While our physical offices are closed until further notice in accordance with Austin's COVID-19 "stay home-work safe" order, the Handbook of Texas will remain available at no-cost for you, your fellow history enthusiasts, and all Texas students currently mandated to study from home. If you have the capacity to help us maintain our online Texas history resources during these uncertain times, please consider making a 100% tax-deductible contribution today. Thank you for your support of TSHA and Texas history. Donate Today »


Charles R. Townsend

Tommy Duncan
Tommy Duncan (left) with Bob Wills and Laura Lee McBride. Duncan was noted for his versatile and soulful voice that made for a distinctive sound in western swing when he performed with the Light Crust Doughboys and later with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame Collection, Wittliff Collections, Texas State University.

DUNCAN, THOMAS ELMER [TOMMY] (1911–1967). Thomas (Tommy) Elmer Duncan, singer and songwriter, was born on January 11, 1911, in Whitney, Texas, into a large and impoverished family of truck farmers. He was the son of Jackson Limuel Byrd Duncan and Edna Nash (Powers) Duncan. On the farm he worked with African Americans who indelibly marked his singing style and repertoire. He was influenced, according to his sister Corrine Andrews, "by the records of colored people and by the recordings of Jimmie Rodgers" (James Charles Rodgers).

When he was seventeen he left home and moved in with a cousin near Hedley, where residents remembered that Duncan sang Jimmie Rodgers songs as he drove along in an "old stripped-down car." He evidently went broke on a farm he had leased in Hedley and in the early 1930s was still broke, out of work, and living in Fort Worth. But the show-business bug had bitten him, and he was determined to have a career as a singer. Clifton "Sleepy" Johnson, an early member of the Light Crust Doughboys, recalled first seeing Duncan playing a little cheap guitar "about a foot and a half long" and singing at the Ace High root beer stand for tips. In 1932 Duncan won an audition against sixty-six other singers to join bandleader James Robert (Bob) Wills as the vocalist for the Light Crust Doughboys.

Listen to this artist

He was versatile in his singing style and repertoire, had a fine voice and range, and was ideal for the kind of dance music Wills performed. In his earliest recording sessions for Wills, he sang everything from ballads and folk to pop, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and cowboy songs. Even in songs with sad lyrics he maintained a touch of fun. Duncan had "soul" in his singing like black blues singers, not the sentimentality of some country singers. His versatility was well-suited to the western swing music that he and Wills pioneered.

When Wills left the Light Crust Doughboys in August 1933 to form the Texas Playboys, Duncan went with him. Alton Stricklin, a member of the group, observed that Duncan remembered the lyrics to more than 4,000 songs and could learn the words to a new song within fifteen minutes. The song that made the Texas Playboys famous was a folk-rooted pop song that Irving Berlin heard Wills play as a fiddle instrumental and published in 1940. Since Berlin wanted lyrics for the selection, Wills asked Duncan and several other band members to help him write words for the fiddle tune. Wills called it "New San Antonio Rose." In 1940 Wills recorded it in Dallas. That recording, with the brilliant Duncan vocals, sold three million copies for Columbia Records (now CBS Records). Bing Crosby then recorded it and won his second gold record.

Tommy Duncan was the first member of Wills's band to volunteer for the armed services after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He rejoined Wills in 1944 as the war neared its end and as Bob Wills was becoming even more famous in music and the movies. Duncan appeared with Wills in several movies, including Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (1944), Rhythm Roundup (1945), Blazing the Western Trail (1945), Lawless Empire (1945), and Frontier Frolic (1946). He became not only a movie star but the most famous singer in all of western swing. His voice matured in the middle to late 1940s, and he became a star in his own right, second only to Wills himself in the Texas Playboy band. Duncan, who could also play piano and guitar, joined Wills in writing several numbers, including "New Spanish Two Step" (1945), "Stay a Little Longer" (1945), "Cotton-Eyed Joe" (1946), and "Sally Goodin" (1947).

For various reasons, including Wills's periodic drinking and Duncan's own ego and ambition to strike out on his own, Duncan left the Texas Playboys in 1948. He organized one of the best western swing bands ever assembled, Tommy Duncan and His Western All Stars. Although the band was technically perfect, and Duncan's singing was excellent, the band lacked the spark that had made Wills's group exciting. The band had only minor success with such recordings as "Gambling Polka Dot Blues," "Sick, Sober, and Sorry," "There's Not a Cow in Texas," "Mississippi River Blues," and "Wrong Road Home Blues." Attendance at the Western All Stars' dances ranged from fair to poor, certainly not good enough to sustain a large band for very long. The band lasted less than two years.

Duncan then spent several years recording and entertaining on his own, but in 1959 returned to the Wills band. There was standing room only as they crisscrossed the country on national tours. In 1960–61 they made three albums that sold much better than either of their recordings had while they worked separately: Together Again, A Living Legend, and Mr. Words and Mr. Music. In the early 1960s the two pioneers of western swing went their various ways, Wills to Oklahoma and Texas, and Duncan to California. Duncan never had a band of note after his All Stars disbanded in the late 1940s, although he continued to make personal appearances with various bands.

He never compromised his style in order to be more popular and commercial. He would never sing like vocalists of mainstream country or rock and roll or pop, though at times he appealed to almost all audiences. Among the singers who felt his influence were Elvis Presley, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, John Denver, Merle Haggard, Ray Benson, Red Steagall, George Strait, Clint Black, Randy Travis, and Garth Brooks. Duncan died on July 24, 1967, in San Diego, after a performance at Imperial Beach. He was buried in Merced Cemetery District in Merced, California. Duncan was inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1991. In 1999 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the category of Early Influence as a member of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. He was also an inductee in the Texas Music Hall of Fame.


The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music (New York: Harmony Books, 1977). Ruth Sheldon, Hubbin' It: The Life of Bob Wills (Kingsport, Tennessee: Kingsport Press, 1938). Al Stricklin and John McConal, My Years with Bob Wills (San Antonio: Naylor, 1976; 2d ed., Burnet, Texas: Eakin Press, 1980). Charles R. Townsend, San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976).

Image Use Disclaimer

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Charles R. Townsend, "DUNCAN, THOMAS ELMER [TOMMY]," accessed August 04, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fdu57.

Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on November 1, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
visit the mytsha forums to participate

View these posts and more when you register your free MyTSHA account.

Call for Papers: Texas Center for Working-Class Studies Events, Symposia, and Workshops
Hi all! You may be interested in this call for papers I received from the Texas Center for Working-Class Studies at Collin College...

Katy Jennings' Ride Scholarly Research Request
I'm doing research on Catherine Jennings Lockwood, specifically the incident known as "Katy Jennings' Ride." Her father was Gordon C. Jennings, the oldest man to die at the Alamo...

Texas Constitution of 1836 Co-Author- Elisha Pease? Ask a Historian
The TSHA profile of Elisha Marshall Pease states that he wrote part of the Texas Constitution although he was only a 24 year-old assistant secretary (not elected). I cannot find any other mention of this authorship work by Pease in other credible research about the credited Constution authors...