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Junior or Joke?

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

There has never been any evidence to suggest that Edna performed with Bob, as Bob Wills Jr. insisted; in fact, according to Wills biographer Charles Townsend, when Bob sued Edna for divorce in 1935, he complained that his wife had little interest in his musical career, which was then burgeoning in Tulsa.

Townsend did, however, write in his landmark 1976 Wills bio San Antonio Rose that Bob was quite the womanizer during his rise to fame. The bandleader had trouble coping with his new-found success, Townsend wrote, and with the strain came a fondness for drink accompanied by a penchant for the ladies.

"Judging by his own moral standards, however, drinking was not his greatest weakness during the Tulsa years," Townsend wrote. "At least this was the opinion of his first wife. According to Edna Wills, 'There has always been women'; Bob had affairs with other women almost from the beginning of their married life, in West Texas, Fort Worth, Waco and Tulsa."

But in his last will and testament, written when he was married to Betty Lou Anderson Wills, the bandleader declared that the couple had four children: James Robert II, Carolyn, Diane and Cindy. He also mentioned two children from previous marriages, Robbie Joe Wills Calhoun and Rosetta Wills Arnett. Then he tacked on the following disclaimer: "I declare that no other children have been born to or adopted by me."

Despite that, in a two-page biography prepared by his Sepulveda, California-based publicist, Holly Williams, Bob Wills Jr. lays out a fairly exciting life of adventure and intrigue -- one spent in the military, on TV, in film and on-stage in the footsteps of his legendary father. "The son of the celebrated Swing Era Bandleader, recognized as the Father of Western Swing, BOB WILLS JR.'s larger than life exploits should make rich movie material," reads the biography. "Born in Donie, Texas, a tiny hamlet in Freestone County, like the sons of many celebrated men, BOB JR. felt the need to make his own mark on the world and has pursued many paths to this end."

The bio chronicles a history spent as a professional boxer, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, a bandleader in Fort Worth, a candidate for a seat in the Senate, a bit-part actor in dozens of unknown films. He also claims to be a member of the Texas Music Hall of Fame, though such an entity doesn't exist. There is a tentative opening date for a Hall of Fame in Johnson City set for October, but Charles Trois, who is currently in charge of the items to be placed in the Hall of Fame, says he has never heard of Bob Wills Jr.

For a lawyer, Moton Holt doesn't build a convincing case for his client. When asked point-blank whether he believes his client is the son of Bob Wills, he doesn't say yes or no. He'll only say that Wills Jr. believes it, and that's good enough for him. "And I'll tell you what," Holt says, "he really believes it."

Holt says he was introduced to Wills Jr. by Mike Mazurki, a small-time character actor. At the time, Wills Jr. was trying to tour California with a band called the Western Playboys, and he was attempting to establish his own career as a character actor.

Holt recalls he was skeptical of Wills Jr.'s claims of being Bob Will's son, primarily because both men looked nothing alike. "I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, and Wills and Hank Williams were heroes of ours when I was a kid," Holt says. "I asked [Wills Jr.] about the lack of physical similarities, and he said around the eyes and around the facial features, they're the same. I never took out a magnifying glass to compare, but that was his answer."

"When I was in Hollywood, I met enough screwballs to be skeptical," Holt adds. "I met one who said he was the illegitimate son of John Barrymore. Peter Lorre has one running around there says he's his son. Bob was the one person that really rang true ....

"The guy really believes it .... If someone in his past led him through the primrose path, they did a good job of it."

Holt, for his part, has never seen his client's birth certificate because, he says, Thorne told him all the records were destroyed in a courthouse fire -- which isn't true. Holt says Thorne changed his name to Bob Wills Jr. because Wills' legitimate sons -- "Wills Jr.'s brothers," as Holt says -- told him to. That way, if he was going to go around saying he was the son of Bob Wills, he wouldn't embarrass the family by having a different last name. The family didn't want a "hint of scandal," Holt says, and so Thorne had his name legally changed.

Problem is, Wills only had one son listed in the history books, James Robert. When asked if his client actually said his "brothers" told Thorne to change his name, Holt says, "It was definitely plural."

He considers this for a second. "It might have been Bob Wills' brothers," he says after some hesitation. "Better to have said half-uncles."

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