Bob Wills is still the King – Oklahoma Historical Society receives grant to preserve western swing music recordings

The Oklahoma state Capitol was bustling today with regular legislative business – as well as the sounds of music in the tradition of the late Bob Wills, popularly known in his era as the King of Western Swing. The Grammy Foundation has presented a $20,000 grant to the state Historical Society to finance preservation of around 600 hours of Wills’ recordings from the middle of the Twentieth Century. 

Carolyn Wills, the music legend’s daughter, came to the Fourth Floor Rotunda to make the announcement after a morning when swing music performers took control (with permission) of the House chambers for performances of old time music from Wills’ body of work. 

Dr. Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Historical Society, told CapitolBeatOK the Grammy Foundation grant is “validation” that the Tulsa legend’s musical legacy remains a vibrant part of state and national cultural history. 

The society now controls the entire Bob Wills collection, which for the last several decades was housed in Turkey, Texas. Wills’ family gave the 600 hours of recordings and other materials, including the Casey Dickens audio collection, to the Historical Society. 

From the policy side of the Capitol, Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb cheered the Grammy Foundation gift. Lamb said of Wills, “He had to escape from Texas to pursue his musical career in Tulsa and now his fiddles, boots, recordings, and even a few cigars are safe and sound back in Oklahoma.”

While Wills was not born in Oklahoma, he and his band — the Texas Playboys – surged to popularity early in the modern media era, with daily radio broadcasts from Tulsa Cain’s Ballroom. His greatest hits included “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” “Faded Love,” and “San Antonio Rose.” 

Carolyn Wills visit for “Bob Wills Day” at the state Capitol included time listening to live performances of her father’s tunes, meetings with a range of reporters and greetings from arts advocates. State Rep. Purcy Walker, an Elk City Democrat, joined with Kent Harrison of the Oklahoma State Fiddlers, Inc. to organize the hours of music and fellowship beneath the dome. 

Leading the afternoon performances were Bob Fjeldsted and the Roundup Boys. A complete advance report from Darla Shelden — outlining the day’s activities and an overview of Wills’ cultural impact — is printed this week in The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City. 

Blackburn is pressing for legislative approval of a $42 million bond issue to construct a 75,000 square foot museum in Tulsa’s Brady Arts District. If approved, the taxpayer support would be combined with an anticipated $8 million in private funding. 

Legislative leaders have said the only bond project with widespread support in the House and Senate is a widely anticipated major bond issue for improvements and repairs to the state Capitol itself, perhaps including improvements to the Thorpe building or other parts of the Capitol Complex.