They came to honor Bob
John Hamill remembers when Tulsa honored Bob Wills.
Tulsans could not get out of their homes to go to church, but they made it through the snow to honor Bob Wills.
It was Jan. 18, 1970, and the temperature read 7 degrees. Four inches of snow lay on top of a foundation of ice.
Today, with front-wheeled drive and better tires (plus a crack city maintenance operation), four inches of snow on top of ice would only excite television weathermen. But, in 1970, that kind of weather paralyzed the city. I know. I was there.
Bob Wills, along with Milton Brown, created a new kind of music that combined blues, fiddle music and swing into a style that became known as western swing. Born in Fort Worth, it was perfected and flourished in Tulsa under Wills’ tutoring at Tulsa’s Cain’s Dancing Academy. From there, Wills and his Texas Playboys went national via KVOO radio and eventually through recordings, movies and concert/dance tours. At one time, Wills was said to be the country’s highest-paid bandleader.
But, by the 1970s, his generosity with relatives, friends and anyone with a good story, as well as a serious stroke, had him rumored to be in dire financial shape. As Charles R. Townsend notes in his authoritative biography of Wills, “San Antonio Rose — The Life and Music of Bob Wills,” that was not necessarily the case. While he was hardly living in luxury, Wills was living comfortably in Dallas. But, as Townsend also notes, Wills’ pals in the music business knew that “Bob had befriended some of them and many others, and if he did need help, they wanted to make certain he received it.”
The Fairgrounds Pavilion was booked. Some 80 stars from the country and western world agreed to pay their own way to be present and entertain. Then ice and snow slammed the city.
Townsend writes that legendary Wills guitarist Eldon Shamblin and his wife, Ruby, who organized the benefit, were first worried that the stars might not make it. Then, when three of the six living members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Tex Ritter, arrived, they wondered whether an audience would.
From Channel 8’s mountain in west Tulsa, we wondered the same thing. News chief Bob Gregory had assigned photographer Bob Welsh and me to interview stars and record one song each for a 30-minute special to be aired that night following Dan Baxter’s news. Reports that churches had few or no people in their pews and that many were closed added to the concern. We headed out early to the fairgrounds figuring we might be able to catch an interview or two even if the benefit concert scheduled for 4 p.m. was canceled.
I cannot recall exactly when we skidded into the fairgrounds parking lot, but it was well ahead of 4 p.m. and the lot and the Pavilion were beginning to fill — 8,000 people for the first show.
Welsh and I quickly fell into a routine. Interview a star (Molly Bee and Tex Ritter, in particular, were not only gracious but also earnest in explaining the love fellow artists felt for Wills), dash out to film a song and then haul the camera (a bulky 16 mm magnetic stripe camera) backstage for another interview — repeat.
A station runner carted undeveloped film back to the station to go into the “soup” so Welsh could begin editing as soon as we returned to the station.
The first show finished and a second began at 7:45 p.m. By that time, we were headed back on slippery (Tulsa was not equipped to handle ice and/or snow in 1970) streets to the station to finish narration and editing. And, despite the snow and bitter cold, warm in the embrace of those who slid into town to express their love for the man who put Tulsa on the musical map.