If you were around here on the West Coast in the 40’s or 50’s chances are you came in contact with Tex Williams. He was, along with Bob Wills and almost no one else, among the most important Western Swing band leaders in the post war era.
Coming from the Spade Cooley band where he first gained some notice as a vocalist, Tex created a niche for himself, with a deep voice and occasionally a “talking blues” style of delivery. Despite his long-time nickname, Tex was born near Ramsey, Illinois on August 23, 1917, or rather Sollie Paul Williams was born on that date. By the time he was 17 he was performing in the Pacific Northwest and using the name Jack Williams.
Around 1940 Tex hooked up with a band called the Reno Racketeers up in Washington State, but soon moved to a group called the Colorado Hillbillies until fellow member Cal Shrum formed his own band. Williams made his first recordings with Shrum.
In 1942, with WWII in full swing, Tex moved to L.A. at the request of promoter Foreman Phillips. Phillips was putting together an all star band around fiddler Spade Cooley to play a circuit of ballrooms in the Southern California area that included the Riverside Rancho, the Santa Monica Civic, and San Diego County’s own Bostonia Ballroom). Williams became the band’s vocalist and bass player.
Forman Phillips knew how to market musicians, and he certainly knew his audience. He decided to hook the different fans’ home regions to members of the band. Guitarist singer Smokey Rogers became “Oakie,” bassist Deuce Spriggens became “Arkie,” and Illinois-bred Jack Williams became “Tex.”
By 1943, Cooley was using his classical training to create sophisticated western swing arrangements that were smoother than those of Bob Wills and the other western swing bands. In the process he defined the direction of West Coast country music for a decade.Â He hired classical harpist Spike Featherstone and a young steel player named Earl Murphy who Foreman Phillips nicknamed “Joaquin.” Murphy would go on to be a virtuoso of the pre-pedal steel generation.
In 1944 They began to record for Columbia records under the direction of Wills’ producer Uncle Arts Satherley.Â At the first session the ballad “Shame Shame on You” was recorded with Tex doing the understated vocal. The record was a big hit and it made Tex Williams the star of the Cooley band. Through 1945 the band continued to make excellent records, with Tex featured on songs like “You Never Miss the Water (’til the Well Runs Dry)” and “Detour.”
As Cooley became more successful he also became more autocratic and when Tex was offered a solo recording contract by Capitol, he tried to talk Cooley into paying him more and sharing joint billing on their records. Cooley refused and the relationship between the two men crumbled.
Smokey Rogers told me the story about the split between Spade and Tex. He said “It was in June of 1946 and they were booked for two jobs: one in San Diego at the Bostonia Ballroom and the other in L.A. By plane it was an easy trip, but difficult by car. Tex refused to go after a plane didn’t materialize; he was fired by Spade just before the L.A. show. Within a day or two, most of the band, also dissatisfied with Spade’s low pay, joined Tex.
Tex brought Joaquin Murphy and several other ex-Cooley band members back in and renamed the band “The Western Caravan,” retaining the basic Cooley flavor (Cooley went on to form a more pop flavored orchestra) though he added pianist/vibraphonist Ossie Godson to give them an even more distinct sound. Their first session for Capitol was on July 24, 1946 and for the next five or six sessions things were kind of slow — slow to the point that by early 1947 Capitol was making noises about dropping them. It was at that point that Tex was talking to his good friend Merle Travis about the pressure and within a short time Merle had written “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!” for the band. They recorded it on March 27, 1947, and it became a “crossover” hit, reaching #1 on the pop charts as well as doing very well on the country lists.
Every aspect of the record, from Tex’s energetic “talking blues” vocal to Johnny Weiss’ hot guitar work and Manny Klein’s trumpet to the Cactus Soldi-led three-fiddle ensemble was perfect. Capitol quit worrying, and the Caravan took over popular L.A. clubs like the Riverside Rancho and the Palace Barn as well as doing nationwide tours. Capitol had its first million seller.
Talking blues became Tex’s trademark, although he didn’t invent the style. Chris Bouchillion did talking blues records in the late ’20s and Robert Lunn, who called himself “the talking blues man,” was a regular on The Grand Ole Opry from the late ’30s. However, Tex added a hipness to the style and it would remain a part of his story for the rest of his life and career. Other talking blues recorded by Tex included “Downtown Poker Club,” “With Men who know Tobacco Best It’s Women Three to One.” and “Money.” The Western Caravan continued to tour, had a TV show in the 1950s called Live at Knotts Berry Farm and for a time Tex shared some of the band members with Smokey Rogers who had a weekday TV show in San Diego (daytime on KFMB channel 8 called Smokey Rogers General Store featuring band members Cactus Soldi, Joaquin Murphy, and Pedro De Paul and maybe Johnny Weis). The Knotts show was on Sundays, and that left Saturday night free for a ballroom gig.
Tex left Capitol in 1951 and moved to RCA Victor, then Decca. The Caravan remained the same although some new musicians came along, including steel guitarist Wayne Burdick and lead guitar man Dickie Phillips, who played his instrument on his lap like a steel. The RCA period and the five years with Decca featured good music and mostly rotten material.
In the early ’60s after re-recording an LP of hits for Capitol, he did a superb live album in Vegas for Liberty Records. Tex Williams at the Mint featured him fronting a tight band that included Glenn Campbell on lead guitar. He owned and played regularly at the Tex Williams Village in Newhall, California until 1965 when he finally let the band go and started to tour as a solo artist. A few records he made for the small Boone label showed up on the bottom of the charts.
“The Night Miss Nancy Ann’s Hotel for Single Girls Burned Down,” a talking blues he did for Monument, hit 27 nationwide in 1971 and an album followed, called Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, revived “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!” in 1973, but Tex was playing to smaller audiences overseas and in Nevada. He also recorded an album for Cliffie Stone’s Granite Records.
Williams’ health faltered in the ’80s. He’d always had a minor leg impairment from childhood polio and years of heavy smoking brought on lung cancer, which killed him in October of 1985 at age 68. Tex was more or less a victim of his success with one style, but he stuck to it always hoping for a repeat of his hit with “Smoke!” The excellence of his best postwar western swing recordings put them among the best ever done in that genre and he persevered far longer than most of his contemporaries.