Forgotten Artists: The Willis Brothers/Oklahoma Wranglers/Vic Willis Trio
James “Guy” Willis (July 5, 1915 – April 13, 1981)
Charles “Skeeter” Willis (December 20, 1917 – January 28, 1976)
John “Vic” Willis (May 31, 1922 – January 15, 1995)
One of the most entertaining vocal groups ever to play the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, the Willis Brothers carved out substantial careers without ever becoming major stars as recording artists.
Hailing from Oklahoma, the Willis Brothers started playing together during the early 1930s, under the name Oklahoma Wranglers, and became regulars on Shawnee, Oklahoma, radio station KGEF where they remained thorough the decade. At this time, the group consisted of brothers Guy, Skeeter & Joe; however, in 1939 Joe got married and left the group and was replaced by younger brother Vic. This configuration of the group would perform together until Skeeter’s death in 1976. Guy played guitar and served as the front man for the group, with Skeeter on the fiddle and Vic on accordion and (occasionally) piano. All three brothers sang leads and harmony.
Shortly after Vic joined the group, the brothers moved to Kansas City where they appeared on the Brush Street Follies through 1942. Starting in 1942 the Willis Brothers fought in WWII, but never in the same unit. Consequently, they did not perform together until after the war ended. In 1946, they were able to reunite and secured a place for themselves on the Grand Ole Opry. They also signed with Sterling Records, where they recorded as the Oklahoma Wranglers and served as the backing band for Hank Williams–performing under the name of the Drifting Cowboys. At some point, Hank put together a permanent group of Drifting Cowboys while the Willis Brothers continued to perform as a solo act, often augmented by Chuck Wright who played upright bass and wore Indian feathers and was billed as the “Silent Old Indian.”
In 1949, the Willis Brothers left the Opry and toured nationally with Eddy Arnold (through 1957). They also appeared in two amusing but forgettable films, Feuding Rhythm and Hoe Down. After leaving Eddy Arnold in 1957, the Willis Brothers dropped the use of the Oklahoma Wranglers name, returned to the Grand Ole Opry and were forever thereafter billed as the Willis Brothers.
The Willis Brothers recorded often and changed labels frequently, with Mercury, Coral, RCA and Starday all issuing Willis Brothers record. After performing for over 25 years, the Willis Brothers finally had a bona fide hit in 1964 when Starday released the single “Give Me 40 Acres.” This song–the humorous lament of a truck driver having great difficulty maneuvering his semi in crowded urban environments–produced the group’s first (and only) Top 10 recording. The Starday recordings of the Willis Brothers were usually very upbeat or very slow ballads. The slow ballads featured outstanding trio vocals. It should be noted that the Willis Brothers had little national chart success but had many songs that were regional favorites, most of which remained in their concert repertoire for many years. These included “Private Lee,” “(She Keeps Him) Buying Popcorn” and “Cimarron” (a favorite from their days performing as the Oklahoma Wranglers).
The group continued appearing at the Opry until Skeeter’s death in 1976. Guy and Vic soldiered on after that, augmented by additional musicians. Illness eventually took Guy out of the picture in 1979. He was replaced by legendary session vocalist Curtis “Mr. Harmony” Young, while Vic formed a new group, The Vic Willis Trio. The Vic Willis Trio went off in new musical directions, featuring both more modern material and folk-country material totally unlike the music produced by the Willis Brothers. Although not a huge hit record, “Colorado” was a heavily requested song for the Trio until Vic’s death in an automobile accident in 1995. Curtis Young remained with the group for six years, but since the Vic Willis Trio did not do much touring, he continued a heavy schedule of session work. After 1985, other vocalists filled in, but the group mostly made Grand Ole Opry appearances and did little touring.
The Willis Brothers did most of their recording for Starday Records, where they were active from 1962 to 1971 and recorded 11 original vinyl albums (there were also several budget label Nashville reissues released by Starday). Original recordings for other labels are scarcely found, although there have been several reissues on European labels.
Meanwhile, the company that owns the Starday catalog has reissued Willis Brothers songs relentlessly. Usually this takes the form of individual tracks on multi-artist compilation CDs, but occasionally a CD of just Willis Brothers material is issued. These compilation albums may be released under any of the following label names: King, Gusto, Starday, Nashville, Tee Vee.
The following are some of the original albums issued by Starday:
- 1962 – In Action
- 1963 – Code of the West
- 1965 – Give Me Forty Acres
- 1965 – Road Stop
- 1966 – Wild Side of Life
- 1966 – Goin’ to Town
- 1967 – Bob
- 1968 – Hey Mr. Truck Driver
- 1969 – Bummin’ Around
- 1970 – The Best
- 1971 – For the Good Times
The Willis Brothers sang truck driving songs, western songs, humorous and novelty songs and slow ballads. My favorite of all their albums is Bob (and Other Songs That Make The Jukebox Play) which probably shows the versatility of the Willis Brothers better than any other record. The title song, “Bob,” is about a footloose and fancy-free buddy who visits with an old friend, long since married and settled down. “Too Hot To Handle” is a good honky-tonk ballad. “You Are The One” is a nice cover of an old Carl Smith song whereas “I Found My Girl In The USA” is a cover of Jimmie Skinner’s poke at songs like “Geisha Girl” and “Frauline.” “Stick Your Finger In A Glass Of Water” is one of those novelty songs that the Willis Brothers did so well. “Miller’s Cave” is a cover of the Hank Snow and Bobby Bare hits. If I have to explain “Ring of Fire” you’ve wandered into the wrong blog.
The only Willis Brothers compilation currently in print appears to be 20 Great Truck Drivin’ Songs. This is unfortunate, because truck driving songs really were not the Willis Brothers strong suit, the success of “Give Me Forty Acres” notwithstanding. Anyway, here’s the list of song titles on this collection:
- Give Me Forty Acres
- It’s The Miles
- Big Daddy (Is Alabama Bound)
- Blazing Smokestack
- Diesel Smoke On Danger Road
- Convoy In The Sky
- Drivin’s In My Blood
- Gear Shiftin’
- Highway Patrol
- Long Haul Weekend
- Hi Ballin’
- Truck Driver’s Queen
- Diesel Drivin Donut Dunkin’ Dan
- Soft Shoulders And Dangerous Curves
- Wheels A-Turning
- Truck Stop Cutie
- When I Come Driving Through
- Truck Driving Sam
- Motorcycle Bill
- End Of The Road
As far as I know, there was only one album ever issued of the Vic Willis Trio, and it still is available through the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. Issued by Pete Drake’s First Generation records under its Stars of The Grand Ole Opry series, it features songs such as “Colorado,” the Joe Sun hit “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You),” “American Trilogy,” “Shenandoah and “Last Cheater’s Waltz.” As noted before, Curtis “Mr. Harmony” Young was part of the Vic Willis Trio at the time this album was recorded.
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