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'Lost Tapes' of Bob Wills Restored By Oklahoma's 46 Star Records


The Oklahoma Historical Society celebrates the launch of 46 Star Records tonight at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City. Their first release will be unearthed radio sessions of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys on 180-gram vinyl records.

You’re hearing a restored version of a 1949 radio recording of “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” by western swing pioneers Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. It’s one of 12 songs included on Let’s Play, Boys, a compilation of rediscovered songs from the personal transcriptions of Bob Wills.

It’s also the first release of 46 Star Records, the new record label arm of the Oklahoma Historical Society, who has been publishing books on Oklahoma topics for 40 years. Jeff Moore, the project director for the proposed Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture, or OKPOP, says OHS recently began looking beyond books as a way of sharing information and history.

“We want it to be an opportunity for us to share Oklahoma history in a new way -- in a way that engages the public differently, and gets people excited about history in a way they may not have thought about previously.”

In 2012, the Oklahoma Historical Society announced the Wills Family donation of a collection of Bob Wills’ personal items. Included in that was a massive audio collection, showcasing roughly 130 recordings of radio broadcast transcriptions from the 1940s.

“These songs from this collection are kind of the rare lost tapes. The people in the industry that were involved in releasing previous Bob Wills music knew that they existed. They knew about the recording sessions. They didn’t know a lot about them and they didn’t know where they were.”

The material these personal transcriptions were recorded on were only meant to be played a limited number of times. And, in the more than six decades since the recordings were made, the audio began to deteriorate.

“Over time, it wore down and there were snap, crackles, and pops all over the place. Some of them really sounded rough and honestly the first time I heard it, I said, ‘Okay, we’ll go ahead with the project and see what we come up with,’ but initially, I really had my doubts.”

Even Steve Ripley, who digitally restored and remastered the songs on the album, admits he gave up several times during the restoration process due to the deterioration of the recordings. Ripley says that in order to remove anything that would take away from the listening experience, he would often spend days working on just one section of one song.

“There was always a balancing act of eliminating noise but trying to keep the sound of the band. And I found with software that’s recently been released I could get rid of almost all the noise, but the band started sounding funny. So I tried to walk that balance beam, not fall off one way or the other.”

Moore says preserving this music of Bob Wills also means preserving and sharing the story of the Great Depression.

“That music is what the people that were going west during the Depression to try to get better jobs in California in the orchards and the agricultural fields – that’s what they heard on the radio. And what they heard when they did dances was that western swing that Bob Wills was creating. So, you had a whole generation of people looking for hope and they found that in the music of Bob Wills.”

The Oklahoma Historical Society seeks to tell more Oklahoma history through the language of music with the proposed OKPOP museum. The museum will focus on Oklahoma’s contribution to popular culture, including music, film, radio, television, literature, theater, and more.

OKPOP has been seeking state funds since 2011, but since then has cut their request by more than $15 million. Senate Bill 839 seeks $25 million in bonds and last week was passed by both the House and Senate Joint Committees on Appropriations and Budget. The bill now awaits a floor vote in the Senate.

OHS Executive Director Bob Blackburn is optimistic about the chances of the bill passing.

“We can do this. We have the perfect budget and business plan for downtown Tulsa – Brady Arts District, donated land, donations from the private sector to match investment from the state. We can pay 100% of operational expenses and we can make this thing work and get it open by the fall of 2018.”

Until then, the OHS celebrates its initial run of 1,000 vinyl records, featuring songs once feared lost by time, dust, heat, and mold from one of Oklahoma’s biggest musical icons.

The Oklahoma Historical Society will celebrate the launch of 46 Star Records tonight at the Oklahoma History Center, 800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive in Oklahoma City. The release party starts at 6:30 p.m., with a Bob Wills tribute concert and dance with the Jason Roberts Band.

  • The album is available for purchase online here.
Ryan LaCroix is the Director of Content and Audience Development for KOSU.
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