To put Curly Lewis’ remarkable career in perspective, consider that he first began his association with popular music icon Bob Wills back in 1936 – four years before the hit song “San Antonio Rose” took the Wills band “from hamburgers to steaks,” as Bob famously said, and only a couple of years after the bandleader had landed in Tulsa, following stops in his native Texas and Oklahoma City.
After establishing a Tulsa presence, fiddler-vocalist Wills and his Texas Playboys, including his brother Johnnie Lee, would hone and perfect the then-new Southwestern musical stew known as Western swing.
Granted, Lewis was only 11 years old in ’36. But he’d been playing the fiddle since he was 9, and he was good enough at it that, unbeknownst to him, one of his brothers entered him in a Wills-sponsored competition.
“My brother Pres was 17 at the time, and he was down by the old Avery Coliseum in downtown Tulsa one day. They were signing people up for a fiddling contest, so he went in there and signed me up for it,” recalls Lewis with a chuckle.
“I didn’t know anything about it, and it made me kind of mad when I found out.”
The competition itself was held at the Avery, which, as Lewis points out, “took up a whole block – that’s where they had all the big shows back in that time,” and this event certainly qualified.
“It was a three-night deal, and there were 67 old-time fiddle players from seven different states,” he says. “They didn’t have any categories for age. It was just for everybody. They started with all 67 fiddle players and cut it down to 25 the first night. I was number nine. The next night, they cut it down to 10, and I came in number six. My brother kept telling me, ‘You keep coming down three (places) at a time, and you’ll make it.’”
Pres Lewis turned out to be correct.
“On the third night, there was 10 of us, and they had two contests that night. Out of the 10, the first three got into the grand finale. I came in number three on that. And then, in the grand finale, I was lucky enough to come out on top. I got $10 fo