Local Hall of Fame Resident Played, Sang for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys
Dr. James Bowman is proud of his late brother, Billy Bowman, a native of Washington County and former resident of Johnson City, whose career as a professional musician was outstanding. According to Jim … “After playing Dobro in his early teens in and around Bristol, especially for fiddler Jack Pierce who had been in Jimmie Rodgers’ 1920’s band, Billy moved to Knoxville for his initial full-time employment as a steel guitarist.
On WNOX radio’s Midday Merry-Go-Round and Tennessee Barn Dance, he joined a group co-led by Johnny Wright (of Johnny and Jack fame and husband of legendary Kitty Wells) and Eddie Hill.
“When the two leaders parted, young Billy faced a decision: accompany Wright to Nashville and play country or go with Hill to WMPS in Memphis and play jazz and pop. Billy chose the latter. For a while, two of my brothers were his fellow band members: Dalton (Buddy) in Knoxville and Al (Jake) in Knoxville and Memphis. Soon Billy moved to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, joining Paul Howard’s Arkansas Cotton Pickers, a slick western swing band whose drummer was jazz great Joe Morello. Shortly thereafter, Billy achieved national exposure; as an eighteen-year-old, he played plaintive (as demanded) steel guitar on a million seller, “Shenandoah Waltz,” for Clyde Moody, on the King label in 1947.
“Another hit on which Billy was a significant participant occurred less than three years later. Ironically, on it his guitar was silent; he sang on ‘Faded Love,’ recorded in Hollywood, California, by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. By this time Billy had begun an unprecedented eight-year tenure as this premier western swing band’s steel guitarist and occasional vocalist. Some critics credit his high tenor voice as a primary factor that made ‘Faded Love’ a classic as well as Oklahoma’s state song.
“In addition to singing in various Texas Playboy trios, Billy was lead vocalist for Wills on ‘With Tears in My Eyes’ (MGM, 1953), penned by his ex-boss, Paul Howard. Uncharacteristically, Wills allowed him to record four songs under his own name, backed by the Playboys. After leaving Wills in 1958, during rock-and-roll’s ultra-explosive advent, Billy had brief stints with Hank Thompson and other western swing artists. Before long, his career was relegated to semi-retired status and a return to his native east Tennessee where he appeared weekly on television.
“Billy came by his trade honestly; from his infancy, he was surrounded by music of various genres. Our father (the late Elbert Bowman, Sr.), a guitarist, banjoist, and tenor vocalist, and three of our paternal uncles were professional musicians who recorded for the Columbia label. I think Billy translated some of Dad’s licks to his steel. “Our father and his brother, Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman (late North American Fiddlers Hall of Fame 2001 winner), recorded for Vocalion and Brunswick as members of Al Hopkins’ band, the Hill Billies, based in Washington, DC. These pioneers could boast of a command performance at the White House among other significant honors.
“My brother, Buddy, was guitarist for the U. S. Navy Band. He and two of our older brothers, Weldon and Al, toured with the popular blind evangelist, J. Bazzel Mull, veteran Knoxville radio host of a gospel music program. One of our younger brothers, Tony, sang on national television’s ‘Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour.’ After Billy mastered the instrument's complex pedal system, Marlen Guitar Company hired him as consultant. Because aspiring and skilled players alike still seek his copedents (tablatures of chord-pedal relationships), Billy is a featured model in many popular instruction books.
“Although Billy’s full-time playing was confined to little more than a dozen years, two of the songs he wrote endure through the recordings of many steel guitar players. ‘B. Bowman Hop’ and ‘Midnight in Old Amarillo,’ have been recorded in sixteen countries by more than two-dozen stylists. Billy’s long-time friend, Barbara Mandrell, performed them on her syndicated television show. More recently, his compositions have been aired on Garrison Keillor’s weekly radio show, ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ by American Public Media. Until becoming physically unable, Billy performed in three annual events: Bob Wills Days in Turkey, Texas; the International Steel Guitar Convention in St. Louis, Missouri; and the Smoky Mountain Steel Guitar Jamboree in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“After a six-month battle with cancer, Billy passed away on August 6, 1989 in Columbia, South Carolina. Six fellow steel guitarists and two fiddlers were among his honorary pallbearers. Steel players included former Texas Playboys Bobby Koefer and Maurice Anderson; Roy Wiggins (Eddy Arnold’s steel player); crash-bar wizard Speedy West; and convention hosts DeWitt ‘Scotty’ Scott and William ‘Stoney’ Stonecipher. The fiddlers were Johnny Gimble, another former Playboy; and Dale Potter, Billy’s friend of more than four decades.
“Professional musicians still marvel at his improvisational riffs with the Playboys. Whenever Wills was the band’s only fiddler, team player Billy cleverly emulated the instrument, blending smooth harmony parts. He harmonized likewise with the group’s trumpets and tenor saxophones. “In spite of the brevity of Billy’s full-time career, he was recipient of many other distinctive honors, four of which were awarded posthumously. Included were induction into the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame and the Western Swing Society Hall of Fame. The state legislatures of Oklahoma and California also acknowledged Billy's contributions to music.”
I wish to thank Dr. Bowman for providing a synopsis of his brother’s career. Many Johnson Citians still remember Billy as a modest gentleman, always maintaining an infectious smile, whether playing the kind of music he cherished or greeting loyal fans in a crowded venue. Although he died relatively young, his music lives on. As long as western swing exists, he will be remembered for his contributions to the genre.