Al Stricklin was a jazz pianist whose lively playing helped give Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys the band's unique western swing flavor. Ironically, when Stricklin first heard Wills play the fiddle during an audition at a radio station where Stricklin was in charge of hiring, he thought Wills' routine was more of a comedy act than any serious musical offering. It wasn't long before Stricklin's opinion changed and he became a key part of the Texas Playboys' lineup, staying with the band from 1935 through 1942. He played piano on several hundred of the group's recordings, including Wills' nationwide hit in 1940, "New San Antonio Rose."
The piano player was born Alton Meeks Stricklin in 1908 in Antioch, TX. He never had the benefit of music lessons, and has said that his major inspiration was jazz great Earl "Fatha" Hines. When he was about four or five years old, Stricklin started teaching himself how to play with his father, who was a fiddler. By the time he left high school and headed to Weatherford Junior College in 1927, and later Baylor University, the self-taught pianist was teaching others how to play to help pay for his schooling. While at Weatherford he performed with two bands, a jazz group named the Texans and a Dixieland band named the Rio Grande Serenaders. Stricklin, a history major, was almost ejected from Baylor because of his involvement with a jazz group. When the administration of the Baptist university got wind of his association with a group called the Unholy Three, and learned that he played in the trio at local dances, only a dean's intervention kept him from being expelled.
Stricklin ended up leaving school anyway, thanks to the lean years of the Depression. To help support his family, he took work in 1930 at Fort Worth's KFJZ radio station, where he later auditioned Wills. Before joining the Texas Playboys, Stricklin also was employed as an elementary school teacher and principal in Island Grove, TX, and later he played with the Hi Flyers dance band back in Fort Worth. When Wills heard him play at a club called the Cinderella Roof in 1935, he lured Stricklin to the Texas Playboys with a job that paid $30 weekly.
The piano player left the Texas Playboys to work at North American Aircraft during World War II. In 1943 he turned down a chance to reunite with the Texas Playboys in California, instead marrying and settling down. He put his musical career behind him until United Artists asked for another recording from Wills and his band. The double album was Wills' last, and the recording of it came to be viewed as an historic event. It won a Grammy Award and attracted new listeners to western swing.
Wills died in 1975. Stricklin and some of the other band members continued for about ten years to record and perform under the name Bob Wills Original Texas Playboys. Stricklin also had a brief solo career. He wrote My Years With Bob Wills, a memoir, in 1976. Stricklin, along with Wills and the Texas Playboys, is an inductee of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He passed away in 1986 in Cleburne, TX.