes on this 1984 entry in Columbia's "Historic Edition" series are as colorful as the album cover. Not exactly "Western Swing," but the line begins to blur between some of this stuff and related areas such as "bluegrass," "hokum," and "honkytonk." Patsy's biggest hit "I Want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" is here, among 11 other "good-time" tracks that feature the fabulous Prairie Ramblers, also known as the "Sweet Violet Boys." Everyone here is having a great time. One number, "There's A Man That Comes to Our House," featuring great clarinet by Willie Thawl, is worth whatever you have to do to acquire a copy of this record. Patsy and the Ramblers probably deserve a page of their own, but one (*sigh*) can only do so much.
President PLCD 553 Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys -- The King of Lone Star Swing
This is a recently released collection that I have not heard. As described in the Roots & Rhythm catalog: "Part of President's 'Roots of Rock 'n Roll' series, this disc features 28 classic sides covering the period 1935 to 1945." I have bought tons of records from this company (which used to be called "Down Home Music") over a period of many years. They are worthy of your support. The disc lists for $18.95, a little steep but, hey, your're getting 28 tracks.
President PLCD 552 Roots of Rock 'n Roll, Vol. 2 -- Stompin' Western Swing
This is another entry in President's new series. The 28 tracks cover the period 1936 to 1941 and such artists as Milton Brown, Light Crust Doughboys, Bob Wills, The Tune Wranglers, Roy Newman, and Bill Boyd are included. The disc lists for $18.95.
So when are we going to hear some of this music? Well, how about now?
Those of you with browsers that support certain plug-in music players may now click the little black right-pointing arrowhead and listen to Milton Brown and the Brownies playing "Yes Sir!" recorded on March 4, 1936. Some of you heard it when this page first loaded. [56 seconds -- 591K]
Rather than repeat information that is so readily available elsewhere, the remainder of my missive to you regarding Western Swing is devoted to two individuals who are not as well known as Wills, Brown, and others, but should be -- Adolph Hofner and Bob Skyles. The bulk of their musical output can fairly be classified as "Western Swing," but each of them also added something quite extraordinary. Hofner, as a descendent of Czech immigrants, freely mixed Bohemian waltzes and polkas with his music. Skyles combined unusual instrumentation with a "hokum" approach to produce something unique in the genre. I invite you to proceed to their individual pages.
Following the trail to this Western Swing site will reward the visitor with lots of worthwhile listings and resources, regarding festivals, news, and available CDs.
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This page created and maintained by Jim Lowe
First appearance: June 16, 1997
Last updated: May 18, 2002