THE STEEL guitar is today synonymous with country music. Born out of the craze for all things Hawaiian that swept America in the early years of the century, its acceptance within the country genre was, however, surprisingly slow.
Originally a standard acoustic guitar with raised strings, played using a metallic bar, it took the advent of the electric pickup and the instrument's widespread adoption by bands playing western swing (the hillbilly answer to jazz) to propel it into the country mainstream. Once there, it furnished country music with its definitive sound, becoming the evocative backdrop to thousands of hits. Curly Chalker proved one of its most notable and innovative exponents.
Whilst his earliest work was heavily indebted to the warm tonal palette of his hero Jerry Byrd, Chalker found himself drawn increasingly to the jazz stylings of the West Coast pioneers Joaquin Murphey and Speedy West. His later output, while still retaining his trademark tone - he used, unusually, a C6 tuning - reflected this interest and has proved of seminal influence upon subsequent players.
Harold Lee "Curly" Chalker began playing the lap steel guitar while still in his teens and made his professional debut in the nightclubs of Cincinnati. By the early 1950s he was touring Texas with Lefty Frizzell, a singer whose meteoric rise to superstardom was followed by an equally meteoric decline. Chalker played on the 1951 Dallas sessions that resulted in the Frizzell classics "Always Late (With Your Kisses)" and "Mom and Dad's Waltz". He then joined Hank Thompson's Brazos Valley Boys, contributing fine work to both "Cryin' in the Deep Blue Sea" and its successful flip- side, "The Wild Side of Life" (1952).
Following a two-year stint in the armed forces, Chalker joined the Ozark Jubilee radio show, based in Springfield, Missouri, backing both Red Foley and Porter Wagoner, and acquired a pedal steel, with its daunting array of levers, pedals and strings. Some players, Jerry Byrd included, refused to have anything to do with the pedal steel, but Chalker was among those who fully explored and exploited its range.
In 1959 he relocated to Las Vegas where he played behind the fiddler Wade Ray and later joined the band of the long-time Golden Nugget fixture Hank Penny. The multi-instrumentalist and future star Roy Clark was a bandmate and became a friend.
In 1965 Chalker moved to Nashville, and was immediately in demand as a session musician. The following year he cut an album for Columbia. Produced by fellow steelie Pete Drake and entitled Big Hits On Big Steel, it featured instrumental versions of contemporary pop successes. Chalker's session work included appearances on Simon and Garfunkel's 1969 hit "The Boxer" and in 1973, with Marie Osmond, on "Paper Roses". In 1976, he briefly joined forces with the hot jazz violinist Joe Venuti, the guitarist Eldon Shamblin and the mandolinist Jethro Burns to record S'Wonderful (Four Giants of Swing) (1977), a dazzling fusion of jazz and country.
In the early 1980s, Chalker joined the staff band of the syndicated television show Hee Haw. Although some in the country music industry regarded it as an embarrassment, its cornball humour proved popular with rural audiences and Chalker's profile rose accordingly. It also gave him the chance to work, once again, with his old friend Roy Clark.
Eventually, Curly Chalker returned to Vegas, where ill-health led to his early retirement. In 1985 he was deservedly inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.
Harold Lee "Curly" Chalker, steel guitarist: born Enterprise, Alabama 22 October 1931; married (one son); died Hendersonville, Tennessee 30 April 1998.
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