When in 2009 the producers at the Collectors' Choice Music reissue label came out with their first box set, they zeroed in on what many consider to be the best recordings ever made by bands under the leadership of Bob Wills (1905-1975), who is now widely acknowledged as the primary force behind the development of Western swing. In 1945, Wills formed a business partnership with Oakland, California radio DJ Clifton "Cactus Jack" Johnson, and songwriter-entrepreneur Clifford Sundin, establishing the Tiffany Music, Inc. transcription service. This little enterprise was created in order to produce extended duration recordings exclusively intended for radio broadcast purposes. Over a time period from March 1946 through December 1947, Wills periodically took his Texas Playboys into the recording studio for independently managed jam sessions that yielded 26 platters measuring 16 inches across. Legend has it these dates usually took place when the band was fresh off the touring circuit and therefore limbered up for delivering their best work. Although some of the transcriptions received airplay over a network serving Oklahoma, Texas, and much of the West Coast, demand slackened as most radio stations opted for Wills' commercially released recordings, so that many of these exceptionally fine performances went unheard until they were posthumously released on LP during the '80s.
When all 150 tracks are laid out, examined, and savored as a totality, it becomes clear that Wills was using the Tiffany sessions to develop the band and expand its book well beyond the standard cowboy, country, and mainstream pop repertoire. Here in high relief is etched the evidence of Wills' personal listening habits: what he heard over the air and very likely what he owned in his private record collection. Bob Wills was crazy about jazz, and the Tiffany Transcriptions are like a massive fingerprint that proves it beyond a doubt. Herein are Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Fats Waller covers. There are Western-style stomps based on ideas by Bennie Moten, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Nat King Cole. Wills listened carefully to what was in the air; he'd been absorbing African-American blues since the early 1920s, had a knack for fundamental numbers by Spencer Williams and Richard M. Jones, and made a point of interpreting a swinging big-band theme by Woody Herman in the late ‘40s. Wills featured songs made popular by Tommy Dorsey, Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong in a mix with cowboy songs and airs by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. The ten-CD Tiffany Transcriptions box set should be approached with open arms. It is a profoundly North American, mid-20th century listening experience.