Alvino Rey

Innovative bandleader and 'Father of the Pedal Steel Guitar'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Alvin McBurney (Alvino Rey), guitarist and bandleader: born Oakland, California 1 July 1908; married 1937 Luise King (died 1997; two sons, one daughter); died Draper, Utah 24 February 2004.

Known as the "Father of the Pedal Steel Guitar", Alvino Rey was an innovative musician and bandleader whose early work led the way to the exotic soundscapes of Martin Denny, George Cates and Esquivel. He was, in addition, the possessor of a keen eye for talent with many of the finest arrangers of the post-war years passing through the ranks of his orchestra, among them Billy May, Ray Conniff, Johnny Mandel and Nelson Riddle.

It is for his development of the pedal steel guitar that Rey will be best remembered. Among the first musicians to play an electric guitar on the radio, he added pedals to his standard lap steel to shift the tuning, thereby creating an instrument he dubbed the console guitar. This led to a partnership with the Gibson Guitar Company that would culminate in the pedal steel that is today synonymous with country music.

He was born Alvin McBurney in Oakland, California in 1908, the family moving to Cleveland when he was 10. A banjo given as a birthday present not only sparked his interest in music, but also encouraged a fascination with technology; he removed the needle mechanism from his mother's wind-up Victrola and used it as an amplification device within the banjo's body. By 1927 he was playing professionally alongside a local bandleader, Ev Jones, and in 1928 he joined Phil Spitalny's Orchestra in New York. In 1929 he adopted the sobriquet Alvino Rey in deference to a contemporary craze for Latin American music.

Following short stints with Russ Morgan and Freddy Martin, in 1934 Rey joined Horace Heidt and his Musical Knights, based in San Francisco. Heidt's band was notable both for its use of novelty performers, including the blind whistler Fred Lowery, and for the harmonies of the King Sisters Quartet. Rey, who was by this time playing electric guitar, married Luise King in 1937 and two years later, she and her sisters Alyce, Donna and Yvonne joined him when he formed the Alvino Rey Orchestra.

"Blue Rey", with its unusual vocal effects, quickly became their theme song and they maintained a hectic touring schedule. The group featured a 10-man horn section, including six saxophonists; three of whom, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Herbie Stewart, would go on to feature in Woody Herman's famous "Four Brothers" sax section. Drummers of the calibre of Don Lamond and Mel Lewis passed through the orchestra's ranks and use was made of innovative young arrangers such as Ray Conniff, Neal Hefti and Billy May.

In 1942, the orchestra enjoyed a big success with "Deep in the Heart of Texas" and quickly followed it with the novelty hit "Strip Polka". They appeared in the movies Sing Your Worries Away (1942) and Larceny with Music (1943) and Rey was named the top guitar player in America in a national poll. The Second World War, however, led to the band's dissolution and Rey joined the US Navy.

At the end of hostilities Rey reformed his orchestra and had further hits with "Cement Mixer (Put-Ti Put-Ti)" (1946) and "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover" (1948). In the early 1950s changes in musical taste led to a reduction in the size of the band. He continued to work closely with the King Sisters, producing several of their albums and serving as musical director on their television show during the late 1960s.

Rey joined Jack Costanzo, Irv Cottler, Emil Richards, and Jimmy Rowles in an instrumental supergroup known as the Surfmen, and recorded with the "Space Age" music legend Esquivel. By the 1970s Rey was in semi-retirement in Utah and made his last public appearance, in Salt Lake City, in 1994.

Paul Wadey