The Man Who Would Be King (of the Guitar)
September 1, 2012 9:25 PM   Subscribe

He began his career playing banjo and as a teenager amplified it using a phonograph needle. He was a pioneer in the development of the electric guitar, sometimes working on his own, sometimes working with the Gibson Guitar Co. He was an inventor and innovator, in both music and electronics. He influenced generations of guitarists (even those who’ve never heard of him) in many musical genres (even some he personally disliked). He had a musical partnership with his singing wife, with whom he recorded, toured, and appeared on their own television program. He sometimes performed a stage trick that involving a hidden singer backstage. He lived a long and productive musical life, both in and out of the popular mainstream, and passed away, still active, in his 90s.

He was not Les Paul.

Meet Alvino Rey, King of the Guitar.

Enormously popular and enjoying high-profile exposure on radio, on records, and in films in the 1930 and early 1940s, the self-styled "King of the Guitar," Alvino Rey is a fairly obscure figure today. But his skills—both musical and technological—helped transition the electric guitar from novelty to a central position in popular music. Doubling on banjo and ‘straight’ guitar, he is best know for his innovations in steel guitar technique and technology. In 1978, Rey was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of fame, noted as the “father of the pedal steel guitar”. His singing steel technique – or gimmick – was the inspiration for the development of the guitar talk-box.

Early years (1908 - 1934)
Alvin McBurney was born in Oakland, California, on July 11, 1908. (Or July 1, 1907. Or July 1, 1911.) He built his first radio at the age of 8 and by age 10, was one of the youngest licensed ham radio operators in the country. The family moved to Cleveland in 1921, and he received a banjo as a birthday gift that same year. At fifteen, he devised an electrical amplifier for the banjo using a phonograph. He made his professional debut on banjo in 1927 with Cleveland bandlearder Ev Jones. In 1928 he joined the Phil Spitalny Orchestra. He adopted the stage name Alvino Rey in 1929 to capitalize on the then current craze for latin ‘rhumba‘ music.

The Horace Heidt Orchestra and Luise King (1934 - 1939)
In 1934 he joined the Horace Heidt Orchestra, by which time he was also playing steel guitar. The four King Sisters were the orchestra’s vocal group, and Rey married Luise King in 1937. Tensions in the group came to a head when Heidt fired Alyce King. Her sisters resigned, as did Rey and saxophonist Frank DeVol. But by this time, Rey was a star in his own right.

Alvino Rey Orchestra (1939 - 1945)
With Devol and the King Sisters, Alvino Rey formed his own orchestra. They toured, recorded, and appeared in films. Their first big hit was “Deep In The Heart Of Texas” (1942) . Unfortunately, recording stopped with the 1943 musicians unions ban, the draft made it impossible to maintain a consistent line-up. Rey and other band members took jobs at the Lockheed factory. Rey then enlisted in the Navy and worked on radar systems.

Be-Bop (1945 - 1950)
After the war, Rey formed a new orchestra and recorded more modern, be-bop oriented sides, scoring a hit with a cover of Slim Gaillard's "Cement Mixer (Put-ti Put-ti)" in 1946.

Exotica and beyond (1950 – 1965)
After his modern jazz band broke up around 1950, Rey moved into so-called exotica, recording both under his own name and under the pseudonym "Ira Ironstrings". Rey worked in production and session work. In 1961, The King of Guitar backed the King of Rock and Roll on the album and film soundtrack for Blue Hawaii.

The King Family Show (1965 -1970)
After a one-time appearance by in 1964 drew over 50,000 fan letters, the King Sisters got their own weekly television variety show. The King Family Show starred all four sisters and their extended musical families. Rey performed and acted as musical director. Here’s a patriotic medley, featuring the King Sisters, and the King Cousins, with Alvino Rey on banjo. Here’s a segment celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Alvino Rey Orchestra. Rey introduces former bandmates Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Ray Conniff, Jimmy Joyce, Jerry Fielding and Frank DeVol; and plays some talking steel and a white Fender Jaguar that is now the property of grandson Win Butler.

Final Years
Rey continued to perform and record well into his eighties. He led a band that played Disneyland from 1956 through at least the 1980s. His final public appearance was in 1994. Luise King Rey died in 1997. He retained his interests in music and technology. He was an active ham radio operator (Amateur Extra Class, W6UK) for over 84 years! Here's a QSL card. For a time, Rey maintained his own Website, selling CDs and books (Luise had written a memoir, Those Swinging Years).

Alvino Rey died in 2004 of complications after breaking his hip in a fall.

Gibson and contributions to guitar technology
In early 1935 Rey was hired by Gibson to consult on development of a magnetic guitar pickup that didn’t violate any existing patents. Unfortunately, after a few months, Rey had to go on the road with Horace Heidt. Rey’s notes contain some surprising innovations for the mid-1930s, some of which did not see production for decades: Tone roll-off control, humbucking pickups, staggered tuner shafts, placing the tuners at the bridge end (Steinberger style), variable capacitance switch (Varitone), driving the input of one amp with the speaker output of another (the technique used by Randy Bachmann for “American Woman”). Gibson engineer Walter Fuller took over and by early 1936, Gibson was offering the aluminum E-150 and wooden EH-150 electric Hawaiian guitars and the ES-150 – generally considered the first commercially successful modern electric guitar.

Talking guitar
Another influential Alvino Rey innovation was the singing steel guitar. Initially, Rey used manipulation of the tone and volume controls to simulate the human voice. At some point, he hit upon the idea of routing the output of the guitar through a microphone circuit. By 1939 he was using a carbon throat-mic like those then used by military pilots, into which his wife Luise King Rey – hidden backstage to preserve the illusion – sang (or whispered or mimed) along with the guitar, modulating the signal and creating the illusion of a singing guitar. You can see and hear a performance in the Kay Kyser movie, Jam Session. Rey (with King) employed the gimmick several times over the course of his career, but neither developed the technique further nor shared the method with other musicians. Rey’s system pre-dates both the Sonovox (an effect most often heard in radio station promos from the 1950s – 1970s, including the fake ones on The Who Sell Out) and the guitar talk-box (all versions of which employ a tube inserted into the player’s mouth to modulate the guitar signal) —but is not directly related to either. It’s worth mentioning, though that all of these that employ a mouth-tube for modulation were directly or indirectly inspired by Pete Drake and his talking steel, particularly his 1964 hit record, “Forever”. Drake had in turn been inspired by Alvino Rey’s performance in Jam Session. Drake reverse-engineered the process and came up with his own method of achieving the sound.

Aside from his aforementioned employers and the King Sisters, Rey either employed or collaborated with: Frank DeVol, Rafael Mendez, Skeets Herfurt, Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Neal Hefti, Dick Cathcart, Kai Winding, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Herb Steward, Buddy Cole (Rey’s brother-in-law), Dick Morgan, Charlie Mingus, Don Lamond, Irv Cottler, Nick Fatool, Mel Lewis, Dave Tough, Andy Russell, Ray Conniff, Johnny Mandel, George Handy, Dean Kincaide, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Herbie Stewart (3/4 of Woody Herman’s Four Brothers), Esquivel, and Elvis Presley.

Arcade Fire connection
Rey's daughter, Liza Butler is a songwriter, arranger, and harpist. She is the mother of Win and William Butler, of Arcade Fire. That band acknowledged the connection with the release in 2004 of a 45 RPM single with the lead off track of their first album, Funeral, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" on the A-side and a 1940 live recording of Alvino Rey playing the singing steel on the song "My Buddy" on the B-side.

Alvino Rey trivia Quotes about Alvino Rey
  • Rey loved all of that bop stuff. He was a wild man in his quiet way. Alvino also was a highly technical guy who was into building his own amplifiers—before Les Paul. – Johnny Mandel
  • For millions of radio listeners, the first time they heard the sound of an electric guitar, it was played by Alvino. -- Walter Carter, Gibson guitar company historian
  • Dad was the first one on his block to have a radio, and he built it himself. He was a pilot, he loved to cook, he loved ham radio. -- Liza Rey Butler, daughter
  • He would say little smarty remarks about [rock] artists, but he would still respect them, and anyone who was successful. I’m sure my dad would just be totally thrilled at what Win [Butler] is doing. I don’t know if he would like his music too much. — Jon Rey, son
  • Are you Alvino Rey? You’re one of my heroes! —Slash (Guns N' Roses guitarist), on meeting Rey at the 1997 NAMM show
Media contains dozens of playable tracks by the Alvino Rey Orchestra, some with vocals by the King Sisters and other singers. They also have recordings of radio broadcasts, like this Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands from 1942 featuring Alvino Rey, his Orchestra and the King Sisters.

Tiger Rag (Hold That Tiger) (1940) An early side and a good example of how Alvino Rey incorporated the steel guitar into a swing band setting. The King Sisters go in search of the overtone and often find it! Too bad about the kitty, though. Audio only.

A Romantic Guy (1941) Vocal w/orchestra. Male vocalists on Alvino Rey records are pretty anonymous, but it’s definitely not him singing. Alvino and Skeets tear it up a bit. Audio only.

As I Remember You (1941) Male vocal, not much guitar until near the end. Audio only.

Nighty Night (1941) Alvino Rey & his Orchestra backing Yvonne King. Audio only.

In the Hall of the Mountain King (1941) done in swing. Audio only.

William Tell Overture (1941?) done in swing. Occupied both sides of a 78. Audio only.

I Said No (1942) Alvino Rey & his Orchestra backing Yvonne King. This is the kind of naughty-but-corny humour my parents loved. Audio only.

Deep In The Heart Of Texas (1942) The first big hit for the Alvino Rey Orchestra. Anonymous male vocalist. There’s a bit of the original tone/volume swell talking steel technique here. Audio only.

Sing Your Worries Away (1942) Scene from the film of the same name. Buddy Ebsen (Jed Clampett) dances with Yvonne King, Alvino Rey takes a short solo on six string guitar. (Looks like a Gibson L5 in the clip, but it’s dubbed, so who knows?)

Tiger Rag (Hold That Tiger) (1942) Scene from the film Sing Your Worries Away. This is possibly the best showcase of King Sisters harmonies, and includes an example of circular breathing by Skeets Herfurt on clarinet.

St. Louis Blues (1942) A 1942 cinema music video of the Alvino Rey Orchestra with the King Sisters. Rey employs the manual volume/tone swell technique.

St. Louis Blues (1942) Scene from the film Jam Session, possibly the best available demonstration of Alvino Rey as a band leader, showman, and soloist. Includes both the volume/tone technique and the full singing guitar treatment. Stringy the talking steel guitar wins a cutting contest with clarinetist Skeets Herfurt.

My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean (1942?) More singing steel guitar, but without the ‘Stringy’ puppet. I haven’t been able to find out where this clip comes from.

I'd Know You Anywhere (1940) For comparison, here’s the Kay Kyser Orchestra demonstrating the Sonovox, in the 1940 film, You'll Find Out.

Strip Polka (1942) Accurately titled. Not much guitar on this one. Audio only.

Guitar Boogie (1946) Alvino Rey’s side came out a year before Les Paul’s and two years before Arthur Smith’s hit version. Audio only.

Dardanella (1946) Alvino Rey got out of the Navy in 1946 and turned toward modern jazz, getting more than a little help with the Bop charts from top-drawer arrangers. Audio only.

The Sheik Of Araby (1946) Bop! Not a lot of guitar but swingin’! Audio only.

Bloop Bleep (1947) An atypical Frank Loesser composition, accented by guitar effects, which got some airplay. Vocal by Rocky Coluccio. An early indication of where Alvino will go in just a few years: exotica and novelty.

Dreamer's Lullaby (1950?) The King Sisters, backed by Alvino Rey on guitar and Buddy Cole (Yvonne King's husband) on keyboards. Music video (film) of unknown origin.

Moonlight in Vermont (1956) Wordless vocals and steel guitar. Audio only.

Blues In The Night (1958) At this point, Alvino Rey and his singing steel are a full-on novelty act. Track 16 from Ultra-Lounge, Vol. 3: Space Capades. Great tune, but it was almost twenty years old when he recorded it. Audio only.

Night Train (1958) Track 8 from Ultra-Lounge, Vol. 4: Bachelor Pad Royale. Audio only.

The Bat (1959) This is the theme music from The Bat a horror movie with Vincent Price and Agnes Moorhead. Sort of secret agent type theme music. Audio only.

Rock Gently (1959) Maybe the ultimate late career Alvino Rey side: corny, but still swinging. Flip of “The Bat Theme”. Audio only.

Hindustan (1959) Guesting on the Lawrence Welk Show, playing an instrumental he’d had a hit with in 1942. Not the most sympathetic backing, but an enthusiastic audience.

Sentimental Journey (1959) From the same Welk appearance as "Hindustan" above. Masterfull use of harmonics.

Five Foot Two (1959) Alvino plays banjo undercover as Ira Ironstrings. This video is by one of those amateur Youtube musicologist/hosts with little to add, but at least he doesn’t talk over the music. I imagine this is the kind of work Rey did at Disneyland all those years.

Across the Alley from the Alamo (1960) More easy listening banjo music from Ira Ironstrings. This track appeared on an LP called How To Get The Most Out Of Your Stereo, which was and is far better known for what’s on the cover than the what’s in the grooves.

What more d’ya want? Go home! Go home!
posted by Herodios (13 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Damn, Herodios, you been a busy boy!

Thanks so much, this is gonna be fun to dive into!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:30 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Steel guitar and more, oh boy. Thank you Herodios - see you all in about a week.
posted by madamjujujive at 9:43 PM on September 1, 2012

Thanks for all that. He was a real gone cat.

For those who didn't get enough:
Cement Mixer, 1946, Alvino Rey and his orchestra.
posted by mule98J at 10:06 PM on September 1, 2012

Covered above under "Bebop (1945-1950)", Sr. Mule.
posted by Herodios at 10:09 PM on September 1, 2012

Stringy the talking steel guitar made my day!
great post plenty-o-good links here.
posted by quazichimp at 10:10 PM on September 1, 2012

Man, the music posts lately have been tremungous!
posted by BlueHorse at 12:29 AM on September 2, 2012

Missed the August post contest by 2 days. It would have had my vote.
posted by AugustWest at 5:52 AM on September 2, 2012

Mother of Goddess.

Thank you for the superb and even scholarly post on a subject very near and dear to my heart. When people (especially musician friends) ask what's so special about mefi, this is one of the posts I'll send to them to explain.
posted by spitbull at 7:01 AM on September 2, 2012

I remember watching Alvino Rey on the King Family TV show when I was a kid and for years thought I'd imagined his talking steel.

Also, I always had assumed that he was "Rey" because he played with the "King" Sisters. Guess not, but I'll stick to that as my backup explanation.

Thanks, Herodios!
posted by the sobsister at 8:23 AM on September 2, 2012

This is fantastic! I first heard of Rey via the Arcade Fire connection (and wow, young Alvino looks a LOT like his grandson) but never really had the chance to explore more of his music. Thank you so much!
posted by jeudi at 9:27 AM on September 2, 2012

Les Paul has received more credit than he was due. In today's world he would have probably been sued into the poorhouse for the ideas that he borrowed.
posted by JJ86 at 12:55 PM on September 2, 2012

But wait, there's more:

Here's a five minute interview (embedded video) with Alvino Rey from 2001, when he was 89 years old; part of the NAMM oral history project.
posted by Herodios at 9:59 AM on September 5, 2012


The Frank DeVol who quit the Horace Heidt Orchestra in 1939 with Rey and the King sisters, is this Frank DeVol:

Arranger: Nat King Cole (notably, the now-classic "Nature Boy" in 1948); Ella Fitzgerald; Sarah Vaughan; Tony Bennett; Dinah Shore; Doris Day; Vic Damone.

Recording Artist: Orchestral mood music series, "Music by De Vol", notably, Bacchanale Suite (1960).

Film score composer: Pillow Talk; Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte; Cat Ballou; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?; The Flight of the Phoenix; The Dirty Dozen; Krakatoa, East of Java (sic).

Television theme composer: Family Affair; Gidget; The Brady Bunch; My Three Sons (a hit single in 1961); Jornal Nacional (Brazil) aka "The Fuzz". He also composed the jingle for the Screen Gems' "Dancing Sticks" logo, and composed incidental music for numerous shows.

Acting: In addition to various walk-ons, played bandleader Happy Kyne on Fernwood 2 Night (and America 2-Night).
posted by Herodios at 10:03 AM on September 5, 2012

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