A pasture outside a small town in west Texas might seem like an unlikely resting place for an important symbol of Tulsa's glorious musical past. But that's where Bob Wills' trail led local screen printer Lee Roy Chapman, and now he's following that trail to the end.
According to the research Chapman has done, Wills--known as the "King of Western Swing" and a longtime fixture at Cain's Ballroom, where his shows were broadcast to millions of listeners nationwide--sold his last tour bus, as well as the rights to the name Texas Playboys, to a friend in Fort Worth in 1963 for $10,000. What happened to the bus--apparently the only remaining tour bus of the four Wills owned during his career--for several years afterward remained a mystery, at least until it was saved from the scrap heap in 1973 and brought to Big Spring, Texas.
Chapman--a Wills aficionado who last fall started a movement to get the Brady Arts District renamed after the famed Texas native who called Tulsa home for so many years--is convinced that the bus he examined in that pasture outside Big Spring is the real deal.
Now, he's determined to acquire it and take it back to Tulsa, where he hopes to restore it and make it available for public viewing.
"My dream is to get a consortium together of business people, raise the money, send it down there, then keep the bus in Tulsa as its home base," Chapman said. "But we'd let it go on tour and make some money."
Chapman does not own the bus yet, but he has reached an agreement with its owner that gives him exclusive rights to its purchase through March, an agreement Chapman can extend at his discretion. He acknowledged he is nowhere close to the $300,000 or $400,000 it would take to purchase the bus and restore it, as well as buy an accompanying tour bus that at one time belonged to another well-known Western swing band leader, Hoyle Nix.
"It is a gob of money," Chapman said.
So he's looking for help in the form of partners who share his vision of what the bus would mean to Tulsa if it were brought here and restored. Chapman believes Wills' long association with Tulsa is one of the proudest chapters in the history of the city. He also thinks the bus would serve as a good auxiliary attraction to a pair of new museums planned for the Brady that plan to highlight Wills' enormous impact on the local music scene.
It took a bit of work for Chapman to locate the bus. He had heard about its existence years ago from Larry Shaeffer, former owner of Cain's Ballroom, and a follow-up conversation with Shaeffer about the bus last August reignited Chapman's interest. Shaeffer told him Jody Nix, son of Hoyle Nix, had sold the bus but that it was still located in Turkey, Texas, Wills' hometown.
That turned out not to be the case, Chapman said, adding that the bus actually was located outside Big Spring, a town located between Abilene and Midland. Chapman decided he was interested in buying the bus, so in September, he and his friend Mark Mathews drove to Big Spring and looked up Hoyle Nix, who gave them the name of the farmer who owned it, as well as vague directions to his place.
Chapman recalled driving down a rural road, not really sure if he was on the right track, when he looked over a field and saw a grove of cedar trees and a big rusted hump in the distance. No one was home at the adjacent farm house, but Mathews and Chapman were too intrigued to leave without getting a closer look. They trespassed onto the property and found two buses parked near the trees. A closer examination revealed that Wills' name was painted on one of them, though the sign remained barely legible through the rust.
Chapman said he and Mathews returned a day later to approach the buses' owner, whom he declined to identify. Mathews tried to downplay their interest by explaining to the farmer that he and Chapman liked to restore old buses and had simply driven by and seen the two vehicles in the distance.
The owner wasn't having any of that, Chapman said, laughing.
"He said, 'Look, it's Bob Wills' bus, and the last offer I had was for $95,000,' " Chapman said.
A subsequent examination of the vehicle's title revealed the bus actually had belonged to Wills, Chapman said, as it included his Tulsa address.
The owner told them that despite receiving the aforementioned offer from one individual and a $75,000 offer from another, neither bidder ever completed the deal. He said Willie Nelson had come by to look at the buses last winter, but that didn't lead to anything, either.
Chapman wanted to buy both buses. Problem was, he didn't have the money to do it, or any place to park the buses if he could get them back to Tulsa. So he struck a "handshake deal" with the owner, giving him right of first refusal on their purchase while he returned home to raise the funds.
That was four months ago. Chapman has solidified the deal somewhat since then, entering into a signed agreement with the owner that gives him the exclusive right to purchase the vehicles through March, an arrangement that costs him a set amount of money each month.
Between that agreement and his efforts to market his vision for the buses and attract partners, Chapman estimates he already has put a considerable sum into the project, though he declined to reveal a specific figure. The only partner he's drawn so far is Tulsa's Tektive Creating Holdings.
"I'm the only one who has ever given him any money," Chapman said of the buses' owner. "And we've agreed on a price, the amount of money I'm supposed to pay to buy both buses."
Simply buying the buses and having them hauled to Tulsa isn't an option, Chapman said. To begin with, the two vehicles are far from being in pristine condition; although, the arid climate in west Texas has slowed their deterioration.
The Wills bus--a 1948 Flxible Clipper--will require a considerable amount of work, and Chapman said hauling the bus to Tulsa and leaving it parked outside, exposed to a wetter and colder climate, would be a bad idea, even if he could find a place to put it.
"It's got a lot of surface rust, although 90 percent of the glass is intact," he said.
Chapman said the windshields have been removed, but the glass is located inside the bus. The dashboard metal has been largely eaten away by rust and will likely need to be replaced. He also said the back hood has been banged up, and there is a hole in the oil pan.
Wills apparently converted the seven-window vehicle to a sleeper bus at some point, removing some seats and installing a couple of pull-out sofas.
Chapman's research has indicated the bus was built in London, Ohio, and sold in Kansas City. He said it was built on a GMC chassis, which might have to be replaced. Such a change technically would mean the work no longer was a restoration, he said, and he is hoping to avoid that step.
The task of restoring the vehicle, should Chapman ever acquire it, apparently would fall to famed vehicle customizer and collector Darryl Starbird, who now lives and operates a shop in Afton near Grand Lake, Okla. Chapman has spoken with him about the job, and Starbird wouldn't even put a ceiling on the projected cost of the work. Starbird estimated the restoration would take 18 months to three years to complete.
Daunting as that sounds, Chapman believes he can complete the project.
"It would be feasible to work it out and have it done," he said. "No matter what you put into it, you can make the money back with appearances."
Chapman believes the bus--which Wills and his Texas Playboys rode to thousands and thousands of gigs across the country in--is a classic pop culture artifact, the sort of item whose significance can hardly be overstated.
"If you view it through a historical lens, this is the first rock 'n' roll tour bus," he said, a reference to the claim by many music historians that Wills' music paved the way for that later style.
For those who think Chapman is nuts to be thinking about putting that much money into a 60-year-old bus, he points to the example of a former municipal bus from Montgomery, Ala., that sold at auction in 2001 for nearly $428,000 to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., which outbid the Smithsonian Institution and the city of Denver for the vehicle.
Why all the fuss? It was on that bus on Dec. 1, 1955, that Rosa Parks initiated the Montgomery bus boycott by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. That simple act of defiance helped usher in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
"I know Bob's bus isn't Rosa Parks' bus, but Bob's bus has an educational component to it," he said, adding that a guitar from Eldon Chamblin of the Playboys and some of Wills' memorabilia are on display now at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.
If he is unsuccessful in raising the money, Chapman said he has a Plan B. A Texas musician who is planning to build a new nightclub in Austin has indicated he will buy it with an eye toward repainting the exterior and putting it on the roof of the club for all to see. At least that way, Chapman figures, the public will have visual access to the bus.
One way or another, he said, Wills' bus will be back in the public eye.
"When I step away from it, it'll be in good hands," he said. "It won't be rotting in a field."
Chapman said anyone interested in helping in the project can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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