Evelyn Stevens, a pioneer of western swing music who sang with her sister and toured with legendary Bob Wills before marrying his brother, bandleader Billy Jack Wills, died Dec. 24 of cancer, her family said. She was 87.
Mrs. Stevens began singing at age 12 on an Alabama radio show during the Great Depression with her 14-year-old sister, Dean, as the McKinney Sisters. Their sweet sound led to appearances with the singing cowboys Sons of the Pioneers and Grand Ole Opry shows with Eddy Arnold.
"We had a blend that was kind of unique," said Mrs. Stevens in a 2009 interview. "We sang duets, and when it would go too high for her, I'd take over and when it went too low for me, she took over."
The McKinney Sisters went on to sing with the Ted Weems Orchestra in Chicago. In 1946, they were invited to tour with one of the most popular bands in western swing, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. They performed on Wills' radio program, made a musical film and recorded for MGM, Columbia and Tiffany Transcriptions.
The band settled in Sacramento, where Mrs. Stevens married Wills' younger musician brother, Billy Jack, who formed his own western swing band. She raised two children while performing with her husband on Sacramento radio and TV shows in the 1950s.
The couple also performed at the popular Wills Point ballroom on Auburn Boulevard with Dean and her husband, Billie "Tiny" Moore, who was Bob Wills' mandolin player.
"Mom had to quit Bob Wills' band, and so did Aunt Dean, because they were married women," said Mrs. Stevens' daughter, Billie Jacqulyn Wills. "That wasn't allowed in the band."
Margaret Evelyn McKinney was born in 1924 in Birmingham, Ala. She was one of four daughters of a coal-mine machinist and homemaker.
Her marriage to Billy Jack Wills ended in divorce after about 20 years. Her second husband, Norman J. Stevens, and her son, John, each died in 1996.
Mrs. Stevens took up painting and became a prolific artist and member of the North Highlands Art Guild. She started a Bible group and sang in the choir at Capitol Free Will Baptist Church in North Highlands. She was also active in the Harvest Time Group, a social club.
She and her sister Dean recorded two albums of sacred music and were active for many years in the Western Swing Society. They sang together in public and remained close until Dean Moore's death in 2009.
"My mother loved to be on stage," Billie Wills said. "She loved singing and she loved people. She looked at the world through rose-colored glasses and loved every experience in music she ever had."