Black Music Matters Festival

Billy Jack Wills and His Western Swing Band

Billy Jack Wills and His Western Swing Band: Sacramento 1952-1954 – 1996 (Joaquin)

Reviewed by Jon Johnson

CDs by Billy Jack Wills and His Western Swing Band

Western swing's salad days were nearly over by the early- and mid-1950's - largely a result of changing tastes and the growing popularity of television - but some of the genre's best instrumental work was being recorded during that decade. Though always overshadowed by older brother Bob Wills (for whom Billy Jack had played bass and drums for a number of years), Billy Jack Wills led and drummed with his own Sacramento-based group in the early fifties, serving as the house band atWills Point; a ballroom owned by Bob, as well as touring, recording, and broadcasting a daily radio program on the powerful KFBK, whose signal covered much of the northwestern U.S.

"Sacramento 1952-1954" is taken from transcription discs made for the KFBK broadcasts and it's a treasure for any fan of the western swing of the period. Billy Jack's group at the time also featured ex-Texas Playboy Tiny Moore on electric mandolin, fiddle, and most of the lead vocals, as well as the brilliant Vance Terry on pedal steel.

While some songs - "Basin Street Blues," "Get Along Home Cindy," and "Twin Guitar Special" - were earlier recorded by Bob's Texas Playboys, the band really shines on tightly-arranged string-based versions of bigband numbers like Woody Herman's "Woodchopper Ball," Duke Ellington's "Caravan," and "Tuxedo Junction," best-known through its Glenn Miller recording. The results are as jazzy as anything the Texas Playboys were recording in the late thirties, and considerably jazzier than most of the material Bob Wills was recording by 1952.

Joaquin deserves a lot of credit for making these transcriptions available to the general public. The sound quality of the 19 tracks is excellent and the liner notes by Rich Kienzle are thorough and informative. "Sacramento 1952-1954" is one of the recent bright lights for western swing aficionados.