|Birth name||Thomas Elmer Duncan|
|Born||January 11, 1911|
|Died||July 25, 1967(aged 56)|
|Associated acts||Bob Wills|
Thomas Elmer Duncan (January 11, 1911–July 25, 1967), better known as Tommy Duncan, was a pioneering American Western swing vocalist and songwriter who gained fame in the 1930s as a founding member of The Texas Playboys. He recorded and toured with bandleader Bob Wills on and off into the early 1960s.
Duncan was born near Whitney, Texas on a large farm into a large and impoverished family of truck farmers. He was one of 14 children. His most profound influences as a young singer were Jimmie Rodgers, Bing Crosby, Emmett Miller and other country and blues musicians. He left home at 13 to sharecrop on a cousin's farm, and by 1932 was surviving as a busker in Fort Worth singing at a root beer stand. That year he won an audition against 64 other singers to join the Light Crust Doughboys, a popular local band which featured Bob Wills on fiddle. Another man had auditioned who sounded almost exactly like Duncan but was turned down because of his crossed eyes. Duncan was hired after he sang a version of Emmett Miller's "I Ain't Got Nobody" and impressed Wills with his yodeling ability and bluesy phrasing. As was common at the time, the Doughboys appeared on a radio show under the sponsorship of a local business, in their case Light Crust Flour. Duncan quickly became a sensation, both on the show and at dances and other appearances.
Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys
When bandleader Wills decided to form an independent band, he and Duncan became the creative core of The Texas Playboys. Duncan was versatile in his singing style and repertoire, was credited with a fine voice and range, and was ideal for the kind of dance music Wills performed and recorded. He sang everything from ballads and folk to pop, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and cowboy songs.
As a lyricist, he contributed to "New San Antonio Rose" (1940); the recording, with Duncan on vocals, sold three million copies for Columbia Records. Duncan married, but after only a few years his wife developed cancer and died. Ironically, Duncan's first royalty check for "Time Changes Everything" was used to cover her funeral expenses.
Duncan soon set the standard for Western swing vocals. In California he became friends with Bing Crosby when they stabled their horses together. A virtual "human jukebox," Duncan memorized the lyrics and melodies to more than 3,000 songs. He was a master stylist with the ability to make each song sound as though he wrote it. Duncan was also a multi-instrumentalist who could play piano, guitar and bass.
After a decade of musical success, Duncan was the first member of Wills's band to volunteer for the armed services after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. His service lasted less than a year when he received a medical discharge and he rejoined Wills in 1944 as the war neared its end.
He appeared with Wills and the other Playboys in several movies, including Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (1944), Rhythm Roundup (1945), Blazing the Western Trail (1945), Lawless Empire (1945) and Frontier Frolic (1946). His voice matured in the middle to late 1940s. Duncan joined Wills in writing several more numbers, including "New Spanish Two Step" (1945), "Stay A Little Longer" (1945), "Cotton-Eyed Joe" (1946) and "Sally Goodin" (1947). One night in a bar visiting with songwriter Cindy Walker, Duncan motioned for her to look at a gentleman sitting just a few tables away who was staring at his glass of beer. Duncan commented to her that he's just "watchin' the bubbles in his beer." Instantly they both realized they had a song idea and "Bubbles in My Beer" became one of the staples of Western swing songs. Aside from "Faded Love", sung by Rusty McDonald, every Texas Playboys record that was a hit featured Duncan on vocals, cementing his status as the finest vocalist Wills had.
Rumors about Duncan having been a heavy drinker were false; Duncan would only have a drink or two at social events and his brother Glynn stated that otherwise he never saw Duncan drink even while they lived together in Fresno, California. Many band members considered him a troublemaker, but the accusations may have stemmed from professional jealousy. Duncan was admired by contemporaries including Tex Ritter, Tex Williams, Teddy Wilds, Hank Penny and Ole Rasmussen.
By 1948, Wills' drinking was becoming too out of control for Duncan. Wills often missed shows, and when the headliner failed to appear, the band's pay reverted to union scale. After a string of performances in 1948 without Wills, Wills overheard Duncan complaining one night before a performance. Wills told guitarist Eldon Shamblin to "fire" Duncan, who set out to form his own band.
He organized another Western swing band called Tommy Duncan and His Western All Stars featuring his younger brother Glynn (1921-2013), a Western swing pioneer, on bass (who would later become Wills' lead vocalist in the late 1950s). Another brother, Joe Duncan, was the lead vocalist for Johnnie Lee Wills' band for a period of time. At the height of the band's popularity, Duncan and the band made an appearance in the 1949 Western film, South of Death Valley, starring Charles Starrett and Smiley Burnette. Musical tastes were changing, however, and attendance at the Western All Stars' dances ranged from fair to poor, certainly not enough to sustain a large band, which lasted less than two years.
From 1959 to 1961, Duncan again toured and recorded with Wills, rekindling much of their former success. By this time Duncan's voice had evolved to a mature mellow croon and he used it to the greatest effect. But when Wills began drinking, he again left and made personal appearances with various bands. Wills' band never achieved the same greatness it had with Duncan, and Duncan's solo efforts mostly paled in comparison to his Wills output. Although known for Western swing, Duncan enjoyed singing country hits of the day.
Duncan, who had previous heart problems, died in his motel room in San Diego, California after a performance at Imperial Beach on July 24, 1967. The coroner's report said he was "lying...on the floor...Evidence victim had a heart condition, numerous pills for heart were found among personal effects." He is buried near Merced, California.
Duncan's reputation was that of a unique and distinctive talent, a hillbilly Bing Crosby who never compromised his style to be more popular or commercial. On his own and with Wills, he was an influence on such artists as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, Merle Haggard, Buddy Holly, Red Steagall, George Strait, Clint Black, Randy Travis, and Garth Brooks.
As a member of The Texas Playboys, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence in 1999, and was also inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame. Texas singer Billy Mata has released the Volumes I and II of a planned trilogy of tunes a tribute to Duncan entitled This Is Tommy Duncan. Glynn Duncan and his adopted grandson Erik are among thousands of people who consider Duncan one of the most versatile vocalists of the 20th century. To get the best feel for Duncan's versatility, check out the "Tiffany Transcription" recordings.
|1949||"Gamblin' Polka Dot Blues"||8|
- Texas Playboys Web site
- History of Western swing bands
- The Handbook of Texas Online: Tommy Duncan
- Tommy Duncan at the Internet Movie Database