Jimmy Day – King for a Day
As if to balance out life’s fortunes, 1953 began with Hank’s death but ended with the birth of a new instrument for country music. Steel guitar innovators such as Alvino Rey, Speedy West and Bud Isaacs had been trying systems of cables, rods and pedals for the purpose of changing tunings. On November 29, Webb Pierce asked Isaacs, who had a pedal setup on his steel, to record a ballad called “Slowly”. That day, Isaacs used his pedal in a way no one else ever had, “playing” the pedal to actually create the melody on the steel. This event represents the birth of what we think of today as the pedal steel guitar. “Slowly” went to No. 1, and the first sounds of the pedal steel were drifting across the country’s airwaves, setting afire steel players’ imaginations, including Jimmy’s.
Jimmy spent 1954 playing lap steel for Lefty Frizzell and keeping an eye on the changing instrument beneath his hands. In the Nashville studios, the new pedal steel was beginning to make the lap steel obsolete. But for Jimmy, there would be one more gig with the lap steel.
Jimmy and Floyd Cramer returned from a long tour with Lefty, and their staff band fell apart as various members joined Hank Thompson and Ray Price. Everyone left but their drummer, D.J. Fontana. In 1954, after the boys got their spots back on the Louisiana Hayride, Elvis Presley showed up with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. Elvis was booking gigs but was short on material; he hired other singers to fill out the show, and he needed a full band to back them up. Day, Cramer and Fontana matched perfectly for what the trio was missing. They would back the other singers, yet when Elvis came on, it would be just Moore and Black.
Early in 1955, at Elvis’ request, all six musicians performed together. Elvis liked it and kept his band as a six-piece for the rest of the year. Eventually Elvis asked Day, Cramer and Fontana to stay on and accompany him to Hollywood. Fontana accepted the offer, but Day and Cramer declined because they’d had their sights set on the Grand Ole Opry ever since they were little kids. Looking back, Day ponders, “it would have changed rock ‘n’ roll forever. Rock ‘n’ roll would have had a steel guitar.”
Ray Price and the Sho-Bud pedal steel
Jimmy finally got his first pedal steel guitar: a Wright Custom, which he played on Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms”. In 1956, he moved to Nashville and joined Price’s band, the Cherokee Cowboys. Playing for Price meant Day also joined the Grand Ole Opry. Just 22, Jimmy had reached his childhood dream. For the next six years he toured, recorded and played the Opry with Price and Jim Reeves.
In the meantime, the pedal steel was in chaos. Some players were trying to convert their lap steels to pedal setups. One of the people drilling holes and placing rods into Fender, Gibson and Bigsby lap steels was Jimmy’s old friend, Shot Jackson. Day convinced Jackson that instead of modifying lap steels, a better thing to do would be to build pedal steels from scratch, making them complete and ready-to-go. Jackson took Day’s advice, and 1957 turned out to be a grand year for American machines. In Detroit, General Motors was building the classic ’57 Bel Air, and in Nashville, Jimmy and Buddy Emmons started building Sho-Buds, the first classic pedal steel guitar, which included Jimmy’s first Blue Darlin’ steel.
Lone Star days
The pedal steel was well on its way to becoming part of the soul of country music. In the late ’50s, Jimmy was still playing with Ray Price, but he started filling in as a substitute player for Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours. In 1962, he left the Cherokee Cowboys and worked some sessions in Nashville, but eventually decided he didn’t care much for session work and left to join Johnny Bush’s band, with Willie Nelson. By 1963, Jimmy was in Texas, playing with Willie, living the outlaw life.
Texas, with the exception of a few years here and there, would become Jimmy’s home state, and it still is. Yet for the road player, bands come and go like drifting opportunities. From ’63 on, a few names on Jimmy’s list would include Ferlin Husky, Leon Russell, Clay Blaker, George Jones, Don Walser, and several more tours of duty with Ray Price and Willie Nelson.
“I have followed Jimmy’s career ever since I met him and that was back in the late ’50s,” says DeWitt “Scotty” Scott, founder of the International Steel Guitar Convention. “He has had many ups and downs since then, but somehow has always managed to survive each one and is playing better now than he ever has — if that is possible!”
Scott, who also produced Day’s album All Those Years and gave him his nickname, “Mr. Country Soul,” continued: “In the minds of many people, Jimmy is the best. When you listen to Jimmy playing a slow ballad, you will hear sounds that no other player can duplicate. He just seems to melt into the steel and squeezes the pedals to milk every sound he can with his phrasing.”
The secret to Day’s success is bound up not in words but in the feelings he evokes in those who are fortunate enough to have heard him sit down and play the Blue Darlin’. Those sweet, heartbreaking steel lines are Jimmy Day’s riches. Riches he is still sharing with us after all those years.
And after all those years, asked what he considered to be the high point of his career, Jimmy smiled and said, “I’m still looking.”
Jimmy Day’s Steel Guitar Recordings:
All Those Years
Golden Steel Guitar Hits/Steel & Strings (double)
For Jimmy Day Fans Only
In Jesus’ Name We Play
Jimmy Day & the Texas Outlaw Jam Band
Mr. Country Soul
Swing & Blues Southern Style
The Offenders Reunion
A Day With Remington (with Herb Remington)