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Austin Chronicle Sittin' on Top of the World

By Rosetta Wills

AUGUST 16, 1999:  I froze when I recognized Eric Clapton standing a few feet away from me backstage. "Is that Eric Clapton?" I gasped. The photographer standing next to me nodded.

"Yes, would you like to meet him? How about a picture with him?"

I must have said "yes" because the bright bulb flashed in our faces immediately after our formal introduction.

Guess I was giddy from speaking to the VH1 lenses on New York's Waldorf Astoria stage at the 14th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. My half-sister Cindy and I accepted the posthumous award for our father that night -- March 15, 1999 -- 24 years after his death at age 70. Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys' Western swing music was now officially recognized as an "early influence" on rock & roll. Standing in front of 1,500 music industry executives and celebrities, I felt my father's spirit in the room as I read what he had told a reporter back in 1956:

"Rock & roll will be around forever. What I mean is that people don't change much. We didn't call it rock & roll back when we introduced it as our style in 1928, and we don't call it rock & roll the way we play it now. But it's just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of different names in my time. It's the same, whether you follow just a drumbeat like in Africa or surround it with a lot of instruments. The rhythm is what's important."

My father's tremendous energy, spontaneity, and innovativeness changed the face of American music. He led the way to rock & roll by combining black blues and white fiddle music, amplifying his sound with electric instrumentation, and adding drums to a string band.

My eagerness for the evening had intensified during the afternoon rehearsal session. When we arrived, Paul Shaffer and his band were onstage with Bonnie Raitt and Billy Joel singing Del Shannon's "Runaway" while handsome Bruce Springsteen stood only a few feet away. I had an opportunity to tell Bonnie Raitt I had a copy of every album she had recorded since 1973. She politely smiled as she said, "You're the kind of fan I like to meet."

During dinner, we sat with Del Shannon's family, who were also accepting a posthumous award. The Sixties rocker who gave us hits until his death in 1990 refused to be a one-hit wonder.

When the show opened after the dinner, I basked in the glow of my heroes and heroines. Just people, yes, but people who make the world special for those who love, live, and breathe the music. Joining the 150-plus members of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were "performers" Billy Joel, Curtis Mayfield, Paul McCartney, Del Shannon, Dusty Springfield, Bruce Springsteen, and the Staples Singers; "early influences" Charles Brown and Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys; and "non-performer" Beatles producer George Martin.

Chris Isaak graciously spoke of my father's musical history while film footage from the early Forties rolled across the screen and recordings such as "San Antonio Rose" and "Faded Love" played in the background. The presentation closed with a 1950 videotape of my father singing "Sittin' on Top of the World."

Exhilaration buoyed us from centerstage to backstage, where Isaak accompanied us to the press area. Questions fired between camera flashes: "What do you know about your father that most people don't?" "How do you feel about him being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?" We quickly answered the reporters until they closed with a discussion about the recently released tribute CD by Chicago's Pine Valley Cosmonauts: "Have you heard the Tribute to the Majesty of Bob Wills? What do you think about it? What's your favorite song?"

I emphatically responded that it's one of the finest tribute records yet. "I love the arrangement on 'Faded Love.' And, by the way, I've written a book about my father called The King of Western Swing: Bob Wills Remembered. Don't forget to pick up a copy in your local bookstore."

After the interview, I stopped a man striding toward the stage and incredulously asked, "Are you Neil Young?" His affirmative response, eye contact, and handshake assured me he was.

"Mother, how embarrassing! I can't believe you asked him that! Of course he's Neil Young. Nobody else looks like that," my daughter Renee chided as she poked me in the ribs.

The intimate hug from U2's sexy Bono and the gentlemanly handshake of Paul McCartney had obviously rattled me. My earlier conversation with Bono, a Bob Wills enthusiast, came directly after his exit from the stage where he had introduced Springsteen as "someone who made you believe that dreams are still out there." Our encounter was cut short by a beautiful, young woman who swept in soon after he embraced me. I looked on forlornly as he immediately grabbed her and whirled her around. "Oh, well, now he's lost to me forever," I thought. The lady in question boldly sported a white tank top with the cryptic inscription on her chest ... "About Fucking Time!"

Renee and I left the backstage area and returned to our table to watch the rest of the show. Neil Young's induction of Paul McCartney fondly mentioned the former Beatle's wife Linda, who succumbed to breast cancer in 1998. This night was McCartney's first public appearance since her death. When he called his daughter Stella to the stage, I discovered the identity of the tank-topped lady who was protesting the length of time it had taken to induct her father as a solo performer.

Later, Lauryn Hill (who previously inducted the Staples Singers), Robbie Robertson, Bette Midler, Eric Clapton, D'Angelo, Peter Wolf, and the newly inducted Staples Singers converged onstage to jam. Celebrities such as Wesley Snipes, Lenny Kravitz, and Danny DeVito sat at surrounding tables as the last jam session closed with Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" and Paul McCartney's "Let it Be." We were all on our feet when McCartney said, "It's late. It's time to go home."

Familiar, warm feelings floated within me as I watched my father's face displayed sporadically on the huge screen backdrop. "Oh, yes, deep within my heart lay a melody" while "I was sittin' on top of the world."


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