By James Beaty
His name is now up there with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Tommy Duncan, Hank Thompson, Johnny Lee Wills, the Light Crust Doughboys, the Sons of the Pioneers, Milton Brown and Asleep at the Wheel.
Tannehill resident Bob Sullivan is a 2013 inductee into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame.
Sullivan is the second McAlester-area resident to be inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame. Ramona Reed, of Clayton, a vocalist for several years with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, was inducted in 2004.
A mixture of big band swing, country music, jazz and blues, Western swing has a unique place in American musical history — especially in Texas and Oklahoma.
Sullivan, a recording engineer, worked on several albums with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and is especially known for his stellar engineering work on the Album “Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys For the Last Time.”
Recording began in 1973 in Dallas, with Wills already confined to a wheelchair because of a previous stroke.
Sullivan said Wills still led the band though, simply by nodding toward the musician who he wanted to take an instrumental break.
He also summoned a few of his well-known “Ah haaas!” during the session.
Unfortunately Wills suffered another stroke following that first day of recording on Dec. 3, 1973, and never regained consciousness, dying in 1975.
The Dallas recording sessions had continued on Dec. 4, though, with the help of many of the original Texas Playboys who had been with Wills since the 1930s, including steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe, rhythm guitar-great Eldon Shamblin and pianist Al Stricklin.
They and other western swing musicians were supplemented by one of Wills’ biggest fans, Merle Haggard.
Released in 1974, the 24-track double album “For the Last Time” is considered a classic.
Sullivan said Haggard got so into the project that he had to be reminded of its purpose.
“It was supposed to be a Bob Wills Album, not a Merle Haggard Album,” Sullivan chuckled.
As the engineer at the KWKH Radio in Shreveport, La., from 1948 until 1958, Sullivan worked closely with other legendary performers including Hank Williams and later, Elvis Presley, as the sound engineer when they were performing on the famed Louisiana Hayride radio show at the beginning of their careers. Williams would later return to the Hayride after he was fired from the Grand Ole Opry.
“I think Hank was the greatest entertainer I ever saw on stage,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan believes people then — and still today — identify with Williams because of his “down-home attitude.”
He said Williams was the same when he was starting his career as he was when he climbed to No. 1 on the record charts.
“People who paid 75 cents for a ticket got their money’s worth,” Sullivan said, referring to the price of a ticket on the Louisiana Hayride in those days.
Sullivan remembers Presley as the kid who came along a few years later to perform on the Louisiana Hayride. At that time, Presley still recorded for Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., and had not yet shot to national stardom.
During a backstage conversation, Presley and Sullivan developed a natural affinity because they were both big blues music fans.
“He and I sort of hit it off,” Sullivan recalled. “I mentioned I liked to listen to the blues.
“He said ‘Man, you like that stuff? You’re the only other one I know who likes it.’”
Presley not only loved to listen to the blues, he loved to talk about the music. Since he could still move around relatively freely in those days, Sullivan said they would sometimes take a break between shows in a nearby cafe.
“I’d get coffee and he’d get a Coke,” Sullivan recalled.
Sullivan’s wife, Judy Sullivan, also remembers Presley at the start of his career.
He particularly got a kick out of the Sullivan’s daughter, who they called ‘Little Judy.’” He would sometimes hold the toddler’s hand and lead her around the backstage area.
“She loved it,” Judy Sullivan recalled.
Years later, after Little Judy — who is now Judy Warren — grew up, she would ask her parents why they never took a photo of her and Presley together.
In addition to the fact that cameras weren’t so prevalent in those days, the Sullivans considered Presley as simply another friend they’d made at the Hayride.
“He was a nice kid,” Judy Sullivan said.
Meanwhile, the sizable award in the shape of the state of Texas that that accompanied Bob Sullivan’s induction into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame includes an engraving that spells out the reasons behind his selection for the honor:
“Bob began his career at KWKH as the chief engineer in 1954 after serving in the Army in World War II. He was the chief engineer for the Louisiana Hayride from 1948 through 1958, where he engineered Hank Williams’ and Elvis Presley’s first performance on the radio show.
“Bob has engineered thousands of recordings through the years, with stars like Jim Reeves, Webb Pierce, Faron Young and Johnny Horton. He is considered to be one of the best three-track recording engineers in the business for getting the pure sound of rock ‘n roll the way it was recorded in the ’50s.
“Bob also contributed big-time to the world of Western swing.
“One of the greatest Western swing albums produced is ‘Bob Wills For the Last Time.’ Bob (Sullivan) was the recording engineer on that album.
“The band would record a couple of songs and tell Bob they were going to grab a bite to eat. When they would come back, he would have their songs mixed.
“Many of the Playboys on that recording session like Johnny Gimble, Leon McAuliffe and Leon Rausch used Bob in the future on other albums,” the engraving notes.
“We proudly induct this engineering great into the Western Swing Hall of Fame.”
Contact James Beaty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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