I've long been waiting to meet the legendary Tommy Wills. As a record collector, I had discovered his name in thrift store record bins all across the city. I'd found Wills' Man with a Horn on 45 rpm in Rockin' Billy's for $3. Later, I unearthed a copy of the funky organ/sax groover K.C. Drive in a friend's collection.
After all, I hadn't identified him as an Indianapolis legend. You hear about Jay Jay Johnson and Freddie Hubbard, but not Tommy Wills. A DJ out of Chicago who specializes in Midwest music history told me that Wills was most certainly from Ohio. Another local collector told me he was from Indianapolis. The truth, it turns out, was somewhere in between.
I saw that a seller named Hornman24@webtv.net was selling Tommy Wills merchandise on eBay. After a flurry of e-mail exchanges, Wills and I agreed to meet at Papa's pancake house on Pendleton Pike. I asked him to bring a crate of his records.
Wills looks like everybody's grandpa. A huggable bear with white hair and a white mustache, he relaxes in a restaurant booth with one hand curled around the handle of a coffee mug and the other propping up his head.
Soon I learn that Wills was once a major player in the jukebox market - a monster seller whose name can be found in Seeburg jukeboxes around the country to this day.
Raised in Middletown, Ohio, Wills started playing guitar in farmhouse jam sessions with local favorites the Back Family Band. At age 11, he entered an amateur talent contest in Middletown's Paramount Theatre. Not only did he win, his performance was so impressive that the Paramount Theatre Band hired him as a regular. He was paid 50 cents and a free movie pass each week.
In high school, he put his guitar aside and began to play the clarinet so he could be in the orchestra. Eventually, he moved on to his signature instrument: the saxophone. He would soon be known as 'Tommy Wills: Man with a Horn.'
'When I was in high school I used to buy Charlie Barnet's records - of course they were all 78s then,' Wills recalls. 'My mother had an old Victrola and you would wind it up. It had a lever under it to slow the records down to whatever speed you wanted. I used to slow it down and copy the Charlie Barnet solos from his records.'
At 14, he was playing at the Club Chatterdine in Middletown, Ohio, with the Duke Diver Band. Later, he would drive to Cincinnati to see the Count Bassie Orchestra. It was an experience that ignited a life-long passion for big band jazz and led to his own Tommy Wills Big Band.
In the early '40s, Tommy Wills and his Artists of Rhythm were booked as 'The Youngest Band in the Land.' They played ballrooms all across the tri-state area and even had a gig four nights a week at the Indiana Roof Ballroom. At night, Wills participated in sessions on Indiana Avenue clubs like George's Place and the Place to Play.
'I played Indiana Avenue in the '40s, but I have never been recognized as an Indiana Avenue player,' Wills muses. He began recording professionally in 1954 at the age of 27, cutting both 78s and 45s for the Club Miami Label. But his big breakthrough came in 1963, when his single 'Man with a Horn' sold an astonishing 500,000 copies worldwide in jukebox distribution. Based on that success, Wills launched his own labels: Gregory, Juke and Airtown. Primarily geared towards distribution by the Seeburg Juke Box Company, Wills sold thousands of copies of many of his titles. Wills recorded seven albums, two CDs and countless numbers of 45s in almost every genre from traditional jazz classics to country tunes and even a sprinkling of rock and roll.
He moved to Indianapolis in the early '70s. The '70s brought declining demand for the big band sound and Wills moved from ballrooms to Holiday Inns, playing top 40 hits. But even that format withered as hotels dropped bands to adopt a sports bar format.
Wills packed up his RV in the late '70s and took his sound on the road. In the '80s, he put together another big band. Even now, they continue to play one-nighters around the tri-state area and Wills is still going strong. He recently played the Indianapolis JazzFest with his small group and has plans to record a new CD.
Leafing through a stack of 45s Wills brought to the pancake house, I am startled by the prolific and entrepreneurial spirit of Wills' 50-year output. His own label, Juke, includes recordings by local artists like Dumpy 'Piano,' Cal Collins and even a strange psych-garage record by a band called Peace and Love. Although the jukebox market is near total collapse, he continues to hawk his records through his own distribution company.
Few people in Indianapolis have provided so many recordings and yet are so unheralded. Perhaps it was Wills' versatility that hurt him. He never had a signature sound, felt equally comfortable recording traditional jazz or country and western.
I felt like I was getting his records pretty cheap when I bought two copies of each for 85 cents apiece. He even gave me an eight-track version of one of his albums for free. If only I had an eight-track player to listen to it.