Duane Eddy: The Return of the King of Twang
In 2013, I attended the Americana Music Association Awards and Honors show at Ryman Auditorium. It was a memorable evening, to say the least, with some of the best Americana artists and legends on stage and in the audience.
But the moment that had the most impact on me above all others was the 20-second guitar solo by a hip-looking older musician dressed in a black suit, wearing a black fedora and grey beard. He took the stage – I mean the stage and the sold-out audience were his. He stood in the spotlight and let those notes fill the historical auditorium. His 75-year-old fingers played a deep, resonate lead on the bass strings of his guitar with a reverb that penetrated to my bones. He needed no introduction. It was Duane Eddy. The song was “Rebel Rouser” – I had heard it the first time when I was five years old. Those few seconds and those notes, played with so much emotion, felt like a lifetime of music that rumbled and shook the Ryman floor that night.
He may not have a household name, even though he should. Make no mistake, Eddy is a legend, an American original whose legacy is on the same high creative peak as Ray Charles and Johnny Cash.
In 1958, after taking his guitar to a jam session at an all-African-American club in Watts, California, he received a first-hand education in the blues. From there, he developed a style of playing that is so clear and original, it has permeated much of the sound of guitar in popular music since his first hit single that same year.
He created his style instinctively, without technical swagger or any direction on how to put together country, rock and roll, gospel, and rhythm & blues, all in one three-minute song. Eddy’s guitar became his own distinctive voice, which saw him through several hit singles during the ‘50s and ‘60s. But, more than hit records, he made a lasting impact on a new generation of musicians. He influenced The Beatles, The Stones and countless others. His hit version of Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” for a television series is familiar across generations. He is a member of the Musician’s Hall of Fame and The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
During a recent interview with Eddy, when I quoted press that said his sound is woven throughout the entire music industry, his response was, “Oh, I’m not that good.”
But, he is just that good. When his name is mentioned, a certain sound comes to mind, not unlike Chet Atkins, Les Paul, and Glen Campbell. He calls his style “twang,” referring to the reverb-soaked, heavy bass melodic lead patterns that dominate his finest studio moments, of which there are many.
These days, Eddy is getting ready to record a new album. He says he wants to make an album of music that grows without force. He has two songs well on their way, including a tune he wrote with the late Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers. It includes Everly’s final studio performance, which he recorded just prior to his death in 2014.
During our conversation, Eddy proved to be an artist who loves to tell stories, and he tells them well. It was a process I was happy to participate in with this living legend. Following is an excerpt from our interview, where he shares are a few of those stories, as well as thoughts about the new album, Steve Earle, Chuck Berry, racial harmony among musicians, and how Dick Clark saved his career by “turning the record over”:
Terry Roland: It really hit me how your sound had influenced so much in 1987, when I first heard Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town.”
Duane Eddy: Oh yeah. I wanted to go to that session. I just missed it. I think I was out of town. My buddy Richard Bennett played that lead part on the song. I think he really nailed the sound. He’s from Phoenix. My sound turns up in the oddest places.
Tell me about the new album.
I have a brand new song we just recorded. It doesn’t even have a title. It’s written by me and Mickey Raphael. The engineer really must have done his homework, because he really got the old sound off my guitar. It’s as big as a barn. And Mickey’s harmonica is mournful, like a funeral.
Tell me about the Phil Everly song.
Phil was my best friend in the music business. We’d stay at his place on The Gulf. Our wives would be out laying on the beach, while Phil and I sat on the porch and wrote songs. I loved to write with him just to hear him sing.”
We wrote this song together, “After I’m Gone.” You know, his wife, Patty, adored him. I think somehow when he wrote those words, he knew his time wasn’t long. The chorus ends with, “You will love again, after I’m gone.” After we finished it, there were tears in his eyes. … Phil sang harmony with himself. It was dubbed in just enough to still hear the pureness of Phil’s performance. If we mixed in the harmony vocal too much, it sounded just like a song with his brother. When he heard how I’d mixed down the harmony vocal, he said, “Oh good. It’s not another damned Everly Brothers’ song.” We were going to add it as a bonus track, but we decided, since it’s really Phil’s last studio performance, it should be a special track. I want it to be the centerpiece of the album.
What do you feel is your most influential album?
I’d have to say Twang a Country Song. I’m told that it became like a bible for steel players. It’s because I did it with pedal steel player Buddy Emmons. He’s the best. He’s always been my favorite steel player. When we started working on the album, he asked me, “What the heck can I do with this? It’s about your guitar!” Well, if you hear the album, you’ll know, he did plenty with it.
You worked with a lot of the rock and roll legends of the ‘50s during their prime. Who was your favorite?
Chuck Berry. We became friends when we were on Alan Freed’s show. I asked him, “Why do you do that [thing where you] put two notes together to make that harmony sound?” He said, “I do it for the same reason you play on the bass strings – for the power. I want to make the music stand out.”
I asked him who he liked to listen to, and he said “Kitty Wells and The Everly Brothers”. He said,”I’m country at heart!” He used to carry around a brand new Polaroid camera. He would press a button on it and then run over by my side and smile. I still have one of those old Polaroid pictures. Chuck signed it, “To the one guy who is for real.”
Any thoughts on the interracial relationships between the musicians during the late ’50s, during the civil rights movement?
I was on the road a lot with Chuck, Bo Diddley, Little Anthony and the Imperials. Race was never an issue between us in those days. We were musicians together first. We fought the battles together and we looked out for each other
How did you develop such a unique guitar sound?
Everybody played on solos on the high notes like Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Bill Haley. I knew I couldn’t make an instrumental [song] playing that way people would remember. But I knew if I go to the bass strings, I’ll get a real sound, not just a riff, but I’d work out a melody. … “Moving ‘n’ Groovin’,” was the first thing I wrote. I put in some high parts along with the bass. It was more of a riff song. But, it got up into the charts, all the way to #70. A hit with an ‘anchor,’ I used to say.
So, what brought you around to stay with the bass strings for an entire song, like on “Rebel Rouser?”
I was in Los Angeles working on a rock and roll show with a black band called The Sharps. I went on the show before they did. When I came out, I just stood there and played. After the show they told me, “Don’t just stand there! You got to shake that thing! Drive that thing!”
When I watched them perform, they were dancing around and doing this strut. So, when my turn came again, I started to shake the guitar around. The girls started screaming. So, I kept doing it and then I started really concentrating like what I was doing was really hard. It wasn’t hard at all. But, I made it look that way. By the end of the week, I had it down.
You’ve mentioned you really came to know blues during that time.
Yes. The band I played with that week took me to Watts, to this all blues show. It was a big band, you know, with the band leader and the singer and all the brass instruments – like the big bands of the ’40s. The Sharps. These guys were really good. Then, the band leader points to me. I really got into the feeling. It was the music and the Thunderbird wine kicking in. I started feeling [like] “Man, this is kind of cool!”
Toward the end of my solo the horn section echoed me. It was really something. Then, the band leader said, “Go again!” I said,”No!” Then he just shouted, “GO AGAIN!” So, I did! That’s when I learned about the blues. Right then. There’s was something that felt like freedom in that moment. After that I went home and wrote “Rebel Rouser.”
But the music industry didn’t take to “Rebel Rouser” right away…
Right. My career almost didn’t happen. The record company was promoting the other side of the single, “Stalkin’.” Dick Clark liked it. I told him, “I can’t start out with a slow song! I’ve got to do something up-tempo!” The single was released for two weeks. It didn’t do a thing. Radio stations stopped playing it. Lee Hazlewood told me, “You’re going to have a short career.” I told him, “Just turn the record over.” He just said, “Nobody wants to hear the B side.”
So who actually turned the record over?
Here’s the story. Several years later I was talking with Dick Clark and he told me how “Rebel Rouser” finally got played. In the late ’50s, he would travel around to sock hop dances for teenagers and play hit 45s for the kids. He always had three boxes of singles. He’d only play the A side, with the hit on it. That would take three hours, one hour per box. One day, he left one of the boxes behind, so he showed up at the hop with only two boxes. So, he decided to play the B-sides. When he played “Rebel Rouser,” the kids went crazy. They started dancing. I always used to tell Dick Clark that when he turned the record over, he saved my career.
What are the next steps in getting the new album finished?
We need to get the word out through Pledge Music. I have some interest going to Village Recorders in Santa Monica. I’m producing this myself. I may be working there with David Paich of Toto. His father, Marty Paich, arranged the songs for Ray Charles’ country album. So, it’s just a matter of keeping at it and staying busy.