Junior or Joke?

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

Moton Holt, Wills Jr.'s lawyer in California, says Edna Merle Cone is indeed the mother, but that his client was born in 1927 in a "private residence."

"And Edna did not marry Joe Bailey Thorne until January 1930," he says, relating information passed on by Elizabeth Wills.

Bobby Joe Thorne was forced to change his name after Betty Wills found out he was billing himself as the son of Bob Wills. Through her lawyer at the time, she contacted Thorne -- who was billing himself as Bob Wills Jr. -- and told him to quit or else she would sue. On February 11, 1976, he signed a document in which he said he would cease making any references to Bob Wills or the Texas Playboys. In the letter, Thorne told Betty Wills he had booked an upcoming engagement by claiming to be the son of Bob Wills, and that he had contacted several former Texas Playboys, also informing them he was their old boss' son, in hopes of having them perform with him.

But, he promised Betty to avoid legal action, "I will make no further reference or inference that I am connected with Bob Wills or the Texas Playboys in any manner ... and I will make no further reference, statement, or inference that Bob Wills of the Texas Playboys is my father, unless such fact be established by legal action."

Three years later, Thorne changed his name to Bob Wills Jr.

The man who says he is the son of the Father of Western Swing is bedridden in Los Angeles, the victim of a series of strokes that continue to weaken his already frail frame. He claims that were it not for his garden -- a two-acre parcel of land overgrown with fruits and plants of all varieties -- he'd likely be dead already.

At least, that is what he told the Los Angeles Daily News a few months ago. The News article was subsequently picked up off the wire by newspapers across the country -- including the Austin American-Statesman.

The Statesman ran the story on June 6 on the cover of its Lifestyle section -- followed the next day by a 367-word piece bearing the headline "Man who says he is Bob Wills Jr. may be King Con." In the story, Rosetta Wills Arnett, a Wills daughter who lives in Austin, said she has a half-brother named James Robert Wills who goes by James, not Bob Jr.

But Los Angeles newspapers have a long history of referring to Bob Wills Jr. as the son of the Western swing bandleader: In February 1985, Los Angeles Times reporter Andrew Revkin wrote a long piece about Wills Jr. getting a bit part in a film about Lyndon Johnson. In that story, Revkin listed Wills' resume with a sort of awe, referring to his "dizzying array of lives." Revkin wrote that "Wills' father was Bob Wills, the father of Texas swing, a rollicking brand of western music that combined the fiddle and twang of country music with the finesse and power of big-band jazz."

"He was raised, though," Revkin added, "by the Thorne family, well-to-do bankers." The story then recounted how Wills Jr. allegedly began performing in the Fort Worth Stockyards when he was eight years old and assembled his first band after World War II.

"I guess I played every cut-and-shoot in America at one time or another," Wills told the Times. Revkin wrote that Wills toured with "an entourage of family members and musicians that, at its peak in the 1950s, filled three buses."

Revkin was not alone in buying Thorne's story. In June 1994, a magazine called Modern Screen's Country Music (based, of course, out of New York) ran a story about Asleep at the Wheel's all-star tribute to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys; the album, which features the likes of Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett, briefly resurrected interest in Wills' music, and its release coincided with the release of a stamp commemorating the bandleader.

Next to the article on Wills was one on Bob Wills Jr., under the headline: "A Man for All Reasons: The Son of Country Legend Bob Wills Carves Out His Own Territory. He's Quite a Character in His Own Right!" In this story, Wills claimed he was raised in Fort Worth and introduced to music by his mother, who he said used to play in a band with Bob Wills in the 1930s. "She started singing and dancing with the famous Stamps Quartet," he says, "and was on radio by the time she was three years old. She did that until she married my father, Bob Wills Sr., at age 17. It was Dad's first marriage."

But when Edna Posey married Bob Wills -- on August 21, 1926, in the tiny town of Canadian -- she was 21 years old, as was her new husband. Less than three years later, on January 15, 1929, Bob and Edna Wills gave birth to their first child -- a girl, Robbie Joe Wills. At the time Robbie Joe was born, the couple was living in Turkey, Texas, which is now the site of the annual Bob Wills celebration.

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