Truitt Cunningham, a veteran Western swing musician who performed as one of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys and later with his own group, the San Antone Rose Band, died June 5. He was 83.
The cause was respiratory failure, said his daughter, Trudy Tillinghast.
Mr. Cunningham was only 17 when Wills, the legendary bandleader, wanted to hire him as a singer – but the teenager was newly married and didn’t want to go on tour and leave his wife, Vera. Instead, he played for Alex Brashear at Wills’ popular Sacramento dance hall Wills Point before finally joining Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys on the road in California and Oregon in 1954.
It was a dream come true for the young singer and bass player, who recalled the first time he saw the “king of Western swing” on stage.
“I first saw Bob perform in 1944 in Stockton,” he told The Sacramento Bee in 1998. “It just blew my mind. He was a live wire, one of the greatest showmen ever.”
The gig lasted about six months before Mr. Cunningham quit because he missed his wife and three children at home in Loomis. But he went on to make and promote Western swing music for more than 50 years – first with Billy Jack Wills, Bob Wills’ brother, and later with his own group, Truitt Cunningham and His San Antone Rose Band.
Besides performing around Northern California and touring in the United States, he entertained viewers of “Country Corners,” a Sacramento TV show in the 1960s. His guests included Lynn Anderson, a Fair Oaks teenager who went on to country music stardom in the 1970s and 1980s. He recorded “The Truck That Peter Built,” which became a Northern California hit and was written by Anderson’s mother, Liz, a noted country songwriter and singer.
Born Oct. 8, 1930, in San Angelo, Texas, Orville Truitt Cunningham moved with his mother and stepfather to California and settled in Modesto. Given a guitar at 5, he was taught to sing by his mother and began performing in public at 16.
He met Vera Deon Holmes at a Christmas Eve dance in 1946. They married in 1947, had three children and later traveled together to shows that she booked as manager and publicist for his San Antone Rose Band. She died in 1998, after nearly 51 years of marriage.
Mr. Cunningham worked as a surveyor for Campbell Construction in Sacramento and Reno for many years and also did survey work for Aerojet. A longtime Auburn resident, he was married for about 12 years to Darlene Sullivan until her death in 2011.
Mr. Cunningham was a charter member of the Western Swing Society Hall of Fame. A popular performer who mastered Bob Wills’ trademark “Aw, haw” cry at shows, he joined a salute to Western swing with the San Antone Rose Band at the 1998 Dixieland Jazz Jubilee and paid tribute to his mentor and friend.
“Western swing is the first cousin to Dixieland jazz, second cousin to big band, third cousin to blues and fourth cousin to country, with a little Mexican sound and you-name-it,” he said. “Western swing is the whole thing, and Bob is bigger now than he ever was.”
In addition to Tillinghast, Mr. Cunningham is survived by a son, Kirby; a daughter, Deeann Roesser; a sister, Vada Williams; three grandsons; and one great-granddaughter.
No memorial is planned. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to charity.
Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.