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Alvino Rey: 1908-2004
Alvino Rey
pedal steel guitar

Born: July 1, 1908 in Oakland, CA
Died: February 26, 2004 in Salt Lake City, Utah

Swing Era bandleader, pedal steel guitarist

by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins

Alvino Rey, whose pedal steel guitar gave his big band one of the most distinctive sounds of the swing era, has died at the age of 95.

He was born Alvin McBurney in Oakland, Calif., on July 1, 1908, and grew up in Cleveland. As a teenager he experimented with amplifying acoustic instruments, beginning with a banjo he received as a birthday present. His professional career as a banjoist began in 1927, and the following year he began playing electric guitar in Phil Spitalny's Orchestra. He studied guitar with vaudeville performer Roy Smeck, and took on the name Alvino Rey to capitalize on the late-20s craze for Latin music (never mind the incongruency of a steel guitar in swing or Latin bands at the time). Later jobs came with the bands of Russ Morgan and Freddy Martin.

From 1934 to 1940 Ray worked with Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights. There he met his future wife, Luise King, who sang in the band with three of her six sisters. In 1939 Rey began leading his own orchestra, quitting Heidt's band a year later and taking along the King Sisters. For three years Rey's group was the house band for Mutual Broadcasting. In 1942 Rey scored a national hit with a cover of the western tune "Deep in the Heart of Texas", an unlikely smash by an unlikely performer. "I Said No" and "Strip Polka" also hit the Top Ten.

Among the players who came through the Alvino Rey Orchestra's ranks were Johnny Mandel, Skeets Herfurt, Neil Hefti, Dave Tough, Mel Lewis, Don Lamond, and 3/4 of Woody Herman's future "Four Brothers" sax section: Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Herbie Steward. Highlighting the Rey organization were a steady stream of excellent arrangers including Mandel, Herfurt, Nelson Riddle, George Handy, Billy May, Ray Conniff, and Frank DeVol.

In 1943 the musicians' union instituted its infamous recording ban, causing the breakup of Rey's group and many others. Rey served in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to '46, when he assembled a new orchestra. The new band immediately scored another big hit with a cover of hipster Slim Gaillard's "Cement Mixer (Putti-Putti)". After 1950 Rey continued to lead smaller groups. In 1965 he reunited with the King Sisters as part of their "King Family Show" television program, which ran on ABC until 1969. One of Rey's groups made regular appearances at Disneyland and elsewhere into the 1980s.

After retiring to Salt Lake City, Rey took up the classical guitar. He and Luise kept active with his jazz quartet until they finally retired in 1994. Luise preceded her husband in death in 1997. Alvino Rey is survived by two sons, John of Salt Lake City and Robert of Bountiful, Utah; daughter Liza Butler of Southwest Harbor, Maine; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.


Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.

E-mail: Epistrophy@aol.com

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With 2 reader comments, latest December 13, 2005