Written by T. Michael Testi
While Bob Wills had been playing music since he was a very young child in Texas, it wasn't until he moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1934 that he formed "The Texas Playboys." It was here that they began broadcasting noontime shows over the 50,000 watt KVOO radio station. Their Monday through Friday shows became an institution in the area. They also played every Thursday and Saturday nights at Cain's Ballroom which was where the broadcasts where recorded at as well.
From 1935 to 1938 Wills refined his band, and their sound by adding musicians like steel guitar wizard Leon McAuliffe as well as horn, reed, and drum players to the mix. In 1940, they released "New San Antonio Rose" and it sold over a million records becoming the signature song of the Texas Playboys. Because they were a two-in-one unit; a small fiddle band, and a swinging big band, they could play a wide range of music from big band, western, swing, pop, and Dixieland.
After a brief stint in the Army, he moved the Texas Playboys to Hollywood and continued to refine the sound of the band. Because of the great depression, World War II, and the great dustbowl, they found a lot of fans from Oklahoma and Texas that had relocated and were an enormous draw in California. During this time Wills also began making more creative use of electric guitars.
In 1944, Cliff Johnson, a staff announcer for Oakland's KLX radio station and someone who disliked anything country, was asked by management to "take one for the team." They wanted him to host a western show. After finding himself volunteered, he took on the moniker "Cactus Jack" and began playing what little country and western music that the station's library had.
It was at this time that a friend introduced him to Wills music. They lent him a cardboard box full of Wills records and when he began playing them, the station was deluged with requests. After listening to so much of this music, soon Johnson was hooked. Wills found out about Cactus Jack and soon the DJ was promoting Wills and the Playboys around the bay area.
In 1945 Wills, Cactus Jack, and businessman-songwriter Clifford Sundin founded Tiffany Music, Inc. to create a series of transcriptions; pre-packaged radio shows featuring Wills and his Texas Playboys. The goal was to sell these shows to subscribing stations who would present them with local advertisers. This steady series of programs would require the band to record scores of tunes, not just their hits, and bandstand repertoire, but entirely new songs, and at a record pace.
They revisited their old recordings, wrote new ones, covered tunes from other acts, and just make stuff up on the spot. Quite often they would record the session's right after a tour while they were playing at the top of their form. The Tiffany Transcriptions are these recordings that took place during 1946-47 and since they were recorded on 16 inch vinyl disks, the had more freedom to perform than they did on the more restricted 78 rpm singles that were tradition at the time.
The Tiffany Transcriptions is a box-set that contains 10-disks covering 150 songs. This is the first time that this collection has been put together as a set and it contains written testimonials from those that Wills music inspired. These include people like Ray Benson from Asleep at the Wheel and Ranger Doug from Riders in the Sky.
As I said this is a 10 disk set and each disk is packaged in an individual sleeve that contains the album cover, liner notes from various individuals either about the sessions, or about how the sessions and Wills influenced them, and photos. There is also information on the sessions such as who was there, where and when it was recorded, and on the back is the listing of all of the songs. There is also a 16 page booklet with more information on the history of the sessions.
I was always a fan of the later generations of Western Swing such as Asleep at the Wheel, and while I had heard some of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, and liked what I had heard, I was not familiar with what I would now call the "true" sound of Bob Wills. After listing to The Tiffany Transcriptions I found that I absolutely loved this aspect of the music.
The quality of the recordings is very good considering the time and equipment that was available around in the mid-forties. They have that natural radio sound to them that makes them take on a nostalgic tone. Don't get me wrong, the recordings themselves are very clear and clean.
Because of the nature of the recordings and how they were performed, the songs themselves give off a "live" feel and are less restricted than their Columbia and MGM counterpart releases that Wills put out during this time. Most seem to agree that this sound reflects more of their live performances. I would agree that there is a lot of natural energy to these recordings.
If you like the music of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, if you like country music, western swing, big band, or old time music, you will absolutely love The Tiffany Transcriptions. Even if you don't like one or all of the above, I suspect, that like Cactus Jack, if you start listening to it, you will find yourself liking it. For this I have to give it five stars. Go get it!