Speedy West: 1924 to 2003
Legendary steel guitarist, businessman and supreme showman Speedy West died of natural causes in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, on November 15. He was 79. With his passing goes the last of the pioneering giants of western swing steel guitar, following Leon McAuliffe, Noel Boggs, and Joaquin Murphey.
Born in 1924, Wesley W. “Speedy” West got his musical start playing steel guitar in Springfield, Missouri, in the early 1940s, but the lure of plentiful work, both musical and otherwise, brought him to war-boomtown Southern California right after World War II. While working day jobs, he immersed himself in Los Angeles’ thriving western swing scene, becoming influenced by Boggs and Murphey, the two top steel players in town at the time. Speedy realized he needed his own sound to make a name for himself, and he developed his unique playing style working with the bands of Hank Penny, Spade Cooley and Cliffie Stone. It was with Stone that Speedy was teamed with his musical complement, the lightning-fingered country jazz guitarist Jimmy Bryant. Speedy also developed a humorous and animated performing style that visually set him apart in the steel guitar world.
The early 1950s saw the team of Bryant & West recording many “hot guitar” instrumentals for the newly successful Capitol Records; they also recorded as featured sidemen with some of the artists signed to Capitol. When Tennessee Ernie Ford & Kay Starr’s recording of “I’ll Never Be Free” featured a totally unique solo by Speedy, popular reaction to the performance was so great that the steel guitarist’s recording career skyrocketed. Subsequently, West became one of the most copied steel guitarists in the world.
A change of musical direction in the early ’60s caused Speedy’s recording work to decline. He accepted an offer from Fender Musical Instruments, whose guitars he had been endorsing, to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to manage the company’s warehouse and shipping organization. Even though he made the move reluctantly, he quickly grew into the job and contributed to Fender’s incredible success during that decade. Speedy left Fender in the 1970s and ventured into real estate and other non-music-related businesses.
But he never left the steel guitar. Throughout the ’70s, Speedy was a frequent participant and player in a variety of music business conventions around the country. He was an early supporter of the emerging group of steel guitar conventions. His fiery style of playing, flamboyant stage antics, and incredible sense of humor endeared him to fans and players alike, and helped create a new market for steel guitarists.
In 1981, a stroke left Speedy severely disabled and in constant pain. Though he could walk and talk and hadn’t lost any of his wit, memory or intellect, damage to his right hand left him unable to perform. This did not prevent him from being where he loved to be, and until recently he was a constant presence onstage at steel guitar shows everywhere, as a master of ceremonies, as a comedian, or just as an inspiration to the players.
I’d like to add a few personal recollections of West. Speedy was the first steel guitarist whose music I purchased. I bought his 1960 album Steel Guitar, later getting 1952’s Two Guitars Country Style and ultimately obtaining everything he recorded as an artist under his own name. He became somewhat of an icon to me as a young steel player finding his way in the music business. Though I initially did not adapt his style to my own repertoire, finally getting the opportunity to meet him and watch him perform in the ’70s taught me much about how to relate to an audience and communicate with them. As my involvement in western swing deepened, so did my integration of Speedy’s steel guitar style into my own musical bag of tricks.
Later on, after I became part of the steel guitar convention scene, Speedy and I developed a close, warm friendship. I sought his advice and received sage counsel on what songs to record on my own albums, and how to approach marketing myself as a professional musician. He shared many great stories with me about the musicians and the music business in Los Angeles (my hometown before my move to Texas) in the 1950s. When I performed at steel guitar conventions, he usually sat at stage left, ready to jump me mid-solo for a surprise wet kiss or to wrap a towel around my face while I kept on playing.
It’s a rare honor for a musician to have a personal hero grow into a personal friend and colleague. One of those heroes who became my friend was Speedy West, and that is an honor I will always hold in high regard.