In 1931, long before “Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys” fiddled their way through the South, a group of struggling Texas musicians in Fort Worth came up with a bright idea. The Depression was hitting them all hard, and they needed to come up with a plan.
Radio advertising was a brand new frontier, and musicians Bob Wills, Herman Arnspiger and Milton Brown saw the opportunity. Together, they approached the President of Burrus Mills Flour Company (who happened to be future governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel) and pitched him the idea of putting together a band to advertise flour on the radio. They were probably inspired in part by Hal Collins’ Crazy Crystals radio show already underway in nearby Mineral Wells.
O’Daniel was initially resistant to the idea, and he was not a fan of “that hillbilly music.” But possibly because of Crazy Crystals’ success, he gave the boys a chance, and “The Light Crust Doughboys” got their start. At first, O’Daniel proved to be a tough employer, and for the first few weeks he made the boys work full-time in the mill in addition to playing on the radio. Later, when it became apparent that the ads were working well, he set them up to work on music in an on-site studio for 8 hours a day.
The Doughboys played both original and traditional folk songs in the radio ads, and they also performed throughout the region at conventions and appearances. Some band members even occasionally moonlighted on the Crazy Crystals radio show in Mineral Wells for extra money. Eventually, O’Daniel finally lightened up and accepted the group as a true marketing success: the boys appealed to O’Daniel’s political aspirations and asked him to be their official emcee on the radio. It’s possible that through the Doughboys, O’Daniel discovered his new passion: public speaking. He soon became known to the public as “Pass the biscuits, Pappy!” O’Daniel, later parodied by the Cohen brothers in film.
According to some, however, O’Daniel and Wills did not get along, and their clashes were possibly exacerbated by Wills’ drinking habit. O’Daniel reportedly fired Wills after he missed one too many performances. But the Doughboys’ popularity continued to soar, and they were featured in at least one Gene Autry film in the mid-thirties. (Click the link above to see them perform “Tiger Rag” in the Autry film Oh, Susanna!)
O’Daniel was later fired from his position at Burrus Millls, and his early hatred of “that hillbilly music” must have mysteriously disappeared, because he founded his own flour company called “Hillbilly Flour” and a new band called the “Hillbilly Boys.” (Click on the link to listen!)
Meanwhile, Bob Wills was busy forming the beginnings of his legendary band “The Texas Playboys.” In 1934, a year after leaving the Doughboys, the band signed a contract with Hal Collins and the Crazy Crystals company to play for thirty minutes every day from 12:30-1pm on Tulsa radio station KVOO. The band wasn’t exactly paid for the shows, but Wills knew that everybody in the area listened to the radio at lunch-time, and it was a great way to get their name out in order to book more shows. The tactic worked.
Pappy O’Daniel appeared in Wills’ life again, and asked him if he’d like to merge the Hillbilly Boys with the Texas Playboys. Wills respectfully and politely declined. There are even some who say that O’Daniel also tried to get O.W. Mayo’s job as the Playboys’ manager. But obviously, Wills turned that proposal down too.
O’Daniel, of course, would go on to win a campaign for Texas Governor in 1938 by using the Hillbilly Boys on the road and employing many of the same musical advertising techniques. The Collins brothers in Mineral Wells even got in on the act, even allowing O’Daniel to use the airwaves on their Mexican radio station to campaign in South Texas.
Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, of course, went on to become the stuff of country music legend.
Here’s Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys performing “That’s What I Like About the South”: