Chuck Berry. Little Richard. Elvis Presley. These are usually the first names that come to mind when rattling off who the originators of rock and roll were. Sadly, only to those in the know, the name Bob Wills — the King of Western Swing — very rarely makes the list. But if Tulsa’s Oklahoma Museum of Pop Culture (OKPOP) has its way, it could rewrite the pop music history books forever.
As OKPOP prepares to break ground on an actual brick-and-mortar building, its founders are currently collecting pop culture artifacts for various exhibits and displays that reflect Oklahoma’s varied stance in the world of popular culture — everything from music and movies to comic books and comedy.
One of the most illustrious of these collections was a dearth of material donated by the Bob Wills estate, which features numerous never-before-seen photographs, films and recordings of the legendary bandleader. In fact, so much material was there that, before the museum has even been built, OKPOP decided to turn the artifacts into its first historical documentary.
According to OKPOP Project Director Jeff Moore, the film — titled Still the King: Bob Wills — The Man, The Music — is a natural extension of the Oklahoma Historical Society’s mission to make the Sooner state’s history accessible to all.
“One of the things the public expects when they go to a museum is a multimedia experience so you’re not just looking at objects,” Moore said. “You want to hear the music; you want to see someone who was influenced by the music talking about that influence; you want to have photographs of the clubs they played in.”
OKPOP has launched a crowdfunding effort to make the documentary series a reality. Moore added that crowdfunding a project like this is very much in the spirit of what Bob Wills was doing in his heyday: traveling from town to town, putting on dances and shows, usually in an attempt to promote his radio gigs.
One of the masterminds behind the film, writer, director and all-around Hollywood veteran Kevin Meyer, is currently in the research stage, collecting data and making contacts with talking heads to appear on screen. Meyer was attracted to the project because it’s important to him that young people not only remember Bob Wills but realize just how much of the music they listen to today comes from him.
“We’re just going to let this film unfold in a dramatic way,” Meyer said. “What drove him to make the decisions he did that create some songs that were legendary? I mean, he created rock ’n’ roll 20 years before Chuck Berry. His contributions can’t be forgotten, and this film won’t let them be.”
As filming commences this summer, OKPOP has high hopes for the doc, including taking it to Sundance Film Festival, South by Southwest and, hopefully, theatrical screenings. Also, this first film will act as a springboard for a series of projects based on Oklahoma pop-culture legends, with the next one being a history of Tulsa Sound rock pioneer Leon Russell.
But they have to get through the Bob Wills project first.
“Bob Wills is just an amazing story,” Moore said. “From a timing standpoint, this is the 80th anniversary of him moving to Tulsa and broadcasting on radio, so it gets the word out and gets people excited. ... Oklahoma is filled with all these amazing, creative people in all these different areas, and Bob Wills is just the beginning.”