Wills, Johnnie Lee, 1912-1984

Variant names
Birth 1912-09-02
Death 1984-10-25

Biographical notes:

Wills was born in Jewett, Texas, United States, and was the younger brother of Bob Wills. He played banjo with Bob as a member of the Texas Playboys starting in 1934, the year the ensemble began playing on KVOO in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1939, he founded his own group, the Rhythmairs, but returned to the Playboys in 1940 when Bob split the ensemble into two groups, and named Johnnie Lee leader of one of them. Following Bob's move to California in 1940, Johnnie Lee renamed his group Johnnie Lee Wills & All The Boys, remaining in Oklahoma. Johnnie Lee switched from banjo to fiddle in this group. In 1940, both brothers appeared the film, Take Me Back to Oklahoma, starring Tex Ritter.

In 1941, he signed with Decca Records, and recorded again with Bullet Records in 1949, where he saw his greatest success with songs such as "Rag Mop" and "Peter Cotton Tail". In 1952, he signed with RCA Victor, where he was less successful, though he was still a popular draw in Oklahoma, and he remained a fixture on KVOO until 1958.

He continued to record through the early 1960s, but his ensemble dissolved in 1964, after which he was only intermittently active in music. He opened a clothing store in Tulsa, and recorded for Flying Fish Records and Delta Records in the 1970s; after Bear Family Records and Rounder Records reissued some of his old material.

Wills died from heart failure on October 25, 1984 in Tulsa.

On September 14, 1996, Tulsa honored Wills with a street named after him. Johnnie Lee Wills Lane is directly in front of the Expo Square Pavilion at the Tulsa State Fairgrounds.

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  • OK, US