Cowboy singer and guitar-picker Foy Willing, who would achieve fame playing with the likes of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, learned his love of music in Waco.
Willing was born Foy Lopez Willingham in rural Iredell, Bosque County, on May 14, 1914, the son of John Dallas Willingham and Alice Louise Houston, supposedly a distant relation of Sam Houston.
J.D. Willingham brought his family to Waco in 1917, when the United States’ involvement in World War I began, to work for R.G. Henderson Manufacturing. He also pursued on the side a ministry in the Assembly of God.
Constant exposure to four-part harmony church music and folk melodies from his family (his mother played the organ and an uncle played harmonica, for example) helped drive Willing’s aspiration to become a musician. What apparently sealed the deal was his father’s gift of his first guitar while Willing was in junior high school.
In fact, when he was a freshman at Waco High School in 1930, Willing was invited to perform 15 minutes, three times a week, as a soloist on WACO-AM, on a program sponsored by the Cameron Lumber Co.
He also took part in a local gospel chorus, working on his shaped-note technique, and attended the Stamps-Baxter Music Co. singing school. The influential Southern music publishing house was a leader in the field of shaped-note gospel song-writing.
Willing dropped out of high school to take a $75-per-week radio job in Omaha with a trio called Three Tall Guys From Texas, then later worked in radio in New York City for several years before returning to Texas in 1935 to continue his musical career.
In 1940, Willing moved to Oklahoma, where he formed a life-long friendship with Iowan Al Sloey. Sloey, a tenor, and Willing, a baritone, formed what would become the core of the Riders of the Purple Sage for the duration of the group’s 10-year existence, with a variety of sidemen in the lineup.
On the eve of World War II, Willing and Sloey moved to California to work with Jimmy Wakely & His Saddle Pals.
Willing took over as leader of the Riders of the Purple Sage, a designation inspired by Zane Grey’s 1912 romantic novel of the same name.
The ensemble regularly appeared on the radio show “Hollywood Barn Dance” in 1943. In 1944, the group had its first hit record for the Capitol label, “Texas Blues,” composed by Willing.
From 1945-47, the group was featured on the All Star Western Theater. It later was part of the Roy Rogers Quaker Oats Show cast.
Riders of the Purple Sage found a following and became one of the most popular singing groups during the “singing cowboy” era — 1930s to 1950s — a period when dozens of bands donned gaudy Western attire and played highly romanticized cowboy songs based on Hollywood’s glamorized idea of life in the American West.
Willing and Riders of the Purple Sage performed on numerous radio shows and in film, and recorded for various labels, including Capitol, Decca, Columbia and Majestic.
They had several major hits, including “Cool Water” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”
Between 1941 and 1951, Willing appeared in 32 films, including 11 movies with the Riders of the Purple Sage. The group replaced Roy Rogers’ backup band, the Sons of the Pioneers, in a pay dispute with Republic Pictures.
Its first film with Roy Rogers was “Grand Canyon Trail” in 1948. The group’s final film with Rogers was “Heart of the Rockies” in 1951.
Willing disbanded Riders of the Purple Sage in 1952, although its members would get together on occasion for charity performances and reunion tours.
As the era of the singing cowboy on the silver screen came to an end, Willing and Riders of the Purple Sage were called back into service one more time to accompany Gene Autry on his last tour with a full troupe in 1957.
They performed at state fairs and on singer Perry Como’s TV show in New York City.
By the late 1950s, Willing was managing a radio station in Salinas, Calif. He moved to Hollywood in 1961 and in 1966, he married Sharon Lee, who was 20 years his junior and his eventual biographer.
Willing continued to write and record songs and appear at Western film festivals until his death from heart disease in Nashville on July 24, 1978.
Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage are honored in the Western Music Association Hall of Fame.
Additional sources: “No One to Cry To: A Long, Hard Ride Into the Sunset With Foy Willing of the Riders of the Purple Sage,” by Sharon Lee Willing (2006); “The History of Texas Music,” by Gary Hartman (2008); WesternMusic.com; and Handbook of Texas Online.