Recording ensembles tend to like the idea of the “signature sound”, a kind of go-to musical move that instantly establishes a unit’s identity in the span of a few notes. Whether it’s the rhythmic chug of the Basie band, the blues propulsion of the Rolling Stones, or the twined glissandos of the Amadeus String Quartet, there’s been a real penchant for congruity throughout the history of performance groups. This doesn’t mean that congruity has to negate variety or experiments in musical eclecticism on large commercial labels, but these days it usually does. It was not always so, however. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were veritable magpie renegades—mid-20th-century mash-up artists who shattered genre expectations, recording protocols and geographical associations with abandon. You’ll see that if you spend any time with the ten-disc set just out from Collectors’ Choice.
The Playboys’ Tiffany Transcriptions are “live” in that they were cut in single, continuous takes in the studio in the mid to late 1940s, typically after the band had wrapped up one of their tours across the western half of the country. After having been based in Texas and Oklahoma, the Playboys relocated to the Bay area following World War II, along with plenty of out-of-work Texas good-old-boys keen to partake of California’s surging employment opportunities. The band was a hit-making machine, its 1940–41 recordings of “The New San Antonio Rose” and “Take Me Back to Tulsa” being the first among many, and the songs that helped define the Western Swing movement. But there were plenty others during and after the war, throughout the 1950s: “Time Changes Everything”, “You’re From Texas”, “Roly Poly” and “Hang Your Head In Shame” were just a few of the group’s growing catalogue of standards around the time of the Tiffany tapings.
Western Swing was a label that Wills himself, master of the fiddle as well as the band, chaffed at, because he thought it too constraining. Indeed, you could just as easily call various elements of Wills’s music rock and roll, blues, ragtime, rockabilly, folk or bluegrass. And one dance element followed another, too: waltz, two-step, polka, line, polonaise, quadrille, all done with shivaree spirit, ballads included, with their knack of sounding upbeat even when the subject matter borders Hank Williams territory.
The Playboys’ hits came in the days of 78 rpm records, a length-limiting format. The Tiffany Transcriptions project gave the band an opportunity to stretch out beyond the parameters of traditional market discs and tap into something much closer to their in-concert personae, where musical forms were subjected to the Playboys’ considerable interpretative abilities. First, though, fortune had its part to play.
In 1945, a Richmond, California shipyard foreman named Cliff Johnson decided to reinvent himself as Oakland radio DJ Cactus Jack. Recalling the influx of Texans and Kansans from his dockside days, he began playing country and western music. This eventually led to the creation ofTiffany Music Inc., a company that produced a series of prerecorded radio shows by the ever-popular Playboys, which Cactus Jack intended to sell to local radio stations so they could tap into this new audience and boost advertising sales. Wills and his Playboys cut loose in the recordings, indulging themselves, caterwauling, imploring and employing enough distortion/feedback guitar effects to make Jimi Hendrix twiddle his whammy bar in appreciation three decades later. And for all the music that was filtered through the Playboys, there was a lot of new music fashioned by dint of the band’s zeal for mixing and matching. It’s not exactly a broad jump from a Tiffany track like “Fat Boy Rag” to Johnny Burnette’s “Train Kept A-Rollin’” to the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK.” This was no mere cowboy band.
The Tiffany recordings have always been a bit of a challenge to find. They’ve had a frustrating knack for drifting in and out of print over the years, necessitating dogged searches through flea markets and used record shops to put together anything more than half a collection. A lot of copies were made from radio tribute shows and Wills retrospectives, but having the whole set was like possessing a mini-canon of high-grade folk art, a paradoxical conceit that balanced earthy, populist fare with virtuoso achievement, the kind of blend someone like Bob Dylan tried to pull off with The Basement Tapes, John Wesley Harding or his recently saluted Together Through Life.
Whereas Dylan achieved Bardic status as a kind of musical Walt Whitman who reached the proletariat as well as the professors, the Playboys of the Tiffany Transcriptions were a unit more firmly rooted in a strictly musical arena. Here, fledgling guitarists tried to solve the mysteries of Lester “Junior” Barnard’s guitar effects, while drummers discussed Johnny Cuviello’s ability to play aggressively without losing a loping feel, and everyone wondered at how Wills coordinated all of the disparate parts. He essentially emceed each performance, commenting on various passages, cueing solos, ribbing his players or egging them on, sometimes into some of the greatest individual performances in American song.
This is not booze-lapping show music; this is art. As committed as the music is across the Tiffany Transcriptions, the band, usually made up of around 21 pieces, takes it up several pegs in intensity for renditions of Duke Ellington’s “Take The ‘A’ Train” and “C-Jam Blues.” Any jazzer will tell you that for urbane sophistication, Ellington’s group was matchless, and for all of the charm and power of Count Basie’s band—the top Ellingtonian rival—there was no touching the sleek, precise mastery of the Duke and his crew at full throttle. At least, not in jazz circles. The Playboys, though, easily match the torque and power of the Ellington orchestra.
We’re pretty deep in this box—disc seven—before we get to “C-Jam Blues”, but this music is consistently startling in its ability to continually startle anew. There’s no preparing for a musical moment such as Wills’s letting out a gasp over the twin-guitar/piano/banjo/mandolin opening, and soon everyone’s tossing around solos with ridiculous aplomb, one instrument-defining achievement after another. “Take The ‘A’ Train”, cut two weeks later, possesses an elasticity that even “C-Jam Blues” can’t claim; ebullient, shifting, R&B; infused playing that Sly Stone would eventually discover and master. It’s all over “Milk Cow Blues” in a version that Elvis must have loved, and in the manful strut of “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” is a reminder of how readily bravado gives way to vulnerability when a singer like Tommy Duncan is handling the material.
Duncan was a master of outfitting humdrum lyrics with epic resonance while staying within the context of the song. He could also imbue the ostensibly bromidic with Shakespearean heft, as in his 1946 offering of “Time Changes Everything.” It’s as though Pecos Bill awakened one day to discover he was part nightingale, blessed with the ability to ameliorate the worst kind of pain just by opening his mouth and crooning away. You’d be hard-pressed to find a vocal packed with more confidence.
There’s no filler anywhere across the Tiffany Transcriptions, despite the project being one that lent itself to fluff. The Playboys were frequently exhausted by their latest cross-country jaunts, and Wills’s binge drinking took a different kind of toll on the band, too. Intent on returning to their own beds and more domesticated lives, the band members were instead herded off to Universal Studios or Sound Recorders in San Francisco. The road had served to make them sufficiently tight that in a single evening they could record, often without so much as a single flubbed note, what would take months’ worth of work for another band to do. As such, this set is a sample of the Wills band at the top of its in-concert form playing in Waco or Oklahoma City in the middle of a tour. Considering that remote recording technology at the time made it exceedingly difficult to capture electric music at some juke joint or hoedown, the fidelity here is another blessing: live Playboy material with perfect fidelity.
For all of its stylistic range, pristine sonics and permeating warmth, the Tiffany project is foremostly a document of the guitar, one of the core texts in the instrument’s development, and as impactful as Hendrix’s Are You Experienced, Charlie Christian’s early electric forays, and John McLaughlin’s genre-branching efforts. The Playboys featured an orchestrated guitar attack, with as many as three coming at you at once. The parts had been intricately worked out such that Herb Remington would begin a passage on steel guitar, and Lester Barnard would pick it up, mid-chord, and rock it out on his Epiphone Emperor as Eldon Shamblin instigated a lead passage of his own. Ax fans who think something like Eric Clapton’s wah-wah barrage on Cream’s “White Room” is a high point of melodically friendly, distortion-heavy soloing, will gasp, recoil and re-evaluate as soon as they hear Barnard’s showcase, “Fat Boy Rag”, for the first time. Even the loquacious Wills is blown away, if not exactly silenced. With Barnard’s solo piping and burning in all its scuzzy, shredded glory, Wills can only exclaim “Ugly!” in his trademark near-falsetto quip.
The Tiffany Transcriptions have a boundless feel, and any listener should be able to find some familiar ground here, since there’s an excellent chance that what they typically listen to has some relationship with the Playboys’ all-inclusive art. As Wills remarked repeatedly in interviews up to the time his health began to deteriorate in the mid-1960s, the group viewed itself as a dance band, one that took special pride in satisfying all prospective customers. They were a bit like the early Beatles in that regard, playing for hours on end and having to reach outside an initial comfort-zone to do so, assimilating ever more styles in the process—styles which fed back into the band’s own talents to fashion a music unto itself.
As it happened, the Beatles cut their own version of the Tiffany Transcriptions on BBC radio in the early 1960s, when British schoolgirls and guitar-toting hopefuls would write in requesting covers by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, which the Beatles would supplement with Tin Pan Alley and Western Swing material. The Playboys employed a similar expansiveness in their art, and once you’ve made it all the way through the Tiffany Transcriptions, you’ll find yourself laboring to categorize this music, if you’re motivated to even try. But there’s nothing elusive about the spirit and significance of the Tiffany recordings, and anyone interested in a tidy encapsulation of those qualities need only cue up “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy”, track two on disc three, the most boastful (playfully so) of all Playboy recordings. Millard Kelso bashes away at his piano with digit-busting, Fats Waller glee, and Tommy Duncan lays down the all-inclusive Playboy band boast: “I’m a ding dong daddy, baby, and you oughta see me do my stuff.” Wills just coos, and soon everyone’s taking a turn at the refrain, a real sashayer’s paradise.