When I first heard the 1940s-era Tiffany Transcriptions by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys for the first time, they shook my bones loose.
I vowed soon after to travel from Massachusetts to Turkey, Texas, so I could catch a concert by the surviving Playboys. Studying a map of Texas, I opted to fly to Dallas and pick up a rental car instead of hopping a second flight to Amarillo (which is still 100 miles from Turkey!). “Heck,” I thought, using my thumb and index finger to measure, “Dallas-to-Turkey is only two inches on the map. I’ll have plenty of time to make the 8 p.m. dance.” That was a Texas-sized mistake. I took Route 287 through the crimson West Texas landscape where freight trains look like rattlers, and drove and drove. Hours later I only reached Wichita Falls, about halfway to Turkey, if that. I grabbed a bite at Luby’s, filled the thirsty gas tank and returned to the highway. If I didn’t get caught going 85 mph, I’d soon be seeing some original Texas Playboys. * Western swing had intrigued me since the 1970s when my brother came home with a Bob Wills LP featuring the song, Roly Poly. Though we didn’t know the musicians then, we instantly loved Bob’s fiddle and hollers, Tommy Duncan’s smooth singing, Noel Boggs’ swinging steel chords and orbital guitar of Jimmy Wyble. We played Roly Poly so much it drove our mother crazy. * I could feel Bob Wills’ spirit the moment I entered Turkey. The dance, as it always does, took place at a stately brick school not far from Ham’s Barber Shop where Bob worked a while in the 1920s. Walking in town, I nearly tripped over a downed Aermotor windmill, some farm’s forgotten workhorse. Inside the school I was delighted to see steel man Bobby Koefer and guitarist Johnny Patterson tuning up. And there was Joe Frank Ferguson, Glenn Rhees and Bob’s sister Lorene. I wasn’t sure if my idol Eldon Shamblin was still alive, so I delicately asked a soundman if Eldon played out these days. “Oh yeah,” he said, sounding annoyed or disappointed about it, “Eldon’s here.” Really? Eldon’s here? Tonight? My pulse quickened. Sure enough, Eldon, in his 70s at the time, was helped to a chair on the bandstand next to a Fender Twin Reverb amplifier. A king. As he picked up his Stratocaster, I thought about the innumerable times he got ready to play in dance halls and radio stations during a glorious career spanning some 60 years. It didn’t take long to see why Eldon made people swear under their breath. He was ornery. He barked at his band mates, called them old or “no good.” But I already knew why they put up with him. I watched as he glided his improbable boxing-glove hands up and down the neck, making sweet jazz chords combined with those bass-line runs that, as legend has it, Bob Wills encouraged him to create. I couldn’t get enough. Neither could the dancing couples of all ages that packed the dance floor and filled the bleachers. * Years later, after obsessively listening to everything Bob recorded that was commercially available, I decided it was time to show my appreciation to Bob Wills, Tommy Duncan and all the Playboys for providing music that consistently made me happy for so long. “Goodbye Liza Jane: Hello Western Swing!” is my tribute. I telephoned Herb Remington — he and Boggs played steel on most Tiffany cuts — and peppered him with questions about how studios recorded the band back then. He was always generous with his time. After a few months, an idea hit me: Why not ask Herb to record? To my delight, he said yes. * In the studio in his hometown of Houston, Herb was awesome. I had hoped to complete four songs, and he did 12! Each tune sparkled in a different way. As I watched him play, I saw the same qualities that must have prompted Bob Wills to ask a very young Herb to join America’s top western swing band in 1946. I’m honored that Herb is part of my tribute to Bob and Tommy Duncan. But this is also a tribute to Herb. * As far as I know, Bob Wills never toured in New England, so western swing was never big here (though we had a thriving country music circuit). The pool of musicians from which I had to choose was small. It wouldn’t do to just hire country musicians. I had to find people who possessed that rare gift of being able to swing. Toward that end, I sought out blues musicians because the blues was such a big influence on Bob and a big part of his repertoire. My brother Mudcat was first choice because he knew how to walk a bass fiddle. I knew it’s hard to sing this stuff right, especially after Tommy Duncan set the standard so high. So I hired Sugar Ray Norcia, a blues and swing vocalist from Rhode Island who’s a singer’s singer. I liked that Rich Dubois, also from the Ocean State, can play both the Bob Wills Texas-style fiddle and jazzy styles Wills got from men like Joe Holley and Louis Tierney. Jerry Miller, a highly-coveted sideman on guitar and electric mandolin, incorporates an impressive mix of tastefulness, humor and flash, and in his playing he pays homage to icons like Eldon, Junior Barnard and Tiny Moore. Guitar legend Duke Robillard was gracious in agreeing to sing and play Milk Cow Blues. Rounding out my studio band was Mike Peipman, a trumpet man who plays “old” for a young guy, blues artists Anthony Geraci and David Maxwell on piano and Merrie Watters on vocal harmony. Hey, I wanted to be on my record, too, so I played some guitar and drums. I’d always paid close attention to what Smokey Dacus, Tommy Perkins, Monte Mountjoy, Billy Jack Wills and Johnny Cuviello were doing. On a 1950s Bob Wills radio broadcast, guest singer Patsy Montana once asked, “What is that beat, Bob?” I wondered that, too, as I stood in the school in Turkey years ago amid a sea of dancers. *
Peter "Hi-Fi" Ward grew up in Lewiston, Maine, where he went to school and worked in a sneaker factory and textile mill. He listened to blues records, formed a band with his brother, Mudcat, and attended concerts by Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, Junior Wells and other blues artists when they performed nearby.
After moving to Boston, Ward worked in various bands and sat in with Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, who then featured Ronnie Earl on guitar and Mudcat on bass. He backed artists such as Jimmy Rogers, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Sunnyland Slim and Lowell Fulson when they appeared locally. On a trip to Chicago, he saw many of his musical heroes perform, ate ribs with drummer Fred Below and visited with Tampa Red in a nursing home.
In New York, Peter was honored when Otis Rush, after performing together, told him he played chords "like an old man/." In 1978, he drove each week from Boston to Rochester, N.Y., to play blues with guitarist-vocalist Joe Beard. Joe's neighbor had once been Son House. In the 1980s, Peter toured with the Legendary Blues Band whose members — Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Calvin "Fuzz" Jones and Jerry Portnoy — had backed the great Muddy Waters. The experience reinforced in Peter the desire to play blues in a conversational, unhurried and to-the-point way. With Peter the band recordedRed Hot and Blues on Rounder Records, also featuring guitarist Duke Robillard.
Peter was married for 20 years to Mai Cramer, who hosted a popular blues program on Boston's WGBH-FM for 24 years. She died of breast cancer in 2002. Each year Peter and Mai's fans stage a fundraiser in her honor for charity at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Mass. Headliners have included Ronnie Earl, Duke Robillard, Jody Williams, Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, Lurrie Bell, Jody Williams, Ron Levy and Eddie Taylor, Jr. In 2010, he produced Goodbye Liza Jane: Hello Western Swing, a CD of western swing songs featuring Herb Remington, an original member of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
In recent years Peter has penned a bevy of original songs, some of which appeared on his well-received debut release, Blues on My Shoulders. The 13-song CD paid tribute to his musical influences such as Robert Jr. Lockwood, Lonnie Johnson and Chuck Berry. Supporting artists included Mudcat, Ronnie Earl, Sax Gordon Beadle, Sugar Ray Norcia and Monster Mike Welch.
A follow-up release, Train to Key Biscayne, due to be released in the Spring of 2019, showcases 12 original songs. It features Luther Johnson, Ronnie Earl, Johnny Nicholas, Michelle Willson, Sugar Ray Norcia, Anthony Geraci and Mudcat Ward. A second western swing CD is also in the works. It could feature Bobby Koeffer, the steel guitarist and former member of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.