MANY MUSICIANS who helped to make popular music great are forgotten names today, if indeed they were ever known outside of a particular band's followers. However, their contribution is not diminished by that. Eldon Shamblin was not a front man but, 60 years ago, his guitar playing and arrangements helped to establish Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys as a leading country music band, and then, in the 1970s, he played with the top country music act of the day, Merle Haggard and the Strangers.
The corn was as high as an elephant's eye when Eldon Shamblin was born in Oklahoma in 1916, but he was determined not to work as a labourer and practised the guitar from an early age. His first jobs were in the bars on the lower side of Oklahoma City in 1933. He earned little money and even when he was given a regular radio show, the pay was only two meals a day.
In 1935 he joined Dave Edwards's Alabama Boys and they played what is now known as "western swing", a lively hybrid of country music and jazz. Moving to a radio station in Tulsa, he was spotted by Bob Wills and invited to join his band. Shamblin said, "I was the first one out of the Alabama Boys to join the Texas Playboys but they all gradually joined."
Bob Wills became known as the King of Western Swing and he surrounded himself with excellent musicians. Wills was quick to showcase Shamblin's talent on the newly invented electric guitar, and he became the first person to own a Fender Stratocaster, having been given a trial model by Leo Fender himself.
His duet with the steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe, "Twin Guitar Special" (1941), is a seminal record, and other noted guitarists such as Charlie Christian and Les Paul were keen to see him play. Shamblin also arranged Wills's best-known recordings including "San Antonio Rose" and "Faded Love". Being in the band was a rollercoaster ride as Wills was married and divorced five times between 1935 and 1942, and the repertoire would switch from sad to happy songs according to his mood.
The band's lead singer, Tommy Duncan, enlisted for military service and chastised the others for not doing so. Wills's health prevented him signing up but Shamblin enlisted in 1942 and became a captain. He rejoined Bob Wills in 1947, but he contented himself by playing rhythm and occasional lead guitar. Years later, Rolling Stone magazine described him as "the world's greatest rhythm guitar player". Shamblin also became the group's manager and was with them until 1954 when he joined Hoyle Nix's western swing band. He did, however, return to Wills's band for some months in 1956.
Tiring of the road, Eldon Shamblin left Wills for the final time in 1957 and he returned to Tulsa, playing locally and working as a piano tuner and electric organ repairer. He returned to top-level country music in 1970 when Merle Haggard dedicated an album to Bob Wills, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, on which he was accompanied by the Texas Playboys. The musicians recorded 27 songs in two days but Wills, recovering from a stroke, was too ill to contribute himself.
Haggard, who always loved the western sound, invited Shamblin to become a member of his band, the Strangers, in 1975 and he toured and recorded with the band until 1981, when at the age of 65, he decided to retire. He is featured on the Merle Haggard album, Rainbow Stew - Live at Anaheim Stadium (1981) and he would rejoin Haggard whenever he played in Tulsa.
Merle Haggard said in his autobiography, Sing Me Back Home (1981), "Eldon's guitar work is so great that he can just stop everybody in their tracks." Willie Nelson's own single-note, flat-pick guitar style also owes something to Eldon Shamblin.
In 1983, Shamblin was back playing with his former compadres in Playboys II. Over the years he was involved in various one-off projects and he has recorded with another key western swing musician, Johnnie Lee Wills, as well as the jazz musicians Herb Ellis and Shelley Manne. In 1977 he made the jazz album S'Wonderful with Joe Venuti, Curly Chalker and Jethro Burns, and he released a solo album, Guitar Genius, in 1980. The title amused him, as he was a modest man who made jokes about the music industry.
In 1993 he joined Asleep at the Wheel for their Grammy-winning tribute to Bob Wills for which he was joined by Chet Atkins and Vince Gill on the track "Red Wing". In 1996, he released a solo album for his 80th birthday, There'll Be Some Changes Made. He commented, "There's a fine bunch of pickers on there. I guess they don't have anything better to do."
Eldon Shamblin, guitarist: born Weatherford, Oklahoma 24 April 1916; married (two daughters); died Tulsa, Oklahoma 5 August 1998.
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