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Gary Hartman

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WILLS, JOHNNIE LEE (1912–1984). Johnnie Lee Wills, guitar and banjo player, was born in Limestone County, Texas, on September 2, 1912. He was the son of John and Emmaline (Foley) Wills and younger brother of Bob Wills. In 1913 the family loaded their possessions into two covered wagons and moved to Hall County in the Texas Panhandle. Johnnie Lee soon established his position within the musically talented Wills family. At the outset of the Great Depression, he got a job as a truck driver for Burrus Mill and Elevator Company of Fort Worth, which sponsored Bob Wills, Milton Brown, and others, as the Light Crust Doughboys. When Johnnie Lee was fired over a dispute with his foreman, Bob hired his younger brother to play tenor banjo in the group, though manager W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel objected. Bob and several members of the band eventually left the Light Crust Doughboys to form the Texas Playboys.

Riley Crabtree
Johnny Lee Wills (third from left) poses with a veritable who’s who of young country stars, ca. early 1950s. Left to right: Dewey Groom, Billy Walker, Johnny Lee Wills, Lefty Frizzell, Charlie Duff, Riley Crabtree, T. Texas Tyler, and Ray Price. Courtesy of Dragon Street Records, Inc.

Johnnie Lee remained a member of the Texas Playboys, playing on KVOO in Tulsa, until 1940, when he began performing with his own band, Johnnie Lee Wills and His Boys. They continued to perform on KVOO until 1958. The group became quite popular throughout North Texas and Oklahoma and included many of the same well-established musicians that were part of the Texas Playboys, such as Jesse Ashlock and Joe Holley. In the late 1940s Johnnie Lee Wills and His Boys began recording for Bullet Records. With the songs "Rag Mop" and "Peter Cottontail," the band gave Bullet its two all-time best-selling country hits. Johnnie Lee also recorded for RCA, Decca, and other labels, and for several years he ran the popular rodeo, the Johnnie Lee Wills Stampede, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the late 1970s some of his 1950s recordings were reissued by the Rounder and Bear Family labels. He died in Tulsa on October 25, 1984. Johnnie Lee Wills was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2001. He was an inductee into the National Fiddler Hall of Fame in 2009.


Fred Dellar, Alan Cackett, and Roy Thompson, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music (London: Salamander Books, 1986). John Mark Dempsey, The Light Crust Doughboys Are on the Air: Celebrating Seventy Years of Texas Music (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2002). Charles R. Townsend, San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976).

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

Handbook of Texas Online, Gary Hartman, "WILLS, JOHNNIE LEE," accessed August 11, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fwibq.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on December 2, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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