Texas guitar legend Bert Wills got his start playing waterfront bars from Galveston to Kemah
Guitarist, singer and songwriter Bert Wills has referred to himself in song as a rambler on a lonesome highway, an outsider looking in, a prisoner and many other things of rich metaphorical value. Despite critical acclaim as one of the best blues guitarists in Texas, Wills, like most introspective people, is still working it all out.
“Isn’t being a musician a job?” Wills asked. “It’s all I’ve ever done.”
Wills wasn’t exactly encouraged to go into the music business. His father, Bert Wills Sr., who died last year, was an auto mechanic for Cadillac and in his career had taken care of legendary country singer Hank Williams Sr.’s seven Caddys. Williams was known to be a heavy drinker and drug user. Bert Wills Sr. had a general disapproval of musicians.
Despite his best efforts to avoid the music business, destiny had its way with Wills. He has worked his way through life singing songs and playing his guitar. Two attempts at “real” jobs both ended after one week.
“I worked at a gas station, but then the guy who owned the place found out I played guitar and fired me so I could go work in his bar playing guitar,” Wills said.
Bert Wills was born in Ashland, Ky., in 1953. In 1957, his family moved to Galveston. The family moved several more times throughout the Gulf Coast area — Texas City, Bay City, League City and Kemah — with Wills eventually settling in Galveston on his own in the late 1960s. While he has lived in many places around the United States for various lengths of time, Wills has always gravitated back to Galveston, where many of his closest friends reside, he said. These days, Wills spends the majority of his time in Kentucky caring for his mother, Margaret, but in May performed several shows in Galveston and Houston.
Wills began playing the guitar professionally at age 11. He used his first guitar, a “homemade” instrument, to play in bars along the waterfront from Kemah to Galveston. The guitar, which he still has, was made by a Bacliff man, David Alexander, Wills said.
Wills formed his first band, The Undertakers (aka The Shadows) with another well-known Gulf Coast musician, Benny Brasket, who was 12 years old at the time. Brasket’s father, Benny Brasket Sr., owned a bar in Galveston and played drums and let the boys use some of his equipment when he wasn’t performing.
The Shadows performed at The Bamboo Hut and The Cave as well as at some high school and teen dances, playing covers of popular songs at the time by The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and Manfred Mann.
“Many old blues tunes, just played louder,” Wills said.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, Wills played many solo gigs as well as with groups he either formed or was a consistent member of, including Bert Wills and The Cryin’ Shames and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Johnnie Johnson’s band, which occasionally included Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones. Wills also played with country legend Porter Wagoner and his group.
Wills released records under his own name beginning with “Mr. Politician” in 1994. The album, followed by “Special Session” and “Tell Me Why,” all garnered good reviews and went on to help further establish Wills and his band as a viable blues outfit on the world circuit. He and his band toured around the United States and in Europe up until the late 2000s, when health issues slowed Wills’ schedule.
Although he’s best known for his blues music, Wills is a proficient country music writer as well, said Grammy-nominated Houston music producer and engineer Andy Bradley, who has recorded several albums with Wills.
“Bert is a Texas guitar legend — among the best blues guitar players ever to come out of Texas, but he is equally skilled in country music as both a player and writer,” Bradley said.
Wills this year released the folk and country inspired “Lonesome Highway” album and was part of a double album blues vinyl project “4GDB” released last year that featured three other Texas guitar legends — Alan Haynes, John Inmon and Derek O’Brien, along with Glenn Fukunaga on bass and Paul Pearcy on drums. Houstonian Dan Cook was executive producer on the “4GDB” project, which is a tribute to some of Texas’ best players.
The album was intended to be a completely instrumental blues album. But vocals worked their way in to some songs, with the final product essentially being an 11-song blues jam with all the players recording simultaneously in a live setting. The five-day recording session was filmed and a documentary is in the editing process.
“These guys are some of the best blues players Texas has ever produced,” Cook said. “I wanted to capture these guys while they’re still here.”
Visit www.Artasee.com for more about the “4GDB” project.