Station Inn http://www.tennessean.com/article/20091018/BUSINESS01/910180346/Station+Inn+is+out+of+place++but+still+at+home++in+Gulch
Bobby Black http://www.vintageguitar.com/12628/bobby-black/
Dernière édition par James Schmitt le Mar 29 Oct - 19:14, édité 15 fois
James Schmitt Rang: Administrateur
Nombre de messages : 6041 Age : 100 Localisation : St Beat - Pyrenées Date d'inscription : 04/07/2005
Sujet: Re: Interviews divers Jeu 20 Mar - 10:13
Pedal Steel Power From Country Pickers
March 19, 2008
by Lenny Kaye
Illustration by Tanith Connolly
Originally published in The History of Rock, 1983
Probably no other instrument in the world is as closely associated with country music as the pedal steel guitar. Yet its roots are found not in some rural hamlet in the Southern reaches of America, but in an exotic, hybrid Polynesian culture located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The steel guitar's most venerable ancestor was born in the Hawaii of a century past, after the guitar had been introduced to the islands by Mexican and Portuguese cowboys who came following a cattle boom. According to legend, a man named Joseph Kekuku one day happened to drop his comb across his guitar's strings, becoming enchanted with the slithering, slinky sound it made. By 1894, he was giving impromptu concerts accompanied by his cousin Sam on violin and, by the turn of the century, had begun to move past mere novelty into serious study of the instrument. He designed a steel bar, held in the left hand and moved across the strings, to make the sound brighter and cleaner.
The instrument was imported to the United States on the wave of a Hawaiian craze that washed over American shores after the First World War. Coinciding with the growing popularity of phonograph records, such “hula blues” masters as Sol Hoopii, Frank Ferara, and Roy Smeck were soon making the “lap” guitar a fashionable instrument.
Related somewhat to the bottleneck style, the Hawaiian legacy was picked up by the mongrel music known as Western swing in the ’30s. Bob Dunn, of Fort Worth, Texas, became the first to apply electricity to the acoustic lap steel, and from there, such guitarists as Leon McAuliffe, Noel Boggs, and the legendary Joaquin Murphy (who would often walk off stage in mid-song if he was somehow dissatisfied) set the perimeters of the new style.
photo courtesy of steelguitar.comThe problem with the steel was the bar, which often forced players into strange tunings and awkward “slants” to obtain some degree of musical sophistication. This would eventually result in the addition of pedals to the instrument, whose function would be the same as placing fingers on a guitar neck. The ’40s saw many players attempting to bridge this technical gap, from Herb Remington—whose “Remington Ride” is an acknowledged steel classic—through the pure-toned Jerry Byrd, to Speedy West, the Jimi Hendrix of steel, whose bar crashes and wild swoops created sounds that remain unique decades later.
All of the above used some form of pedal guitar, but it wasn't until 1954 that the steel guitar entered widespread use. With Bud Isaacs providing support for singer Webb Pierce, a song called “Slowly” captured the imagination of country hit parades everywhere, and the “crying” sound of a steel soon became de rigueur on every Nashville session.
The instrument was growing in sophistication as well. Buddy Emmons recorded Steel Guitar Jazz in 1963, backed by a jazz quartet. For those who had thought the steel was confined to mere weeping, Emmons showed harmonic possibilities on a par with the broadest of keyboards. Top session man and producer Pete Drake took the instrument another step further when he employed a voice-box to make his steel “talk”—a move that resulted in the 1964 million-seller “Forever.”
Increasingly, steel musicians began to look past their own little world, intent on promoting the concept of pedal steel to outside listeners and players. Dobroist Shot Jackson and Buddy Emmons teamed up early on to design the Sho-Bud guitar, thereafter a perennial favorite. Others, like the tireless Jeff Newman, began to teach the steel by means of mail-order courses, with play-along cassettes.
The annual high point of this activity comes during Labor Day weekend every year, when pedal steel guitarists and fans meet in St. Louis to pay homage to their instrument.
With all this seeming versatility, it seems strange that the instrument has continued to be so resolutely identified with country music. Early country-oriented rock ‘n’ roll—Bill Haley and the Comets, Sid King and the Five Strings—did feature large helpings of steel, but the attraction of the easily-mastered orthodox guitar probably discouraged many would-be steelers. The instrument, with its pedal choices, knee levers, different tunings, and photo courtesy of Wikipediausual 10 strings per neck requires a degree of expertise and concentration that conflicts with rock's teenage impatience.
The country-rock boom of the late ’60s and early ’70s did produce some interesting hybrids, however. Rusty Young of Poco would slap effects devices galore on his stand-up steel, delighting audiences at both Fillmores, East and West. The Flying Burrito Brothers featured Sneaky Pete Kleinow, while the Byrds repaid the crossover by bringing Nashville regulars Lloyd Green and Jaydee Maness into the world of rock on their 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Clarence White, who played on the set, later devised a B-string bender for his Telecaster to simulate the steel's sound.
In the ’80s, the steel guitar found itself at a crossroads. Long identified with country music, it was in real danger of becoming an easy stereotype: Nevertheless, the ornate richness of the steel texture is still capable of sweetening any form of sound. That it might become an instrument used worldwide was shown when it appeared within the Afrikan Beat Band of Nigeria's King Sunny Ade in a neat trick of cultural transformation. It had been a long journey for the steel guitar from “Aloha Oe” to the backbone of country and beyond.
Watch: Everything You Wanted to Know About Pedal Steel [at youtube.com]
James Schmitt Rang: Administrateur
Nombre de messages : 6041 Age : 100 Localisation : St Beat - Pyrenées Date d'inscription : 04/07/2005
Sujet: Re: Interviews divers Ven 13 Mar - 15:44
Interviews diverses : http://surlaroute66.free.fr/Depart/interviews.htm
Henry Kaleialoha Allen Performance & Interview http://mauitoday.tv/index.php?option=com_seyret&task=videodirectlink&id=2235
Marian Hall ( DCD) la 1ere grande dame de la steel http://www.vintageguitar.com/features/artists/details.asp?AID=2243
Early Electric Guitarist George Barnes Mixes It Up by Kevin Whitehead
So who was the first electric guitarist on a Bob Dylan single? Well, duh, you can read a headline — not Mike Bloomfield, not Robbie Robertson, but George Barnes, in 1962. The record was Mixed-Up Confusion, the band skiffling like Bill Black’s combo behind Elvis. Producer John Hammond’s idle comment about cutting the tune, that they even tried it with a Dixieland band, sent collectors scurrying for a lost take. But Hammond may have meant that the ringers on the release version — Barnes, pianist Dick Wellstood, bassist Gene Ramey, drummer Herbie Lovelle — sometimes worked in Dixie bands.
Still, the players weren’t so easy to stereotype. George Barnes had been impossible to pigeonhole — except as one of the very first electric guitarists, on record a year and half before his fan Charlie Christian. He was the white, teenage lead picker on hardcore black blues records by Big Bill Broonzy and others. But for the first session under his own name, he turned to vintage Broadway bubblegum. Then he put together a colorful octet to rival Raymond Scott for picturesque oddity. And that only gets him to age 25.
Barnes was born near Chicago in 1921 as the Jazz Age was taking off. When he was about nine, he picked up a guitar lying around the house; his father gave him pointers. Before long, an older brother built him a prototype pickup and amp, so George could solo with his fledgling band. In a 1975 Guitar Player interview that everyone who writes about him consults, Barnes claimed that was in 1931 — awfully early. Reference books duly repeat it, but in that same Q&A he does date some other early activities three years too early. (That interview and a partial sessionography are here. )
George Barnes was a “lead,” not rhythm, player from the first. He’d turned pro at 12, he reckoned later, and was mentored by the great jazz and blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson. Barnes played on dozens of blues sides, starting at age 16, around when he crossed paths with fellow electric pioneer Les Paul, and started playing on and arranging for NBC radio. Country picker Merle Travis and jazz’s Herb Ellis took up electric after hearing him on the air; young Chet Atkins copied his solos. (In the ’50s he and Barnes would swap licks on a few of Chet’s Country All Stars sides.)
Barnes’s 1938 blues records were a revelation to me when I recently sought them out. (They’ve never been collected, but see below for a CD-length virtual anthology drawn from eMusic’s vaults). The first disc he plays on — Broonzy’s “Sweetheart Land” and “It’s a Low Down Dirty Shame” — is practically a template for Chicago blues bands, only lacking drums. There’s booting tenor sax, rolling 4/4 rhythm and walking bass; Barnes’s bent-note stinging guitar is heard on line-ending answerbacks and one-chorus solos. He’s a real improviser; the same day, the band also cut the latter tune backing singer Curtis Jones: similar arrangement, different solo. His improvisations are orderly, one phrase giving rise to the next (on, say, Washboard Sam’s “The Gal I Love”). Jazz Gillum’s band is cruder, but Barnes doesn’t dial back the sophistication on “Boar Hog Blues.”
This was a moment when many strains in American music flowed together, before spinning apart. You can hear Barnes’s Hawaiian/slide influence on Washboard Sam’s “It’s Too Late Now,” country lope and twangy tone on Sam’s “Down at the Old Village Store.”
After all that bluesing, for his first solo sides in 1940, George Barnes cut the 1919 frolic “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” He’d later downplay Django Reinhardt’s influence, but on the flipside, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me,” his quick-vibrato single-string runs over chunky strummed rhythm make it hard to believe the Parisian didn’t have some impact.
He regrouped after World War II with a woodwinds-heavy octet that made transcription discs: short pieces licensed to radio stations to fill a few minutes where needed. Here he made another turnabout: pop songs and originals, frothy backgrounds, and a more sophisticated sense of line and harmony. They’re as delightful as his blues records, in a completely different way. Raymond Scott’s influence is obvious from whimsical titles like “Private Life of a Vulture,” “Intricacies of a Threshing Machine” and “London Bridgework.” The exacting, intricate arrangements, cheery and episodic, owe a lot to Scott too. The Hindsight label’s one-disc Barnes sampler focuses on familiar tunes, bypassing many of the oddball treasures on the two-disc Complete Standard Transcriptions.
In the 1950s he went into the New York studios, cut a jillion sessions with everyone from Louis Armstrong to King Curtis to Homer & Jethro; later he’d boast of having the New York musicians union’s fattest contract file. In the ’60s he performed in duos with fellow guitarists Carl Kress and Bucky Pizzarelli. Then in the early ’70s he and the lyrical, juicy-toned cornetist Ruby Braff helped revive each other’s careers with a drumless quartet; Barnes shines on the live The Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet Plays Gershwin. They backed Tony Bennett on his 1973 The Rodgers and Hart Songbook; the following year they cut one of their own.
The guitarist’s last, live recording before dying at age 56 was 1977’s George Barnes Plays So Good. Can’t argue with the title. Yet the late-period stuff doesn’t have anything like the impact of his the pre-1950 sides. Time and the competition he’d helped inspire had caught up to a picker once way ahead of the pack.
A selection of 1938 George Barnes (in chronological order)
1) Big Bill Broonzy, “Sweetheart Land” 2) Big Bill Broonzy, “It’s a Low Down Dirty Shame” [both on 1937-1940 Part 2: Chicago 1937, 1938 CD B] 3) Curtis Jones, “"It’s a Low Down Dirty Shame" 4) Washboard Sam, “It’s Too Late Now” 5) Washboard Sam, “Down at the Old Village Store” 6) Washboard Sam, “The Gal I Love” [all on Washboard Sam Vol. 3 (1938)] 7) Jazz Gillum, “Just Like Jesse James” Cool Jazz Gillum, “Reefer Headed Woman” 9) Jazz Gillum, “Gillum’s Windy Blues” 10) Jazz Gillum, “New ‘Sail on, Little Girl’” 11) Jazz Gillum, “Boar Hog Blues” [all on: Jazz Gillum Vol. 1 1936-1938] 12) Louis Powell, "Mushmouth Blues" 13) Blind John Davis, “Jersey Cow Blues” 14) Merline Johnson, “Love Shows Weakness” 15) Merline Johnson, “Squeeze Me Tight” 16) Merline Johnson, “Jelly Bean Blues” 17) Merline Johnson, “My Man Is Gone” [all on The Yas Yas Girl (Merline Johnson) Vol. 1 1937-1938] 1Cool Big Bill Broonzy, “I’ll Do Anything for You” 19) Big Bill Broonzy, “Sad Pencil Blues” 20) Big Bill Broonzy, “New Shake-Em On Down” 21) Big Bill Broonzy, “Night Time Is the Right Time No. 2” [all on 1937-1940 Part 2: Chicago 1937, 1938 CD B] 22) Blind John Davis, “Got the Blues So Bad” 23) Merline Johnson, “Ol’ Man Mose” [explicit language advisory] 24) Merline Johnson, “Separation Blues” [both on The Yas Yas Girl (Merline Johnson) Vol. 1 1937-1938]
Guitar Player Interview (1975):
George Barnes Interview - Guitar Player Magazine February 1975 by Bob Yelin
The words "jazz guitarist" describe George Barnes - but he is also much more. His fantastic versatility has enabled him to play almost any kind of music, and has led to recording dates with such greats as Dinah Washington, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine, Johnny Mathis, Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. During the Sixties, Barnes formed the first full-time jazz guitar duo, with Carl Kress, and Barnes' guitar came into its own as a solo instrument.
When and where were you born?
I was born July 17, 1921 in a Chicago suburb. However, I was raised in Chicago. I come from a family of professional musicians. My father was a guitarist and taught me to play the guitar when I was 9.
Did your father's playing of the guitar make you want to take it up also?
No, not really. At age 6, I began to play the piano and I knew that was the instrument for me. But when the depression came, we lost our piano as well as our house. All that was left for me to play was a little Sears Roebuck Silvertone guitar with action about an inch high. I worked hard at it and when I was 12, I joined the union.
What kind of music were you playing then?
When I was 11, I heard some Bix Beiderbecke records featuring Joe Venuti. I knew then that I wanted to be a jazz musician.
Did any guitarist influence the way you played?
No, there were few guitarists then who soloed. I didn't want to play rhythm; I wanted to play melody. I heard many records by Django (Reinhardt), but I couldn't relate to his playing because he sounded foreign to me. The musicians who influenced my playing the most were the horn and reedmen I played with while I was growing up in Chicago. This was at the time that the Chicago sound in jazz was being formed and was strongly felt in the music world. I was very fortunate to be a part of it. My single greatest influence was a famous Chicago clarinetist, Jimmy Noone. He also greatly influenced Benny Goodman. I was playing with Jimmy Noone when I was 16. His playing gave me a strong direction. Another strong influence was Louis Armstrong.
Did anyone influence the way you played the blues?
When I was young, I hung around with Lonnie Johnson, and he taught me how to play the blues. He played the first 12-string guitar I ever heard. He used to tune it down a whole tone to make it easier to play. George Van Eps does the same thing with his 7-string guitar.
As a teenager, did you mainly sit in with groups or did you work gigs?
At 14, 1 formed my first quartet, the George Barnes Quartet. We did a lot of work. At 16, I made my first record under my group's own name. We recorded "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" and "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me," for Okeh records: Many guitar players who read Guitar Player magazine have written me that they have that record.
Didn't you start doing a lot of studio work after your first record?
Yes, at 17 I joined the NBC staff in Chicago. There, I became the youngest conductor and arranger they ever had. I stayed with them for nearly five years, until I got drafted in 1942.
Didn't you do a lot of recording dates in Chicago, besides radio work?
Good heavens, I did a ton of recording dates! In 1935, I started recording with the top black blues artists of that time. I made over one hundred blues records with fellows like Big Bill Broonzy, Blind John Davis, and a host of other bluesmen. I was the only white musician on these dates. Hughes Panassie, the French author of the jazz book, Le Jazz Hot, came out with a discography which included me as "the great Negro blues guitar player from Chicago." I did all kinds of recording dates. But I got even more involved with recordings when I moved to New York in 1951.
What made you leave Chicago?
I was working on the Dave Garroway show in Chicago, and he told me that television work was booming in New York and would pay better than the work I was doing. When I first arrived in New York, I immediately got a contract with Decca records. With them, I did just about everything: Conducting, arranging, vocal backgrounds, my own albums, and record dates. Probably the only thing I didn't do was sweep the floors!
Did you ever get a chance to leave the studios and play in jazz clubs?
The first gig I got when I arrived in New York was playing at the Embers opposite Tal Farlow, who I love dearly. Tal is my favorite guitarist to listen to. I used to call him the "Spider," because he has such long fingers. He amazes me when he solos in harmonics. I've always regretted his not staying active in clubs or on records.
Do you have any idea how many recording dates you have played on?
Between 1951 and now, I have recorded 23 albums under my own name. From 1953 to 1961, I recorded 61 albums with the Three Suns alone. From 1961 to the present, I have recorded with practically every bigname singing star from Frank Sinatra to Bing Crosby, Patti Page, and loads more. It would be very difficult to find a singing star I haven't recorded with. They tell me down at the union, that I have recorded more than any other person in their contract file. I don't know how many recording dates I've done, but one day I intend to add them up. I know the number is well into the thousands.
Why do you think there is such a great demand for your playing?
It is probably because I am totally involved with all aspects of music. Not only am I a guitarist, but an arranger, conductor, and recording engineer, with years of knowledge and experience behind me. I've also developed ways of accompanying artists that enhances and enriches their music. You have to know how a singer phrases so your accompaniment does not conflict. As an arranger, I have a whole different set of ears from someone who is just a guitarist. I have a better knowledge of what to play and what not to play.
You have been part of two wellknown guitar duos, one with Carl Kress and one with Bucky Pizzarelli. How did your first one, with Carl, come about?
Carl Kress and I met in 1951, on the Garry Moore show. I was seated in the audience and Carl was working the show. Garry introduced me to the audience and suggested that Carl and I play a duet. We got together, at a later time, and played on his show. But Carl and I had a hard time finding time to play because he was busy with CBS, and my time was locked into Decca. Finally, ten years later, in 1961, we decided to work together. We were the first guitar duo to play steadily. All the others, Carl Kress-Eddie Lang, Eddie Lang-Lonnie Johnson, and their work with Dick McDonough were only for record dates. Carl and I were together for five years, until his passing in 1966, right after we returned from a concert tour of Japan with Mitch Miller. We played concerts all over the world. Carl was my closest friend. We really loved each other. We hung out together all the time, whether it be playing chess, drinking, or going to hear other musicians. He was always a gentleman with a relaxed manner, and a lot of fun to be with. He was also a fantastic musician. His style of playing was totally unique. Playing rhythm was his forte. He used a special tuning to give his chords a full, rich sound. His 6th string was tuned to Bb the 5th to F, the 4th and 3rd had the regular tunings of D and G, the 2nd was tuned to A and the 1st to D. With this lower tuning, he could play more and fuller bass lines. However, this tuning was not very good for playing solo. He rarely soloed in single notes; instead, he soloed in chords. It was his unique tuning that brought about the development of the 7-string guitar. George Van Eps, who studied with Carl, was warned by his father not to study with him, because he used an unusual tuning. We made four albums together, one of which was a live recording we did at a town hall concert. I truly miss him.
How and when did you and Bucky [see GP, June '74] get together?
In 1969, Bucky came up to my studio to try out his new 7-string guitar. We did some experimental recordings with it and we knew, right away, that we had a good sound. He had a marvelous facility for playing that instrument. I think the credit should be given to him for the development of the accompanist style on the 7-string guitar. (Van Eps is the supreme master of solo style playing on the 7-string.) Bucky and I worked a heavy schedule together for three years. We made two albums. One, on the A&R label [Guitars Pure And Honest], was our own record, and we were part of a package of guitarists for a Town Hall concert on Columbia Records [The Guitar Album, KG 31045]. Bucky and I knew from the beginning that he wouldn't be satisfied to be my accompanist for the rest of his life. He is too good a musician for that. We split up when he went to do concerts in Europe with Benny Goodman. But we had a marvelous three years together.
You're currently co-leading the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet. How did you and cornetist Ruby Braff get together?
George Wein, the promoter for the Newport Jazz Festival, hired both of us to play there as part of an all-star band. Both Ruby and I were disenchanted with that playing format. Each person in that kind of band just solos briefly. Each brief solo is followed by another brief solo. It's an atmosphere where both Ruby and I feel cramped. So we decided that we'd form our own group and play our own music. We called George Wein, before the festival, and told him that we wanted to work together. "Don't give us any more money," we told him. "We'll hire our own men and put our group together." We've now been together for over a year, have played the major jazz festivals all over the world, and we've made several albums.
How do you and Wayne Wright, the rhythm guitarist in your group, manage not to get in each other's way when Ruby is soloing?
We have no drummer, the fourth piece being bassist, Mike Moore, so Wayne plays strict time. When Ruby plays, I only play accenting lines or chords to his statements. Wayne's a former student of mine. He's had years of meat experience; he worked with Peggy Lee for seven years, and on numerous broadway shows.
You've been quite involved with the development of better sound and range for the electric guitar. When did you start to play electric guitar?
In 1931, my older brother, who is an electronic genius, built me a pickup and an amplifier before they were even out on the market. He did this for me, because he knew I wanted to play solo lines which could be heard in a band. The first electric guitar came out the following year. National Dobro made them and one of those was my first real electric guitar. Nobody knows who had the first electric guitar; maybe I did. I knew, the first time I played one, that that instrument was going to take me through my career for the rest of my life.
For years, you've been playing a Guild arch-top guitar with no f-holes. How did the development of that guitar come about?
I designed that guitar back in 1961. When I first saw it, it was a piece of wood from Norway. My guitar is made from the finest woods. The pickups are suspended and the sound comes out of the body from the cut-out area of the top around the pickups. The guitar's sound works much the same way as a round-hole's, except my sound comes out of two enlarged triangular holes around the pickups. I knew that if I had a live top with suspended pickups, I'd get a better sound. I realized a long time ago that f-holes cause feedback. Both George Van Eps and I discovered that about the same time. We did a concert together in Aspen, Colorado and we both started laughing when we saw each other's guitar. He had put foam rubber in his f-holes to cut out the feedback, and I had taped mine over.
With Guild, you also developed the George Barnes guitar in F. What was the reason for that?
I made an album called Guitars Galore and I wanted the guitars to play the role of a big band. However, the guitar doesn't have the range for that. So I used the 6-string bass guitar to cover the baritone range, the regular guitar to cover the tenor saxophone range and developed the guitar in F to play the alto saxophone range. The guitar was tuned so if you played a C chord in the first position, it came out as an F barre chord in the first (fifth!) position of a regular - guitar. The instrument was tuned in the following way: the 6th string was A, the 5th D, the 4th G, the 3rd C, the 2nd E and the 1 st A. Because of the high tuning, you had to use light gauge strings. The guitar had twenty frets but the scale was shorter than the standard guitar.
Is it true that you only down-pick your single-string playing?
You get a better sound from the guitar by using only down-strokes. Your leverage just isn't as good when you up-pick. Therefore, I use as many downstrokes as possible. I developed a technique of quick picking, using only down-strokes. But sometimes, for very rapid phrasing, I have to use alternating up and down-strokes. I also hold the pick in an unusual manner-with my thumb, index, and middle finger. By picking this way, all I do to change the dynamics and volume is tighten or loosen my grip on the pick. I don't have to pick harder and my wrist remains loose.
With your vast experience in music, is there something you'd like to do that you haven't done yet in the music world?
I've often said that there aren't enough lifetimes for me to do all the musical things I want to do. I recorded some classical tunes in the Sixties. I'd like to do more of that. But, right now, I'm happier, musically, than at any other time in my life.
Why is that?
I'm doing exactly what I want to do. I'm not doing any commercial music, with people telling me how to play. I'm playing the tunes I like, the way I want to play them, and I'm performing with guys I love to work with. We don't listen to or copy anyone's work. We are totally doing our own thing. Also, we play concerts, which give us more bread in one night's work than if we performed in a club for three weeks. It's also beautiful to play concerts because people are more attentive to our music than in a club.
Do you have any advice about how to achieve success in the guitar world?
The best advice I can give is to work hard. Never settle for anything less than excellence. A musician should never just play for money alone. There are more rewards to music than money. Also, keep your musical ideas fresh by looking at each performance as a new experience.
Nombre de messages : 6041 Age : 100 Localisation : St Beat - Pyrenées Date d'inscription : 04/07/2005
Sujet: Re: Interviews divers Ven 12 Fév - 18:10
( Merle Haggard )
MEET THE STRANGERS
An extraordinary number of musicians have passed through the ranks of the Strangers through the years. Here we have attempted to list the players who actually toured with the band during the Capitol years as well as important session players. It is by no means complete, but rather a rough guide to the musicians who supported Merle Haggard from the beginning of his career until he left Capitol Records in 1976.
ROY NICHOLS (lead guitar, 1963–87)
One of the finest guitar players ever to walk the earth, Roy Ernest Nichols, was born in Chandler, Arizona, in 1932. After moving to Fresno, California, as a young boy, Nichols took up the guitar and by the age of 16 was proficient enough to play on a local radio show hosted by DJ Barney Lee, where Nichols’s prowess on the strings was heard by Fred Maddox, bass player and leader of the Maddox Brothers and Rose. Maddox offered the youngster a job and Nichols began what would be a lifelong career in music.
Nichols’s job with the Maddox Brothers and Rose didn’t last long (he was fired by mother Lula Maddox for sneaking out of his hotel room at night, a strict no-no in the Maddox family code of conduct). In his short stint with the band, however, he recorded some phenomenal solos that show his influences to range far beyond the country radio hits of the day. Many of his great live radio transcriptions are readily available on the Arhoolie label and well worth seeking out.
Nichols’s style was twangy yet jazzy, and he claimed Django Reinhardt as his major influence. He also was clearly influenced by Bob Wills’s bluesy jazz guitarist Junior Barnard, who played with Wills in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Wills was touring and living in California. It’s quite likely that Nichols absorbed quite a bit from seeing Barnard playing in person.
Nichols played with many local San Joaquin Valley acts, but his next major touring job was with Lefty Frizzell, who by the time Roy joined the band in 1954 was a huge star but already hitting a downward arc due to his extreme drinking problem. In fact, when a young Merle Haggard asked Nichols with stars in his eyes what it was like working for Lefty, Nichols famously replied, “Not worth a dung!” While this statement is undoubtedly true, Nichols was a huge Lefty fan and in the liner notes to the Frizzell’s 1969–76 studio years box set, Workin’ Man Blues (BCD 16749), you will read that Nichols was nearly inconsolable after Frizzell’s death in 1975.
Nichols found considerable work as a sideman and recorded a few sides with the Farmer Boys for Capitol Records in Hollywood. His flashy solo on the Farmer Boys’ 1955 recording of “Charming Betsy” is one of the fastest country guitar solos ever recorded, and in fact may equal or outdo anything that Jimmy Bryant ever recorded—a weighty achievement, since no one could touch Bryant at the time.
After his stint with Frizzell, Nichols joined the Cousin Herb Henson’s Trading Post television show in Bakersfield, where he remained lead guitarist until Henson died in 1963 of an aneurism. During that time Nichols rubbed shoulders and played with everyone from local Bakersfield stalwarts Buck and Bonnie Owens to Billy Mize and Cliff Crofford as well as nearly every artist who toured through Bakersfield and appeared on the show.
Nichols took other jobs to supplement his income, and in 1961 he began a long association with honky-tonk legend Wynn Stewart. Nichols performed with Stewart at his Nashville Nevada Club in Las Vegas for several years, where he famously asked the visiting Merle Haggard to get up and play a few songs on Stewart’s intermission (a chance meeting that resulted in Merle’s first break, playing bass with Wynn Stewart and using Stewart’s composition “Sing a Sad Song” as his first hit record).
Nichols would record and tour with quite a few acts in the early 1960s. Between 1961 and 1964 he recorded quite a few sides with Rose Maddox (many of which also featured future Stranger Norm Hamlet on steel guitar), including the entirety of her Big Bouquet of Roses LP, the Alone With You LP, and several single releases.
In 1961, possibly through the Maddox connection (Rose Maddox joined the Johnny Cash road show in 1961), Nichols toured with Johnny Cash and was the lead guitarist on Cash’s hit “Tennessee Flat-Top Box,” recorded at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. Nichols recorded many sessions (some with Merle Haggard on rhythm guitar!) for Bakersfield stalwart Tommy Collins between 1960 and 1964, also for Capitol Records. Collins’s sessions were literally a breeding ground for young Bakersfield talent, giving valuable early studio experience to Buck Owens, Lewis Talley, Fuzzy Owen, Nichols, and others.
Nichols also recorded with Wynn Stewart extensively between 1962 and 1965, though he does not appear on either of Stewart’s big hits, “Wishful Thinking” from 1961 (right before Nichols began recording with Stewart), and “It’s Such a Pretty World Today” from 1966 (right after Nichols left to tour with Haggard full time). Nonetheless, Nichols contributed some wonderful solos to many of Stewart’s records, such as “Donna on My Mind,” “Halfway in Love,” and “Take It or Leave It” (which can be found on the highly recommended Bear Family Wynn Stewart box set, BCD 15886).
Roy Nichols is famous for his use of the Fender Telecaster guitar, a guitar that he (as well as James Burton) used to create the trebly, biting “twang” that defines 1960s country. Roy also had a custom-made Mosrite doubleneck guitar with his name on it that he used quite a bit in the early 1960s. In fact, Haggard remembers that when he sat in with Wynn Stewart’s band for the first time at the Nashville Nevada Club in Las Vegas, Roy Nichols handed him his rather large and unwieldy Mosrite doubleneck to play—and Roy had taken the top neck off the guitar in an attempt to cut down the weight! As legend has it (and proof of Nichols’s eccentric character), Nichols got so disgusted with the doubleneck’s size and weight that he left it behind in a bus station. When the guitar surfaced many years later with a guitar dealer, who tried to return it, Nichols replied that he didn’t want it—that he had left it at the bus station for a reason!
Capitol Records recorded a live album in September 1963 at the Bakersfield Civic Auditorium in honor of the tenth anniversary of Cousin Herb Henson’s Trading Post, released under the inappropriate title Country Music Hootenanny (a title Capitol A&R man Ken Nelson fought against and lost). Nichols was the lead guitarist in the house band, appearing on tracks behind such acts as Glen Campbell, Roy Clark, Rose Maddox, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, and Merle Travis. The album also represents the only track ever released under Roy Nichols’s name, a virtuosic instrumental version of the old-timey standard “Silver Bell,” incorrectly listed on the cover as “Silver Bells.”
The Bakersfield Civic Auditorium show was memorable not only because of the album recorded that night, but also because it was where Ken Nelson first approached Merle Haggard about recording for Capitol Records. Merle turned Nelson down flat, declaring his loyalty to Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Talley of Tally Records, who had just started releasing Merle Haggard singles a short time earlier. But Nelson persevered, and within a year and a half Merle Haggard was recording for Capitol with Fuzzy Owen as his manager and Roy Nichols as his first call session guitar player. When Merle put together his road band in 1966, now known as the Strangers, Roy Nichols was the lead guitar player. It was a legendary association that would last for twenty-two years.
The partnership was not without its ups and downs, however. In the early stages of Merle’s career, Nichols took work with other, better-paying artists when Haggard’s bookings were down (which is why Phil Baugh played on “Swingin’ Doors”—Nichols was working a well-paying gig up in the Lake Tahoe area and couldn’t make the session). As time went on, Nichols’s copious alcohol and drug abuse got so bad that it couldn’t be ignored. In 1976 Nichols had a reaction to a mystery drug he took in Europe that was so severe, he essentially lost his ability to play the guitar and had to learn the instrument again from the ground up. Although Nichols did continue to play, he never fully recovered from this incident, which led to him leaving the Strangers in 1987.
Nichols retired from playing, with his poor health being a major factor. He did appear in the PBS documentary The Bakersfield Sound, playing guitar behind Fred and Rose Maddox, and he appeared live for one last star-studded night of legendary Bakersfield musicians at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood in 1992. In 1996 he suffered a major stroke and was confined to a wheelchair, and on July 3, 2001, he died—an event sadly unreported in most newspapers and the media, largely due to Chet Atkins’s death only days before.
RALPH MOONEY (steel guitar, 1963–67)
One of the most legendary steel guitar players of all time, Ralph Mooney, was born in 1928 in Duncan, Oklahoma, but moved to California as a teenager in the 1940s. He began playing steel guitar after hearing Leon McAuliffe of Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys. Based around Los Angeles in the 1950s, Mooney had an easily recognizable bent-single-note style on the pedal steel that made him a very in-demand player. He became the in-house steel guitarist for Capitol Records, where he cut a staggering array of sessions.
Wynn brought Ralph Mooney to that first Capitol session to augment Nelson’s session men. In an interview with Colin Escott, Mooney remembered: “Ken Nelson just about taught me how to play on sessions. I had been recording with Skeets [McDonald], but Ken was like a conductor in the control room. He’d been a professional musician, and he’d tell me when to bring it up and bring it down. And it was Wynn who really invented my sound on steel guitar. He wanted a different sound. I was using the [pedal steel guitar] by then, and we were doing a Cajun number. I was trying different things, then I hit that rolling sound, and he said, ‘That’s it! Stick with that!’”
In 1955 Mooney wrote the hit “Crazy Arms,” which became a sizable hit for both Ray Price and Jerry Lee Lewis. His pedal steel began to be heard on records by Wanda Jackson, Skeets McDonald, Wynn Stewart, Rose Maddox, the Collins Kids, and especially Buck Owens; his style on Buck’s early hits became part of the signature Buck Owens sound. Mooney’s association with Haggard began in 1963, when he played on the “Sing a Sad Song” session for Tally Records, which was essentially the Wynn Stewart Nashville Nevada Club house band backing Haggard. Mooney then played on all of Merle’s early hits, including “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” “Swingin’ Doors,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and many other tracks in the 1965–67 period.
Ralph Mooney’s tenure as a full-time member of the Strangers was short-lived, however. The band really only assembled and began touring in 1966, and by 1967 Mooney was gone after an incident where he tried to steal the bus and drive it home in the middle of a cross-country tour. Mooney was sent home, Fuzzy Owen (himself a more-than-competent steel guitarist) finished the tour, and the search was on for a permanent replacement.
Mooney released an album with James Burton, Corn Pickin’ and Slick Slidin’, for Capitol Records in 1968. He found a permanent job with the Waylon Jennings organization in 1970 and stayed until his semiretirement in 1992. Today “Moon” lives in rural Texas and steps out occasionally to play and record.
NORM HAMLET (steel guitar, 1967–present)
Norm Hamlet hails from Farmersville, California, a small town off Highway 99 between Bakersfield and Fresno. After seeing Roy Acuff with “Bashful” Brother Oswald (on Dobro) at a fair appearance, Hamlet became interested in what was then known as Hawaiian-style guitar. Eventually Hamlet got a Rickenbacker electric steel guitar and began playing in local informal country bands. When he found out that neighboring Visalia actually had a school-sponsored country music band, he transferred there and made learning steel guitar a top priority. The school band (which also had guitarist Gene Breeden on guitar and future Capitol singing star Jean Shepard) backed up Capitol recording artist Skeets McDonald (see Bear Family box set BCD 15937) on a tour of the Pacific Northwest, and the music bug was firmly planted.
Highly influenced by western swing music, the high-school-aged Hamlet would make frequent trips to Fresno to see Billy Jack Wills’s band, with Vance Terry on steel and Tiny Moore on electric mandolin. Both players used custom-made, top-of-the-line instruments made by Paul Bigsby in Los Angeles, and when Terry informed Hamlet that the waiting list for a Bigsby steel guitar was a year long, Hamlet put a down payment on his own Bigsby steel the following week. Originally Hamlet’s Bigsby steel was a non-pedal model, but after Bud Isaacs’s pedal work on Webb Pierce’s “Slowly” changed the way the instrument was played, Hamlet returned the instrument to Bigsby to be retrofitted with pedals.
After stints with Billy (aka “Hill-Billy”) Barton and a few other local acts, Hamlet got his first taste of the big time as a session player with the Farmer Boys, who hailed from his hometown of Farmersville. The Farmer Boys were cutting great hillbilly and novelty records for Capitol down in Hollywood, and Hamlet accompanied them to their last session for Capitol in February 1957, which resulted in the phenomenal “Flash, Crash and Thunder” / “Someone To Love” single. Hamlet’s solo in the former was an early showcase of the new pedal steel technology and a strong forerunner of the new Bakersfield sound, dominated by the pedal steel.
Hamlet was playing locally around the Visalia-Farmersville area with a group called the Desert Stars, fronted by Gene Breeden, a talented guitarist that Norm had known since the Visalia high school band days. The group cut a single for Crest Records under the Desert Stars name, “Ridin’ the Frets” / “What I Like Most Of All,” the former a great guitar and steel instrumental in the style of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant.
Hamlet’s next trip into the recording studio was with Rose Maddox, who had recently signed to Capitol Records following the breakup of the Maddox Brothers and Rose act. Hamlet recorded the entirety of the Big Bouquet of Roses LP along with the great “Down Down Down” single and several other tracks released only on 45s. These sessions are also significant because of the guitarist who sat next to Hamlet in the studio—none other than Roy Nichols, who would play a big role in Hamlet’s career a few years later, when Haggard’s Strangers needed a full-time dependable replacement for the departed Ralph Mooney. While this marked the first time the two had recorded together, they had actually known each other since the Farmer Boys days, when Nichols had played on some of their earlier recordings.
Hamlet spent the early 1960s working for Dave Stogner, a popular western swing fiddle player who had a television show in Fresno and then Bakersfield. The job was so lucrative, in fact, that when Merle Haggard first approached Hamlet about joining the Strangers, Hamlet turned down the job because Haggard wasn’t paying well enough or playing often enough to convince him to quit Stogner’s band.
By 1967, when Ralph Mooney left the Strangers (following the famous incident where Mooney tried to drive the bus home one night in the middle of a tour), Haggard had established himself enough to convince Hamlet to join up. Hamlet joined the Strangers in fall 1967, and his first recording session with Haggard was the huge hit “Sing Me Back Home.” Hamlet played on every session and every hit record after that date, up until the time of this writing, which makes him the longest-running Stranger and, next to Fuzzy Owen, the person longest associated with Haggard’s organization.
“FUZZY” OWEN (steel guitar, various times 1962–66)
Charles “Fuzzy” Owen was and is one of the key players in the Bakersfield music scene, having made the first Bakersfield-area record in 1952 (the original version of “Dear John” by Fuzzy and Bonnie Owens on the Mar-Vel label), played steel guitar and bass on numerous country recordings, including Ferlin Husky and Tommy Collins’s early hits, co-owned the Tally label and recording studio, and of course served as Merle Haggard’s manager from the beginning of his career to the present.
“Fuzzy” was also a well-regarded steel guitar player and on several occasions played steel guitar for Merle Haggard. He was the steel guitar player on Merle’s first recordings for Tally in 1962 and 1963 and then filled in at various times, most famously after Ralph Mooney’s dismissal from the Strangers in 1966, until Norm Hamlet established the permanent steel guitar position in the band in 1967.
PHIL BAUGH (guitar, 1966)
Phil Baugh was never a full-time member of the Strangers but is still an important footnote. Merle’s first recording session at the Capitol Tower in April 1965 featured both him and Roy Nichols. Later, Baugh recorded with Haggard on the “Swingin’ Doors” session in 1966, playing a signature solo that is still copied note-for-note today.
Baugh, a legendary guitarist, hailed from Northern California. In the late 1950s he moved to the Los Angeles area, where he played guitar for just about every country act around. He had a hit in 1965 with “Country Guitar,” which showed his prowess on practically every style of country guitar picking. When Roy Nichols took a job in Lake Tahoe in 1966, he recommended Haggard use Baugh, with “Swingin’ Doors” being the result.
Baugh also recorded quite a bit with Bonnie Owens, Rose Maddox, and others before moving to Nashville and becoming an oft-used session man in the 1970s and 1980s.
JAMES BURTON (guitar, 1966–69)
James Burton was never a full-time member of the Strangers, but his role as session guitar player for Merle Haggard is so important that he must be included on this list. Burton hailed from Shreveport, Louisiana, where he was a teenage electric guitar prodigy. He played on his first hit, “Suzy Q” by Dale Hawkins, when he was only 15 years old. From there he played on the Louisiana Hayride behind a number of acts, eventually joining Bob Luman’s band when they moved to Los Angeles. Luman was signed to Imperial Records, where Ricky Nelson had also recently been signed, and when Nelson heard Luman’s band rehearsing at the offices, he stole them away, forming a core band that would record and tour until the mid-1960s.
James Burton’s solos on the Ricky Nelson records were so influential that when he left Nelson’s employment, he became a very in-demand session player around Hollywood as well as appearing on the Shindig television show every week as a member of the house band, the Shindogs. He became somewhat of a first-call session guitarist at the Capitol Tower, playing on sessions by just about every Capitol recording artist in the mid- to late 1960s.
Burton recalls hearing Haggard’s 1963 single “Sing a Sad Song” while doing some sidework for Fabor Robinson of Fabor Records, and was knocked out by his voice. Haggard became aware of Burton’s playing not only with Ricky Nelson, but also on records by Buck Owens and others. It was because of a Ricky Nelson record called “You Just Can’t Quit” that Burton was eventually called in to play on Haggard’s sessions beginning in June 1966 (the first session produced “The Bottle Let Me Down”). At first Burton was brought in because Roy Nichols was unavailable (Nichols had temporarily left Haggard’s band to take a good-paying gig up in Lake Tahoe), but even after Nichols joined Haggard’s touring band, Burton continued to play on nearly all of Haggard’s sessions until he left to join Elvis Presley’s band in 1969.
A great deal of debate has ensued over the years over who played what, but the styles of Burton and Nichols are different enough that trained ears can distinguish them. Burton played most of the lead guitar parts on the early hits, but not all of them, for example “Mama Tried,” which features Burton on Dobro fingerpicked rhythm and Roy Nichols on the electric lead. Nichols, for his part, didn’t mind the secondary role, learning to reproduce Burton’s licks in concert.
Burton’s last Capitol session with Merle was in December 1969, as he had been offered the job of lead guitar player with Elvis Presley. Burton played on several of Merle’s MCA sessions after Presley’s death in the late 1970s and has continued to be an in-demand session guitarist in Nashville and Los Angeles, touring with John Denver and Jerry Lee Lewis among many others.
James Burton told this author in an interview for this box set that his playing with Haggard was some of his favorite work.
GLEN CAMPBELL (guitar, banjo, vocals, 1966–6Cool
Glen Campbell hailed from Arkansas, but his teen-idol good looks and virtuoso guitar abilities brought him to Hollywood in the early 1960s, where he made an unsuccessful string of teen pop singles while earning his bread and butter as a session guitar player.
Campbell was doing a lot of work for Ken Nelson at the Capitol Tower (including sessions for the Beach Boys, with whom Campbell toured with for a time after Brian Wilson’s nervous breakdown) and was brought in for Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down” session in June 1966. Campbell’s vocals blended so well with those of Haggard and Bonnie Owens that he was invited for nearly every session from then until February 1968, playing rhythm guitar and singing harmony vocals.
Campbell played banjo on “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde.” Haggard thought the song called for banjo, and someone ran down the street from the Capitol Tower to a music store to obtain a banjo, which Campbell learned quickly enough to record on the session. Merle thought enough of Campbell’s talent to include Campbell’s Capitol single “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” inside the promo mailings of his “Today I Started Loving You Again” release. Soon Campbell was a massive success in his own right, and his schedule was too busy to include sessions with Haggard.
BOBBY WAYNE (guitar, 1970–73)
Born Robert Wayne Edrington in Oklahoma, Bobby Wayne moved to California in 1947, where he established what would become a long history in California country music. He played with various groups starting in the late 1950s, then met Dennis Hromek, with whom he started a group called the Smith Brothers, based out of the Modesto area, in the early 1960s. Bobby and Dennis Hromek, in the minds of many historians, have more or less been thought of as a pair, as they traveled together from group to group.
Around 1965 Freddie Hart offered the Smith Brothers a road gig as his band the Heartbeats. They toured with Hart until the bookings dwindled, then joined Wynn Stewart in 1966, becoming members of his road band the Tourists. The first session Bobby Wayne recorded with Stewart resulted in the smash hit “It’s Such a Pretty World Today,” the biggest of his career. Bobby would record many sessions with Stewart in 1966 and 1967 and even recorded an unreleased instrumental called “Spittin’ Guitar,” showing his lead guitar prowess, which was eventually released on Bear Family’s Wynn Stewart box set. The Tourists eventually wound up joining Buck Owens’s roadshow and recording with Dick Curless, without Wynn. When that fizzled out, the pair of Bobby Wayne and Dennis Hromek split up for a while, with Bobby forming Bobby T. Adams and the Common People at the Nashville Nevada Club in Las Vegas, and Hromek joining the Palomino house band, Red Rhodes and the Detours, in North Hollywood.
Bobby eventually moved back to Los Angeles and joined the Palomino house band, where he recorded on the Red Rhodes and the Detours Live at the Palomino LP for Happy Tiger records. The entire band, except Bobby, quit the Palomino to tour behind the record. Bobby re-formed the house band with Tony Booth and remained there for a short while until Dennis Hromek and Biff Adams, who were both members of the Palomino house band that were now playing with Merle Haggard and the Strangers, got Bobby to join the Strangers in early 1970.
Bobby remained a solid core member of the Strangers for three years and played on many hits, including “Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man),” “Carolyn,” “Grandma Harp,” “If We Make It Through December,” and the album The Fightin’ Side Of Me—“Live” in Philadelphia.
His contributions to the final four Strangers solo albums were many, in addition to singing and writing several songs (including “Harold’s Super Service,” “Just Sit Down and Cry,” “Repeat Performance,” and “Sing a Happy Song”). Capitol Records had enough faith in Bobby to release a few of these vocals on singles bearing his own name. The pair of Bobby Wayne and Dennis Hromek became known for some legendarily wild behavior, and as a result they were released from the Strangers in 1973, breaking up what is considered by many to be one of the classic incarnations of the group.
LEWIS TALLEY (rhythm guitar, 1962–69)
Lewis “Louie” Talley was never a member of the Strangers officially, but he was on Merle Haggard’s payroll from the beginning of his career until his death, in a capacity that even Merle himself couldn’t exactly define. Suffice to say that everyone liked having Louie around.
Talley was a hugely influential figure in the early years of the Bakersfield country music scene. He was a singer with an uncanny resemblance both visually and vocally to Hank Williams, and he had a great deal of local success as a performer on the Cousin Herb Henson Trading Post television show. He also started the Tally Records label in Bakersfield, which released numerous local discs in both the country and rockabilly styles.
Talley released a large number of records under his own name, including an insanely rare live album called Lewis Talley and the Tally-Whackers on the Tally label sometime in the mid-1960s.
Known by all as a lovable drunk, Talley was part of the Haggard organization from the outset (Merle’s first three singles were on the Tally label), and when the money began coming in, Merle kept him on the payroll for decades. During this period, from the start of Merle’s career until the new Strangers lineup was unveiled in 1970 featuring Bobby Wayne on rhythm guitar, Talley was a constant background rhythm guitarist on Merle’s records—nearly every single session from his first, “Skid Row,” until “Workin’ Man Blues” in 1969.
BILLY MIZE, “RED” SIMPSON, and TOMMY COLLINS (rhythm guitar, 1964–69)
Like Lewis Talley, these venerable Bakersfield stalwarts were called in to play acoustic rhythm guitar on numerous Merle Haggard sessions over the years. None were ever proper members of the Strangers, but they were all close friends and part of the Bakersfield scene’s inner circle.
Billy Mize was a singer and steel guitar player who also occasionally played “regular” guitar. He was the steel guitar player on the Cousin Herb Henson television show until he left to play steel guitar on the Town Hall Party television show in Los Angeles following Marian Hall’s departure. Mize released numerous records on his own, from the wacky “Planet Named Desire” rockabilly obscurity to a number of classic honky-tonk numbers on Decca in the 1950s, followed by a string of successful albums on Imperial in the 1960s and 1970s. Mize wrote the honky-tonk classic “It All Depends (On Who Will Buy the Wine),” which was covered by Jerry Lee Lewis and, later, Merle Haggard.
Mize appeared on a number of Haggard sessions during the 1960s as a background acoustic rhythm guitarist.
Joe “Red” Simpson was a Bakersfield singer and songwriter who goes back to the early 1950s. He wrote many songs covered by Bakersfield artists, including Merle and Buck Owens. Most famously, he and Merle cowrote “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go” for Merle, and “Sam’s Place” for Buck Owens. Later in the 1960s and early 1970s Simpson recorded a string of truckin’ albums for Capitol and had a top 10 hit with “I’m a Truck.”
Simpson played quite a lot of sessions for Merle Haggard on background acoustic guitar, most importantly on “Mama Tried,” and he was the uncredited rhythm guitarist on the “Live” in Muskogee album.
Leonard Sipes, aka “Tommy Collins,” has a long and storied history in Bakersfield country music, completely documented in the Bear Family box set Leonard (BCD 15577). Collins was one of the first to befriend the fresh-out-of-prison Merle Haggard and eventually wrote a ton of songs for him, including “Sam Hill,” “Carolyn,” and “Roots of My Raising.” Haggard had a hit in 1981with a song about Collins, simply called “Leonard.”
In the early years of his career, Merle Haggard played acoustic rhythm guitar on several Tommy Collins sessions. Collins returned the favor for Merle and appeared on many sessions as a background rhythm guitarist.
AL BRUNO (guitar, 1970–71)
Born Al Bruneau in Canada, Al Bruno was a young guitar whiz kid who joined Conway Twitty’s road band in 1959. After moving to the United States, he toured with many name pop and soul acts before moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. He became one of the Capitol first-call guitarists, along with James Burton, and appeared on many sessions for Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and others.
Although he was never a full time member of the touring Strangers, Bruno did a lot of work with Haggard, both in the studio and in concert. Bruno played on some Haggard vocal sessions, but his chief contribution was as a player on the Strangers’ solo records, most notably “Stumbling,” where Haggard calls out Bruno’s name in the introduction.
JODY PAYNE (guitar, 1971)
Alabama-born Jody Payne toured with the Strangers in 1971, and even though it was a short association, Payne is featured on the Land of Many Churches album. Payne came up through the ranks of Wynn Stewart’s Tourists, following the lead of Dennis Hromek and Bobby Wayne, before he joined the Strangers. He is perhaps best known as the lead guitarist for Willie Nelson, a job that he took shortly after leaving Haggard’s band and has held ever since.
MARCIA NICHOLS (guitar, 1972–73)
The Marcia Nichols story has been described as a good story with a bad ending. Marcia Lynne Ashcraft was a talented young guitarist who married Roy Nichols and became a member of the Strangers in fall 1972. Although she mostly played rhythm guitar, she has been described as a gifted lead guitarist as well. Her time with the Strangers was brief. Having Marcia tour with the band turned out to be a disaster, as Marcia and Roy were always fighting. Eventually Merle had to tell Marcia that “One of you is leaving, and it won’t be Roy!”
She appears on the Strangers’ solo album Totally Instrumental—With One Exception, where she is touted as the first female Stranger (despite the fact that “Peaches” Price had played drums for Haggard in the early years). She also wrote “Come Into My Arms” for Merle, which appeared on the If We Make It Through December album.
After leaving the Strangers, Marcia continued playing in country bands around Bakersfield. She died in 1976 in a fatal car accident, driving home drunk after a gig.
ELDON SHAMBLIN (guitar, 1970 and intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s)
Eldon Shamblin was of course the legendary long-term guitar player for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Merle has often called him “the best rhythm guitar player in the world.” Merle reunited Shamblin with the rest of the Playboys when he recorded his Bob Wills tribute album in 1970. Shamblin would tour and record with Haggard intermittently over the next two decades. His loping style of rhythm guitar can best be heard on the 1964 album The Roots of My Raising and the remake of “Cherokee Maiden” that became a number-one single that same year.
RONNIE RENO (guitar, mandolin, vocals, 1973–82)
Ronnie Reno is the son of the legendary Don Reno, of Reno and Smiley bluegrass fame. Ronnie had recording experience dating back to the 1950s, when at age 10 he was a member of the Reno and Smiley act. After a decade with Reno and Smiley, he joined the Osborne Brothers for a five-year stint, where he and the Osbornes perfected the harmonies for which they are now famous. Ronnie’s vocal harmonies caught Merle’s ear, and he was invited to join the Haggard roadshow as an opening act. Eventually Ronnie proved so popular that he was invited to join the Strangers, where he remained a solid member for nine years. Reno’s soaring vocals were his trademark, but he also played guitar, mandolin, and other stringed instruments.
Ronnie played on many hit sessions, including “Movin’ On,” “Always Wanting You,” “Roots of My Raisin’.” He also wrote songs for Merle, including “Union Station,” cowrote “After Loving You,” and was featured as a guest vocalist on “Travelin’” on Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album.
Reno produced Haggard’s fall 2007 bluegrass album for Del McCoury’s label and has a popular television show on the RFD network called Reno’s Bluegrass Hour.
HOLLIS DE LAUGHTER aka RED LANE (guitar, 1970, 1972, 1973)
De Laughter, another auxiliary session rhythm guitar man, appeared on quite a few sessions, including “No Reason to Quit,” “Jesus Take a Hold,” “Shelly’s Winter Love,” and “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad).” He also wrote (under the name Red Lane) the songs “One Row at a Time” and “Somewhere to Come When It Rains.”
DAVE KIRBY (guitar, 1973–76)
Dave Kirby played rhythm guitar on a large number of sessions between 1973 and 1976, including “Things Aren’t Funny Anymore,” “Kentucky Gambler,” “I’ve Got a Darlin’ (For a Wife),” “A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today,” and “What Have You Got Planned Tonight, Diana?” Kirby also played into the Haggard history books when he married Merle’s third wife, Leona Williams, after her divorce from Merle.
JERRY WARD (aka HOWARD LOWE) (bass, 1965–69)
Little is known about Jerry Ward, the first official bass player of the Strangers, except that his real name was Howard Lowe—and that Merle refers to him as “that dang crazy guy!” Nonetheless, Ward was the bassist on nearly all the sessions between December 1965 and February 1969, except for a period when Haggard’s childhood friend Leon Copeland filled in. Ward was the bassist on the first instrumental Strangers LP, and he wrote many songs, including “Mary’s Mine” for Merle and “Best Part of Me” and “Don’t Tell Me” for Bonnie Owens. That last was covered instrumentally by the Strangers.
BOB MORRIS (bass, 1965, 1968)
Robert “Bobby” Morris was well-known around Bakersfield, and he played with a lot of different groups, most notably Buck Owens’s Buckaroos—in fact, he is the writer of Buck’s theme song, “Buckaroo.” While never a member of the touring group, he wrote a ton of songs and played bass and guitar for both Buck and the instrumental Buckaroos albums. He played bass on some of the earliest Merle Haggard sessions for Capitol in 1965, then reappeared in 1968 for several sessions, including the hit “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am.” He also wrote songs that Haggard recorded (“If You See My Baby,” “What’s Wrong with Stayin’ Home”), and cowrote “Don’t Take Advantage of Me” with Bonnie Owens.
Morris wrote several other hits, including “Made in Japan” for Buck and “It Takes a Lot of Money” for Warner Mack, and later went on to run Buck Owens’s music publishing company.
LEON COPELAND (bass, 1967, 1969)
Leon Chase Copeland was a childhood friend of Merle Haggard and briefly a member of the Strangers, but he recorded on quite a few sessions in 1967 and again in 1969. Copeland wrote at least one song recorded by Haggard, “I’m Free,” and, in addition to playing on several of Bonnie’s sessions, wrote “Lead Me On” for her. The song was as close as Bonnie Owens ever came to a national hit, and it wound up being an oft-covered hit for other artists, including Loretta Lynn with Conway Twitty, who took it to the top of the charts in 1971.
CHUCK BERGHOFER (bass, 1969)
Charles “Chuck” Berghofer was a session bass player who spent several years in the mid-1960s touring and recording with the Everly Brothers. It was through this association that he met James Burton, who recommended him for sessions with Merle Haggard in 1969. Berghofer played on several hit sessions, including “Workin’ Man Blues,” “If I Had Left It Up to You,” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
GENE PRICE (bass, 1969, guitar, 1970)
Gene Price was another short-lived member of the Strangers, but he appeared on the Okie from Muskogee live album, where he sang “In the Arms of Love.” When Dennis Hromek was brought in on bass in late 1969, Price moved to rhythm guitar for a short while before being replaced by Bobby Wayne. Gene is credited with cowriting “Huntsville” with Buck Owens, but oddly enough the same song is credited to Merle Haggard and Red Simpson in other discographies.
DENNIS HROMEK (bass, 1970–73)
Dennis Hromek was the mainstay bass player for three solid years with the Strangers, where he played on a multitude of hits and the last four Strangers solo albums. Often paired by historians with guitarist Bobby Wayne, the two had a long and storied history together, starting with their first combo the Smith Brothers, based out of Modesto in the early 1960s.
Hromek and Bobby Wayne joined Freddie Hart’s Heartbeats in 1965 and toured with them until the bookings dwindled, at which point they were drafted by Wynn Stewart and his Tourists in 1966. The first session that Hromek and Wayne played on with Wynn Stewart was the biggest hit of his career, “It’s Such a Pretty World Today.” The pair continued with Stewart for two years, cutting many records with him, eventually touring as the Tourists without Wynn Stewart, as part of Buck Owens’s roadshow, until that fizzled out sometime around 1968.
The pair split up for a while, but Hromek and Wayne eventually wound up in the Palomino Club house band, Red Rhodes and the Detours, based in North Hollywood. During this time Hromek cut a budget album under his own name, It’s Such a Pretty World Today and Other Country Favorites, for Custom Records, and played bass on the classic live LP Red Rhodes and the Detours Live at the Palomino for Happy Tiger Records.
After leaving the Palomino house gig, Hromek joined the Strangers, with Bobby Wayne following soon after. Hromek would go on to sing several songs on the Strangers’ solo albums as well as write and cowrite several songs for Haggard, including “Sing a Happy Song” and “Day Happy.” Hromek played bass on many of Haggard’s hits, including “Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man),” “Carolyn,” “Grandma Harp,” and “If We Make It Through December” as well as the album The Fightin’ Side of Me—“Live” in Philadelphia.
Eventually Hromek and Bobby Wayne’s wild lifestyle caught up with them, and after a series of wild incidents they were let go from the Strangers organization in 1973, breaking up what many consider to be one of the classic incarnations of the Strangers.
JOHNNY MEEKS (bass, 1973–74)
Johnny Meeks hailed from South Carolina, where he was a young guitar and steel guitar prodigy. He was asked to join Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps in 1957 and had the thankless job of replacing guitar virtuoso Cliff Gallup, but he admirably held his own, bringing a new stinging and trebly sound to Vincent’s recordings that is instantly recognizable. Meeks stayed with Vincent for less than two years, but that stint is still his biggest claim to fame.
After leaving Vincent’s band, Meeks played with the Champs, of “Tequila” fame. Eventually he fell into the country music scene around Los Angeles, where he played with the Palomino house band, Red Rhodes and the Detours, in the late 1960s. It was from this Palomino house band that Haggard drew sidemen Dennis Hromek, Bobby Wayne, and Biff Adam. Meeks was asked to join the Strangers following Dennis Hromek and Bobby Wayne’s sudden departure from the band in 1973, and he stayed with the organization for a little more than a year. Meeks played on quite a few Haggard sessions around this time, including the hit “Movin’ On.”
Johnny Meeks recently moved back to South Carolina and still plays country music on a regular basis. He also occasionally plays Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps reunion shows.
JAMES TITTLE (bass, 1974–76)
Ronnie Reno brought James “Jimmy’” Tittle to the Strangers, introducing him to Merle at his home in Bakersfield. Tittle appeared on quite a few of the later Capitol records, including “Always Wanting You,” “The Roots of My Raising,” “Cherokee Maiden,” “Here Comes the Freedom Train.”
HELEN “PEACHES” PRICE (drums, 1963–66)
“Peaches” Price was a well-respected female drummer in the Los Angeles area who began playing in the mid-1950s with various local acts. She is probably best remembered as the drummer for Wynn Stewart, playing on nearly every session he did from 1961 to 1965, and again in 1968, part of the classic lineup of the band that included Ralph Mooney on steel guitar, Roy Nichols on lead guitar, Bobby Austin on bass, and Gordon Terry on fiddle.
In 1963, as a member of Wynn Stewart’s band, she played drums on one of Merle Haggard’s earliest sessions for Tally Records. She then played on every Haggard session for the next two years, which included the hits “Sing a Sad Song,” “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” and “Swingin’ Doors.” When Roy Nichols’s wife, Marcia, joined the Strangers in 1972, she was billed as “the first female Stranger,” sadly glossing over Peaches’s contribution to the world of country drumming.
JIM GORDON (drums, 1966, 1969)
Jim Gordon was a well-known Hollywood studio musician who spent several years recording and touring with the Everly Brothers in the mid-1960s. It was through the association with the Everlys that session guitarist James Burton came to know Gordon, so when Haggard needed a session drummer following the departure of “Peaches” Price, Gordon filled in until the Strangers found a regular drummer in Eddie Burris. He returned for a pair of sessions in 1969. Gordon played on such hits as “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” and “Workin’ Man Blues.”
EDDIE BURRIS (drums, 1967–69)
Roy “Eddie” Burris was the road drummer for the Strangers for two years and recorded many sessions with Merle as well as the first instrumental Strangers album. He appeared on “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” “Mama Tried,” and of course “Okie from Muskogee.”
“Okie from Muskogee” would be Eddie Burris’s dubious claim to fame. He received 25 percent of the song for coming up with the “roman sandals” line in the song as Merle was struggling to finish it on the tour bus. Burris immediately sold his 25 percent of the song, twice, to two different people, for $2500 each, causing a legal action. The two different “owners” of his percentage ended up taking half of 25 percent each, and both have had comfortable lives since then thanks to Burris’s short-sighted decision. Eddie Burris was the drummer on the Okie from Muskogee—Recorded “Live” in Muskogee, Oklahoma album, which was recorded shortly before he left the band in late 1969.
TOMMY ASH (drums, 1969)
Tommy Ash was a well-known drummer around Bakersfield who played on a lot of Capitol recording sessions. He joined the Strangers as the road drummer for a very short time in late 1969. During his short tenure with the band he appeared on two recording sessions, but no hits.
RONNIE TUTT (drums, 1969)
Ronnie Tutt was another drummer brought in by James Burton to fill a recording date. He played on only one session, resulting in the hit “If I Had Left It Up to You.” Tutt’s inclusion in the Haggard legacy is worth mentioning, if only because he and James Burton later became core members of Elvis Presley’s band.
BIFF ADAM (drums, 1970–present)
Biff Adam, the namesake of the instrumental “Biff Bam Boom,” was another member of the Strangers who came up through the ranks of the house band (Red Rhodes and the Detours) at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. Along with fellow Palomino Club expatriates Dennis Hromek and Bobby Wayne, Biff Adam was the bedrock for the next classic lineup of the Strangers—and the next, and the next after that. In fact, after all the turmoil surrounding the Haggard organization, Biff Adam is still the man on the drums nearly 40 years later.
Biff joined the band just in time to record the second Strangers solo LP, where he contributed his classic drum solo number “Biff Bam Boom.” He was the drummer on “If We Make It Through December,” “Movin’ On,” “Carolyn,” “Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man),” “Grandma Harp,” and several dozen other number-one hit records, continuing to the present day.
GEORGE FRENCH JR. (piano, 1963–70)
George French Jr. was a well-known piano player around Bakersfield. He was an early member of Buck Owens’s Buckaroos and appeared on some of Buck’s earliest Capitol Records. Merle Haggard was introduced to French when he was playing for Wynn Stewart at the Nashville Nevada Club in Las Vegas in the early 1960s. Eventually the gig ended and the entire band, including French on piano, joined Merle Haggard in the studio and on the road. French recorded a staggering number of sessions in the six years he was in the Strangers, all the early hits, from “Sing Me a Sad Song” and “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” up to “Mama Tried” and “Silver Wings.” He was on the first Strangers solo LP but was gone by the time Haggard made the Okie from Muskogee—Recorded “Live” in Muskogee, Oklahoma album in late 1969. He came back for most of 1970, including the Bob Wills tribute album and the third Strangers solo LP, Getting to Know . . . The Strangers. By November 1970 he had left the group.
GLEN D. HARDIN (piano, 1969–70)
Hardin, another consummate session man around Los Angeles, had played in the post–Buddy Holly Crickets lineup and was a member of the Shindogs with James Burton. It was probably Burton who brought Hardin in for several sessions in 1969 and 1970, when Burton brought in Chuck Berghofer and Jim Gordon to replace Haggard’s departed rhythm section.
The first session Hardin did with Haggard was “Workin’ Man Blues” in May 1969. He also played on the hit singles “Okie from Muskogee,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” and the fourth Strangers solo LP, Honky Tonkin’. Hardin was another one of the cadre of musicians that James Burton would take with him to Elvis Presley’s band in the 1970s.
EARL POOLE BALL (piano, 1970)
Earl Poole Ball was working as a session pianist and staff producer at Capitol Records when he began working on sessions for Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens. In addition to playing on Haggard’s “Tulare Dust” and the second and fourth Strangers solo LPs, Introducing My Friends—The Strangers and Honky Tonkin’, Ball would produce Haggard’s Bob Wills tribute LP and Bonnie Owens’s Mother’s Favorite Hymns gospel LP for Capitol in addition to the aforementioned Strangers Honky Tonkin’ LP.
Ball played on many of the influential country-rock records of the late 1960s, including the Byrds’ seminal Sweethearts of the Rodeo LP, the Flying Burrito Brothers LPs, and Gram Parsons’s International Submarine Band LP.
Ball found his most permanent gig as Johnny Cash’s piano player, a job he held for more than twenty years. Currently he lives in Austin and still plays with many local groups, including Heybale, which also features fellow Haggard alumnus Redd Volkaert.
HARGUS “PIG” ROBBINS (piano, 1971–75)
Hargus Robbins, forever known in country music lore as “Pig,” became blind at the age of four. He was something of a child prodigy on the piano, and after an early career as a solo artist (witness the manic “Save It,” a Jerry Lee Lewis–styled rocker, that he recorded for Chess in the late 1950s), became Nashville’s busiest session piano player.
Robbins played on literally thousands of sessions, including Merle Haggard sessions from the early 1970s following George French Jr.’s departure from the group. Haggard would often schedule sessions in Nashville so he could get Robbins (and Johnny Gimble, who also lived in Nashville). Robbins played on the hits “Carolyn” and “If We Make It Through December” as well as a number of songs on the Strangers’ fourth and fifth LPs, Honky Tonkin’ and Totally Instrumental—With One Exception.
After Mark Yeary joined the Strangers as the permanent piano man in 1973, Robbins continued to play on Haggard sessions, on piano and electronic keyboard, for several more years, especially at sessions done in Nashville.
BILLY LIEBERT (piano, 1971–72)
Billy Liebert was a Los Angeles–based piano and accordion player who came to prominence in the late 1940s as a member of the Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jamboree television show. He would go on to have a long association with Capitol Records, appearing as a session man on all of Cliffie Stone’s projects, including Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Molly Bee, and many others. Liebert played on a few Haggard sessions in late 1971 and early 1972, including the number-one single “Grandma Harp.”
BILL WOODS (piano, fiddle, 1972)
Bill Woods was one of the legendary figures in Bakersfield, with a long history that went back to the late 1940s. Originally a local radio disc jockey, he was also leader of the house band at the Blackboard Café with his group Bill Woods and the Orange Blossom Playboys, a job he held for many years.
Woods was also one of the great record men in Bakersfield, launching such labels as Bakersfield, Fire, and many others that released dozens of seminal early Bakersfield country, rockabilly, and novelty records. He helped many people around Bakersfield with their music careers, inspiring Red Simpson to write “Bill Woods from Bakersfield.” Merle Haggard recorded the song in 1971 for his Let Me Tell You About a Song LP after hearing Simpson perform it live on the radio in Los Angeles. Perhaps as a result of the song’s popularity, Woods himself was invited to join the Strangers. Although he played piano with the Strangers on the road, he never recorded with the Strangers on piano. He played fiddle on several sessions, but no hits. Four songs from an unissued session turn up on this box set, including “Fiddle Blues,” a number that features Woods prominently.
Woods had to leave the band after medical troubles forced him off the road. He had sustained major injuries in a racing car crash (automobile racing was the other great passion in his life).
MARK YEARY (piano, 1973–92)
After George French Jr., Merle Haggard had several short-lived piano players running through the ranks of the Strangers. Mark Yeary would prove to be one of the longest-running members of the group, with close to twenty years under his belt by the time he left the group in 1992.
Yeary was born in Los Angeles and moved with his family to Bakersfield when he was fifteen years old. After the initial culture shock, he began playing in local rock and roll and soul groups. Eventually he landed a job on the Jimmy Thomason television show, where Merle Haggard first saw the shaggy-haired youngster with promising talent. Merle liked the idea of hiring a young piano player he could mold to his liking, and he offered Yeary a job with the Strangers. Yeary accepted, and his very first gig with the band was playing at the White House for President Richard Nixon.
Yeary would play on every session from July 1973 until he left the group in 1992, including the last Strangers solo LP Totally Instrumental…With One Exception. He played on the hits “Movin’ On,” “Always Wanting You,” “It’s All in the Movies,” “The Roots of My Raising,” “Cherokee Maiden,” and many others. He also wrote “It Don’t Bother Me” for Haggard, released on the Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album LP.
GORDON TERRY (fiddle, 1970 and intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s)
Gordon Terry was a young prodigy and fiddle champion from Alabama who moved to Nashville in the early 1950s and toured with Faron Young before moving to the Los Angeles area in the late 1950s and joining the cast of the Town Hall Party television show. Terry recorded a string of good, but unsuccessful, singles under his own name (collected on the Bear Family CD Lotta Lotta Women, BCD 15881), and eventually he became a fiddle player extraordinaire for many country stars, including Merle Haggard.
He joined Haggard’s band during the recording of the Bob Wills tribute LP in 1970 and continued to tour with them on a semiregular basis throughout the 1970s. Terry semiretired in 1983 due to ill health and bought a farm south of Nashville in Pulaski, Tennessee. He died at his daughter’s house nearby on April 9, 2006.
JOHNNY GIMBLE (fiddle, 1970s)
Johnny Gimble was yet another alumnus of Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys that Merle became acquainted with during the recording of his Bob Wills tribute LP in 1970. Subsequently Gimble became a fixture on Haggard’s records, recording and occasionally touring with Haggard whenever his schedule allowed. Often Haggard would arrange a recording date in Nashville in order to have Gimble (and “Pig” Robbins, who also lived in Nashville) on the record.
Gimble also wrote for Merle, including “Guide Me,” “Lord” on the Land of Many Churches LP, and “Slow ‘n’ Easy” on the Strangers’ Honky Tonkin’ LP. He left Nashville in 1978 to return to Texas and has occasionally worked with Haggard since then, most recently on the 1999 Live at Billy Bob’s Texas album. Gimble still performs with his son and granddaughter as the Gimbles throughout dance halls in Texas, and he appears at selected Texas Playboy reunion shows.
TINY MOORE (mandolin, 1973–76 and intermittently through the 1980s)
Tiny Moore was another alumnus of Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys who appeared on Merle’s Bob Wills tribute LP in 1970. His style of electric mandolin is legendary, influencing many guitar players as well as jazz mandolinists, and he brought an exciting presence to Haggard’s band. Moore lived in Sacramento, where he had settled after playing with Billy Jack Wills’s band at Wills Point, a West Coast club owned by Bob Wills.
Merle Haggard appeared on one of Tiny Moore’s solo albums, Tiny Moore Music, playing guitar in the style of Bob Wills’s guitarist, Junior Barnard. Moore taught music lessons at a store in Sacramento until his death in 1986.
DON MARKHAM (saxophone, horns, 1974–present)
After Merle’s foray into Dixieland music in the early 1970s, Don Markham was invited to join the Strangers on saxophone, trumpet, and other horns, a position he still holds to this day. Markham’s history goes much further back, to many of the house bands around Bakersfield in the 1950s and 1960s. An interesting footnote is that Bonnie Owens’s 1960 single for Del-Fi Records in Los Angeles was a split session with Markham, who was recording a sax instrumental for Donna Records the same day. As of this writing Markham is still in the Strangers, making him one of the longest-running members after Norm Hamlet and Biff Adam.
THE DIXIELAND EXPRESS (horn section, 1973)
The Dixieland Express was a three-piece Dixieland ensemble based out of Reno. Merle had performed with them at Harrah’s Casino in Reno and asked them to accompany him to New Orleans to record his next live album in March 1973, resulting in their appearance on the I Love Dixie Blues . . . So I Recorded “Live” in New Orleans LP. Members on the recording included John McCormick, Gene Bowen, and Dale Hampton.
The band’s name derives from a bus line operated by Carolina Coach, called the Dixieland Express because of its fast service between Raleigh, North Carolina, and Dallas. It was a fairly common name for Dixieland bands, and currently there are several bands using the name, none of which have any connection with the group that played with Merle Haggard.
Wayne Burdick (Tex Williams 1948) http://www.namm.org/library/oral-history/wayne-burdick
One can fully appreciate why the Fender guitar company chose to celebrate 40 years of the famed Stratocaster by honouring this genial Hawaiian, through making 150 superlative guitars as a limited edition series of the Freddie Tavares 'Aloha’ Stratocaster - Link to auction on eBay.
Born on Maui Island, Hawaii, February 18th 1913, Frederick Theodore Tavares was of Portuguese, Hawaiian, Chinese, English, Tahitian-Samoan lineage of which he would later wittingly say "the Portuguese makes me stubborn; Chinese makes me smart; English makes me high-class; Hawaiian gives me the music; Tahitian gives me the beat - I couldn't ask for more.” Freddie learnt to sing and harmonize whilst briefly attending Kamehameha Boys School as a boarding student from age 5, his love of music probably being born through this schools emphasis on music and singing.
When his eldest brother Nils left Maui to study law at Michigan University, he gave 12 year old Freddie his guitar with the brotherly advice that if he could play guitar he would never be lonely, nor would he lack friends. Freddie mastered the instrument, applying his own theory and techniques and at age 15 became rhythm guitarist in Mary Kunewa's orchestra on Maui. On completing his schooling he moved to O'ahu, playing guitar in Larry Bellis’ dance orchestra at the Alexander Young hotel three nights weekly whilst working as a jobber for American Factors during the day.
When Harry Owens took over leadership of the dance orchestra of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Waikiki in 1934 and sought an electric steel guitar player, he interviewed Freddie Tavares on the recommendation of Bob Cutter - one of the orchestra's soloists who had previously been Larry Bellis’ vocalist. Owens, very impressed by the 21 year old’s serious attitude to music and his confident “I could easily learn to play one” answer to Owen's question "can you play steel guitar?" gave Freddie the orchestrated arrangements for two songs, with two weeks to learn to play the steel guitar parts.
Freddie declined all opportunities to record as a solo artist, saying he was a team member striving to be the best possible sideman.
Freddie purchased a Rickenbacker 'Fry Pan’ also some piano and violin studies - using the exercises from these as his foundation for learning to play steel guitar. (Freddie would continue to play Bach piano inventions on steel guitar for an hour daily throughout his musical career, to give him dexterity and flexibility in his playing and be a consummate sight reader of music).
On his first night with Harry Owens Royal Hawaiians, Freddie played the steel guitar parts on two songs 'Song of the Islands’ and ‘Imi Au la Oe’ after which Owens and the other orchestra members gave him a standing ovation. Thus Freddie’s professional career was established and his smooth, lyrical steel guitar playing with perfect pitch, timing and rhythm quickly earned him the stage name Freddie ‘Kaulana’ (meaning 'famous’) Tavares from Harry Owens. During his 13 years with the Royal Hawaiians he was one of the most important members, his steel guitar being the backbone of most of the musical arrangements.
The orchestra travelled throughout the States, playing engagements at the Hotel St. Francis in San Francisco, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and Beverly Wilshire hotel in the L.A. area, and on tour in New York, Memphis, Chicago, Colorado, Texas, Seattle and Vancouver B.C. Many of their Hotel St. Francis shows were broadcast live on coast to coast radio. They made movies; radio transcriptions for C.P. McGregor's transcription service and for A.F.R.S; recorded for Decca, Columbia and Capitol Records. In the two month period February 1st through March 1938, the orchestra worked on the Paramount movie 'Cocoanut Grove’; played the Beverly Wilshire Hotel at nights; recorded 150 selections for Decca; made a batch of electric transcriptions for C.P. McGregor; guested on Bing Crosby's radio-show 'Kraft Music Hall’ and appeared with Claudette Colbert on the 'Hollywood Hotel’ radio-show.
According to his wife, Freddie Tavares bought a 6 string Black & White bakelite Rickenbacker steel guitar as soon as the model came on the market in July 1935, (serial number 003) removing the left front white cover to store his bar and picks (thumb and 3 finger) inside between dance sets. He used C6th tuning for Hapa-Haole and more modern Hawaiian songs, raising the A to B flat for a C 7th tuning when playing older Hawaiian songs. He also designed and built his own tube amplifiers and casings, building a second amp into each enclosure as a spare in case the main unit blew during a set.
Wives and children accompanied musicians of the Royal Hawaiians to San Francisco for their annual summer residencies at Hotel St. Francis. Deeming transferring his two growing sons from their Anaheim home and school to school in San Francisco each summer too disruptive for the boys, Freddie tended his notice to Owens in 1945. Loath to lose him, Owens upped his pay. Freddie capitulated to pay increases for a further two years then said “no more” recommending Eddie Bush as his replacement and thoroughly familiarizing Eddie with the orchestra's steel guitar and vocal arrangements.
To further his music career, Freddie had moved from Hawaii to Anaheim, near Hollywood, in 1942 to freelance as a session musician - one of his '42 sessions being to play the zippy steel guitar glissando on the famed Looney Tunes logo which still heralds cartoon time on TV and cinema screens worldwide. His experience of playing steel guitar in an orchestra and his ability to sight read music and orchestral arrangements unhesitatingly, made him highly sought after by movie musical arrangers and record producers, also for radio and TV work.
From 1949 through '53 Freddie played steel guitar almost nightly with country singer/ fiddle player Wade Ray and his Ozark Mountain Boys at the club Cowtown in LA. Wade Ray recollects, "Fiddle is the awfullest darned instrument to amplify, but Freddie figured out a way to do it and he made me an amplifier that I treasured, and he also made amplifiers for the rest of the band. That five years at Cowtown has to be the highlight of my whole career and Freddie Tavares was a very, very big part of the whole thing. He wrote all the music arrangements and did all the electric work. We were only a four piece band but with Freddie's harmonies on steel guitar we sounded like a nine piece orchestra. He played so pretty, so smooth and sweet. At intermissions, instead of having something to eat and drink he would go out back and run scales. He was a very clever man and completely self taught in everything he did". Freddie also played on radio broadcasts with this group and on their early records for Victor.
The Magnatone Guitar Company presented Freddie with a custom made steel guitar in a promotional deal in '49. Made to Freddie's specifications, this instrument had 9 strings to increase chord variations. This was the only steel guitar that Freddie ever stood at to play. He had large hands and would control the swell with his little finger curled around the volume control - continuing to use this method when he later played pedal steel.
Freddie's steel bars were specially made for him, cut straight across at both ends to give a better sight line for accurate positioning. When playing novelty numbers such as 'Put Another Nickel In ' and 'Old Piano Roll Blues' at Cow town, Freddie used a bar that he had carved out of a solid piece of wood to emulate perfectly the sound of a honky-tonk piano.
In early 1953 Noel Boggs introduced Freddie to Leo Fender who, at that time, was interested in building amplifiers. Fender realized he had found a man of exceptional abilities in Freddie Tavares. He understood electronics, could make technical drawings and was a consummate musician, playing acoustic, bass and steel guitars as well as ukulele. He hired Freddie as assistant engineer to himself and on Freddie’s second day of employment he started to create, with Leo Fender, a product that was to become the leading and most wanted instrument in guitar history - the Stratocaster. Until his retirement from the Fender Guitar Company in 1985, Freddie Tavares participated in the design and development of every guitar and amplifier made by the company and field tested the proto types before they hit the production line. He was renowned as the world's leading technical authority of the Jazz Bass and collaborated with Leo Fender to invent the split-finger mechanism for the Fender 1000 pedal steel guitar - later playing this model pedal steel.
Freddie continued his music career and session work whilst with Fenders. He was a founding member and long time treasurer of the Polynesian Society in California and derived great pleasure and satisfaction from playing rhythm, Stratocaster and steel guitars, also ukulele, on recordings of Hawaiian songs and Island medleys with his fellow Hawaiian musicians Danny Stewart, Sam Koki, Joe Keawe, Sammy Kaapuni, Harry Baty, Bernie Kaai Lewis, Vince Akina, his brother Ernest Tavares and other prominent West Coast based Hawaiians. When a talented young bass player, Vince Akina was forming a group to perform Hawaiian and Tahitian songs with dancers on a casual basis in '54, Freddie and Ernest Tavares made up the trio. The South Sea Islanders performed all over Southern California for 15 years - mostly on the country-club circuit and for luaus - and were renowned for their professionalism and the versatility of their interesting and fascinating programmes. For 5 years they played once weekly at the Cocoanut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel, LA - on the Hawaiian night, when they played through the dinner hour as opening act for Freddy Martin's Big Band, and other big names.
Freddies radio and TV work included shows with Red Skelton, Roy Rogers and Spike Jones, and the series ‘I Love Irma' and 'Hawaiian Eye’.
He played steel guitar with Foy Willing & Riders Of The Purple Sage on their weekly radio show 'All Star Western Theatre’ which was broadcast on all major networks in the late '40s, and featured such notable guests as Tex Ritter, Jimmy Wakely, Eddie Dean and Eddy Arnold. Douglas Green, historian for the Country Music Foundation, wrote of Riders Of The Purple Sage, "mainstay of the instrumental group was Johnny Paul, a New Yorker who played spectacular swing fiddle. The other instrumental standout was a superb Hawaiian steel guitar player, Freddie Tavares. His rich toned, harmonic and romantic style was far more Hawaiian than swing (although he took a few ‘hot’ solos,) but it blended beautifully with the vocals which were, of course, the mainstay of the 'Riders sound."
Freddie Tavares’ recording credits read like a Who's Who and included Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, The Andrew Sisters, Deanna Durban, Gordon McCrae, Sue Thompson, Jimmy Dalton, Elvis Presley, Spike Jones& The City Slickers, Tennessee Ernie Ford (on Mule Train) Tex Williams, Margaret Whiting & Jimmy Wakely, Andy Parker & The Plainsmen, Sons Of The Pioneers, The Polynesians, Paradise Islanders, The Outriggers, South Sea Islanders, The Bonaires, Martin Denny ,Wade Ray and Dick Kestner.
He recorded with the orchestras of Henri Mancini, Bud Dant, Steve Lawrence, Ray Andrade, Lawrence Welk, George Liberace, Axel Stordahl, William Kealoha, Ray Conniff, George Poole, 101 Strings and also Juan Garcia Esquivel's Big Band.
Some movies for which he played on the soundtrack or made sound effects on steel guitar for, were: 'The Perils Of Pauline’ 'Devil At 4 O'clock’ 'Diamond Head’ 'Gidget Goes Hawaiian’ 'Three Stooges Go Around’ 'Move Over Darling’ 'Tora Tora Tora’ 'Donovans Reef ‘ 'In Harms Way’ 'Irma La Douce’ 'It's A Date’ 'None But The Brave' 'Blue Hawaii’ 'Cocoanut Grove’ 'Tahiti Nights’ ‘Mr. Roberts’ and 'Song Of The islands’.
Freddie Tavares was an uncompromising perfectionist and this was reflected in the standard of excellence he achieved in his music career. He was also a friendly, compassionate, kind and generous man with a keen sense of humour, who enjoyed surprising and delighting family and friends with very witty songs he had written especially for and often about them.
During his retirement, Freddie would take backing tapes he had made, a small amplifier, his Fender pedal steel guitar, Stratocaster and a ukulele to entertain those in nursing and retirement homes, and the veterans hospital, with his beautiful singing and music. Likewise, he entertained family and friends with Hawaiian melodies and songs when he and his wife spent each Christmas holiday in their native Hawaii. When Freddie played at Jerry Byrd's 1985 Ho'olaule'a in Hawaii, he jokingly told the audience he had had to retire in order to practise for the event, but his faultless playing and eloquent oration, at age 72, earned him the respect of everyone, and an invitation to return in '86. Freddie Tavares passed away in Anaheim, California on July 24th 1990, age 77 years. During his funeral service in Hawaii, his brother-in-law Walter Mo'okini sang and Jerry Byrd, Barney Isaacs and Alan Akaka played steel guitar tributes. Freddie was laid to rest in Nuuana cemetery, Oahu.
So many friends attended his beautiful memorial service in Anaheim, there was standing room only.
Freddie Tavares will go down in the annals of steel guitar history as one of the great masters. His highly individual, hauntingly beautiful lyrical style perfectly encapsulated the spirit of his beloved Hawaii - Isles of Paradise.