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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.

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.

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."

It's unlikely that anyone will ever turn up proof proving conclusively that Wills Jr. is or isn't who he claims to be; after all, it's almost impossible to prove a negative, reminds Wills' estate attorney Jeff Storie. But Diane Malone and the rest of the Wills family, not to mention the rest of the surviving Texas Playboys, will never embrace Bob Wills Jr. as anything other than a liar.

"My father never wanted anyone of us to be musicians," Malone says. "He raised us not be musicians. He didn't like life on the road. It was hard, and didn't want us to do it. My father's choice was not really to be a musician. He would have been a barber or a rancher, but he happened to be able to make money and raise a big family playing music."

"Really, I think it's sad for him [Wills Jr.] that he had to make himself feel good by being something he's not.

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