Speedy West

Innovative steel guitarist
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The Independent Online

Wesley Webb West (Speedy West), steel guitarist: born Springfield, Missouri 25 January 1924; twice married (one son, two daughters); died Tulsa, Oklahoma 15 November 2003.

Speedy West was among the most innovative and influential steel guitarists in country-music history. A master showman and the originator of the explosive "crash-bar" style of playing, he will be best remembered for a series of exciting instrumental duets he cut in the 1950s with the guitarist Jimmy Bryant, including their classic "The Night Rider".

The son of an amateur gospel singer and guitarist, Wesley West was drawn to the steel guitar as a child. Fired by his admiration for early players such as Leon McAuliffe and Jerry Byrd, he persuaded his parents to buy him a $12 Hawaiian guitar and then rapidly progressed to a more expensive National steel-bodied resonator model.

He married at 17 and spent the Second World War years working successively in a munitions factory and on a farm, all the while honing his craft at local clubs and jam sessions. At the war's end he began to appear regularly on local radio, KWTO, Springfield. During one of these appearances the emcee, Slim Wilson, introduced him as "Speedy" West and the name stuck.

In 1946 he moved his family to Southern California where he juggled work at a drycleaners with membership of a popular local band named the Missouri Wranglers. He also fell under the influence of another renowned steel guitarist, Joaquin Murphey, whose astonishing jazz-influenced single string riffs whilst with Spade Cooley's Orchestra can be seen as a precursor of West's own approach.

In 1948 he was himself hired by Cooley but left after just five months and began to work with the broadcaster and musician Cliffie Stone whose Hometown Jamboree would do much to establish California as a major centre for country music. Stone encouraged his musicians to develop their own style and, through his position as assistant A&R man at Capitol Records, was able to offer them session work.

In 1949 West made his recording début alongside the vocalist Eddie Kirk and a year later played on sessions with Tennessee Ernie Ford and Kay Starr that resulted in the country/pop hits "I'll Never Be Free" and "Ain't Nobody's Business But My Own". As a result he was invited to tour with both stars and in that same year made his début on Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. Perhaps more significantly, the label also signed him to a recording contract that led to his now revered duets with Jimmy Bryant. The sides they cut together from 1951 to 1956, once described as "manic country bebop", included "The Night Rider", "Chatter Box" and "Stratosphere Boogie", and have had a major influence.

Following the cancellation of the Hometown Jamboree in 1959, West briefly became a fixture in Las Vegas. In 1960 he produced sessions for a young Kentuckian named Loretta Lynn and was sufficiently impressed with her talent to suggest that she allow him to bring in leading musicians such as Roy Lanham and Harold Hensley rather than the also-rans she had hired. The resulting disc, "Honky Tonk Girl", went on to become her first hit.

He cut a final album for Capitol in 1962, Guitar Spectacular, on which he was joined by Lanham, the guitarist Billy Strange and the legendary R&B drummer Earl Palmer, and then began to concentrate increasingly on work outside of music. He was reunited briefly with Bryant in the late 1970s, a session that was belatedly issued in 1990 as For the Last Time.

In 1980 Speedy West was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. The following year a debilitating stroke left him unable to play his instrument, but he remained a popular fixture at steel-guitar conventions, where his good-humour made him an ideal emcee. He looked back on his playing days with affection:

I used to get high, higher than a kite, just playing my guitar. You don't have to use drink and drugs if you love your instrument enough.

Paul Wadey