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Junior or Joke?

Bob Wills' family disowns the man claiming to be the prince of Western swing

Bob Wills Jr. cannot come to the phone. He's too ill to speak, his wife Elizabeth explains. Through her lawyer, Elizabeth insists she will not leave his bedside -- not to speak to a reporter, anyway, not to dredge up these painful memories and allegations one more time. Elizabeth Wills, who says she is a minister, does not want her husband to overhear her on the phone explaining one more time that, yes, Bob Wills Jr. is the bastard son of Bob Wills, the man known as the King of Western Swing.

Bob Wills Jr. is dying in California, clinging to the claims he has made since the mid-1970s -- not long after Bob Wills died at his Fort Worth home, thus rendering him unable to dispute Wills Jr.'s assertions. Junior has fronted his own Western swing band called the Western Playboys, named after Bob Wills' Texas Playboys. Journalists from respectable newspapers have referred to him as the son of Bob Wills. Junior even had a role in the 1988 film Baja Oklahoma, which featured cameos from Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris as themselves. Bob Wills Jr. played Bob Wills in the film -- even though the two men look nothing alike, Wills Jr. being a hulking six-foot-six-inch giant, while Bob Wills was a frail man who stood no taller than five-foot-ten. Wills Jr.'s part was brief, lasting only a few seconds. It was a dream sequence.

Bob Wills Jr. claims to be the son of Wills and a woman named Edna, which is the name of Wills' first wife. But Junior says he's illegitimate, born to Edna before Wills married her, which is why he's not mentioned in the history books or in Bob Wills' last will and testament. In the latter document, James Robert Wills was the sole male child listed among Bob's six kids.

And those children want nothing to do with the man claiming to be Bob Wills Jr. They maintain he's a phony, an impostor, a fraud. For 20 years the Wills family has tried to disavow themselves from Bob Wills Jr. and keep him from using their father's good name. They thought they had beaten Wills Jr., only to see his name appear in the Dallas Morning News last month -- followed by the words, "whose father rose to international stardom in the '30s and '40s with his Western swing band, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys."

When Diane Malone, one of Wills' five daughters, saw the story, she literally became sick to her stomach. "It's so stupid, and yet when it comes out in these newspapers like this it just drives you crazy," Malone says from her home in Alvarado, where she raises Arabian horses. "It's so preposterous I don't know how to say to what lengths."

Jeff Storie, the attorney for the Bob Wills estate, doesn't for a second believe that Bob Wills Jr. is the son of the man who wrote such classics as "Take Me Back to Tulsa," "Faded Love" and "San Antonio Rose." For more than a decade, as the attorney for Betty Wills -- Bob's fifth wife, who died in 1993 -- Storie has listened patiently to Junior's claim and asked only that he provide some conclusive proof that he's the son of the legendary fiddling bandleader.

"I said, 'Look, verify it for me,'" Storie says. "We don't have a problem with him ... claiming the estate, because he's not. The problem is the family legitimately doesn't feel he's Bob's son. It's not that they don't think Bob [was] capable of it, they just don't think it's him."

One thing is certain: Bob Wills Jr. is not Bob Wills Jr.
His real name, as he will readily admit, is Bobby Joe Thorne. In a Tarrant County domestic relations court in 1977, Thorne had his name changed to Bobby Wills; he explained it was for "professional entertainment reasons," according to court documents.

Two years later, in June 1979, he further changed his name to Bob Wills Jr. because, as his petition reads, Thorne "believes that he would be further advantaged by an additional change." Similarly, Thorne's wife Rafaela and son Bobby Joe also had their names changed: Maria Rafaela Thorne became Maria R. Wills, and Bobby Joe Thorne became Bob Wills III. In December 1979, Bobby Joe Thorne/ Bob Wills Jr. took two more children before the court and changed their names: Joseph Dewayne Thorne became Johnny Lee Wills, and Paula Kay Thorne turned into Valiza Ann Wills.

Bobby Joe Thorne has long maintained he was born in Donie, Texas -- which is about 100 miles northwest of Houston in Freestone County -- in the mid-1920s. But Freestone County records indicate that the only Bobby Joe Thorne born in the county was birthed on October 6, 1938 -- to a woman named Edna Merle Cone and a father named Joe Bailey Thorne. Records also indicate his name was spelled "Bobbie Joe Thorne," and that he was the first child born to Joe and Edna.

State records further reveal that Joe Bailey Thorne died on May 25, 1989, in neighboring Limestone County -- in which Bob Wills was born in 1905, in the tiny town of Kosse. No death records could be found for Edna, though folks in Donie say she died before Joe.

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