Jess Willard (2)
Died 26 May 1959, Auburn, California.
Although his career as a recording artist lasted less than ten years, Jess Willard, a self-described "plain country boy," is remembered fondly for his cheerful personality as well as "Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor," which became a minor rockabilly standard. Born in 1916 four months after his namesake took the heavyweight championship from Jack Johnson, he hooked up with cowboy singer Jack Guthrie in the '40s, who became Willard's chief musical influence. After Guthrie died of TB in 1948, Willard vowed to carry on his name and music. He traveled to L.A. in 1949 and it was there that Capitol A&R man Lee Gillette heard him sing Guthrie's "Oklahoma Hills" while sitting in with Ole Rasmussen's band. Gillette signed Willard and on June 14, 1950, he had his first recording session with a hand-picked band that included Jimmy Bryant, Cliffie Stone, and Tex Atchison. After over two years at Capitol, (where he scored no hits), Willard toured the Far East with Eddie Hazelwood. In 1955, he toured with Eddie and Hank Cochran (the Cochran Brothers) and joined them for a number of California Hayride shows. He recorded his final single in 1959 before dying of a heart attack on May 26, 1959, aged 43. ~ Jim Smith, Rovi