Obituary: Jimmy Day
Monday 01 February 1999
The introduction, in the 1940s, of pedals to the standard Hawaiian-based steel guitar revolutionised the instrument's capabilities and offered a fresh palette of chordal combinations and tonal effects. Over the years devotees have continued to develop its range and Day's introduction in 1956 of an E note in the middle of the then standard eight-string tuning is widely recognised as a milestone. He also popularised the now common technique of using the palm of the picking hand to mute string vibrato and has, both as an innovator and as a performer, had a lasting influence on subsequent generations of players.
His romance with the steel guitar started at the age of 15 when he saw Harold "Shot" Jackson playing alongside the Bailes Brothers on local television. Within three years he was working in the band of the leading honky tonk singer Webb Pierce, backing him both on the popular Louisiana Hayride, broadcast weekly on KWKH, Shreveport, and on disc, his first foray into the recording studio resulting in the Pierce chart-topper "That Heart Belongs To Me" (1952).
His time at Shreveport brought him into contact with many of the most important stars of the period from Faron Young and Red Sovine, to Johnny Horton and the legendary Hank Williams. He worked alongside Lefty Frizzell, the pianist Floyd Cramer and a young singer from Tupelo, Mississippi named Elvis Presley and began an association with Jim Reeves which would see him play on many of the singer's Abbott sides. In 1955 he cut two instrumental numbers for the label "Rippin' out" and "Blue Wind" before heading for Nashville.
In addition to becoming an in-demand session musician, playing on seminal records such as Ray Price's "Crazy Arms" (1956) and Charlie Walker's "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down" (1958), he joined Price's Cherokee Cowboys, forming a lifelong friendship with band member and future superstar Willie Nelson. When Nelson left to go solo in 1962 he took Day with him and over the next decade he flitted between bands, backing George Jones, Ferline Husky and Little Jimmy Dickens and rejoining both Price and Nelson.
In the late 1950s he formed a partnership with Buddy Emmons and his long- time mentor Shot Jackson in setting up their Sho-Bud Company with the intention of designing and manufacturing the first pedal steel guitars with push-rod pedals. Working initially out of a garage, the Company became a byword for quality and innovation and proved a major business enterprise.
In 1961 he cut an acclaimed album of instrumentals entitled Golden Steel Guitar Hits, following it a year later with Steel and Strings, a smooth collection of country standards featuring sympathetic choral and orchestral work. In 1992 Bear Family record brought them together on a dazzling single CD.
In the 1970s Day became a mainstay of the Texas scene, working with Price, Nelson and the honky-tonk great Johnny Bush and venturing back to Nashville only occasionally. He cut a fine longplayer in salute to Hank Williams' steelie Don Helms and in 1992 paid tribute to another idol by recording an instrumental duet album with western swing veteran Herb Remington, A Day With Remington.
Latterly involved in a series of projects to market steel guitar tuition videos, in 1982 he was inducted into the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame and in 1994 into the Western Swing Hall of Fame.
James Clayton Day, pedal steel guitarist: born Tuscaloosa, Alabama 9 January 1934; married (one daughter); died Texas 22 January 1999.
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