His guitar, flamboyant as fire and sincere as soul, has challenged the heart and mind. He raised the metaphorical bar, rolled the dice and redefined rock music for a whole generation of listeners and performers. His celebrated style and sound was inescapable and fashioned a musical landscape that was sometimes driving and powerful, occasionally dark, thought provoking and serene. It always invoked a sense of freedom, victory and rectitude…and that was before they “let the goldfish go”. And it rocked. His name may not resonate with the intensity of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton or Mark Knopfler, but Duane Eddy, may arguably be regarded as the most influential and successful instrumentalist in rock and roll history. The importance of his contribution is compelling, his musical roots evolutionary and his influence and impact revolutionary. Eddy’s success as an instrumentalist was unprecedented, charting 28 singles with 15 in the top 40. Between 1958 and 1996, he released over 30 albums. He has received numerous accolades and awards over the years, including a Grammy, and he is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
His “twangy guitar” baptized the birth of the rock guitar. Eddy brazenly seconded the guitar from its traditional support role to center stage as a solo instrument and in the process created a powerful, driving, exciting sound that eventually circled the globe and changed the profile of rock. His style was unique in a number of ways: he was the first to construct instrumentals with strong melodies; he played guitar as if it was a lead vocalist; his backup band, The Rebels, provided powerful support and the arrangements included sax and piano solos as part of the signature formula. The recordings, meticulously produced, crafted and executed, were ahead of their time. Duane Eddy also introduced innovations to the recording industry itself. He was among the first rock artists to record in stereo and unlike the performers of the day whose albums consisted of a menagerie of singles, he was a musical pioneer cornering the album market by including material that was distinctively separate from his top 40 material. By releasing singles separately, he was able to record a wider variety of material and sprinkle his albums with blues, jazz, country and pop. Material ranged from Duane Eddy chart rockers to Shenandoah, Moon River and St. Louis Blues…from Hammerstein and Mancini to Dylan. Although best known for his pop singles, few guitarists played such a varied repertoire while still capturing the essence and style of each genre. B.B. King once stated that Duane’s 3:30 Blues was the best blues instrumental ever recorded.
Born in Corning, New York, Eddy moved to Coolidge, Arizona where he began playing guitar at age five. By the time he was 15, he was playing at local dances and in 1955 secured a weekly spot on radio station KCKY before moving on to The Hit Parade, a weekly television show in Phoenix. Two years later, he met disc jockey and producer Lee Hazelwood who recognized the young guitarist’s unique talent and would co-write and produce many of his earlier hits. Eddy assembled a great band of accomplished musicians called The Rebels which included saxophonist Steve Douglas and later Jim Horn, Larry Knechtel on piano, Al Casey on piano and guitar, guitarist Corki Casey , Ike Clanton on bass and Mike Bermani on drums. The Eddy/Hazelwood team experimented with the sound and after Duane wrote the first single, Moovin N Groovin, his unique style evolved with an emphases on the bass strings of the guitar for the melody and use of the higher register for solo and blues arrangements. The result was a mosaic of rock and roll and blues with a distinct southern flavor. It was new rock and roll.
His first single was declined by several record companies in a manner that is reminiscent of the rejection of the Beatles by numerous American companies. Even though there were daily line-ups around the block to see the group and considerable fan mania, American executives insisted that the Beatles would never be successful in the U.S. market and that guitar bands were essentially dead. When Capital Records eventually signed them, we all watched as the Beatles and the British Invasion turned the music industry upside down and fueled the next generation of rock. In Duane’s case, vision finally prevailed and Jamie Records, a largely rhythm and blues label in Philadelphia, recognized the guitarist’s potential. Jamie released Rebel Rouser in 1958 which immediately became an international hit, selling more than three million copies. Ramrod, Cannonball, Forty Miles of Bad Road, Because They’re Young, Peter Gunn, Ring of Fire and Dance With the Guitar Man quickly followed. By 1963, Eddy had sold in excess of 30 million records. His first album Have Twangy Guitar Will Travel generated 5 hit singles and became the most successful rock and roll instrumental album. It remained on the charts for an incredible 82 weeks in an era when singles dominated record sales.
That “Twangy Guitar” heritage and influence was passed on to bands of the British Invasion, Creedance Clearwater Revival, Dave Edmunds, Steve Earle, Chris Isaak and its influence can be heard on Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA. The next generation of guitar stars that would herald Eddy’s influence include Ry Cooder, Hal Blaine and Arlen Roth. In 1983 Duane played a series of concerts in a California club and, as the case with the Beatles years earlier, the lines to see him trailed around the block. Among the notables attending his performance were Jeff Beck, Lindsey Buckingham, Eric Clapton, Albert Lee, Tom Petty, Lee Ritenour and Ron Wood. They had come to pay homage to the man who put the guitar in their hands.
It is perhaps inherent in the evolution of music that an artist who changes the profile of rock music and encourages innovation and change, would succumb to the successes of those who inherit the proverbial torch. The British Invasion, for instance, tempered the careers of many and in turn reengineered rock for another generation. Against those odds, however, Eddy continued to release albums, appeared in movies, wrote and recorded a number of movie soundtracks and produced and performed on the sessions of many artists. Two guitar models have been produced in his honour and Eddy continued to tour and perform to sellout crowds.
Eddy surfaced again on the charts in 1986 with The Art Of Noise and his rendition of Peter Gunn won a Grammy for best rock instrumental performance. The following year Capital released Duane Eddy, his first album in many years. The torch and the new generation of rockers had come full circle. Contributing and performing on the album was a collection of some of the biggest names of rock history: Paul McCartney, Ry Cooder, Steve Cropper, John Fogerty, George Harrison, James Burton, David Lindley, Jeff Lynne and Jim Horn. It is a testament to the respect held by his peers that he is able to attract such a stellar cast to contribute to an album. In 1996 Duane released Ghost Riders on Curb Records, again with an impressive lineup of session musicians. Duane Eddy resides in the Nashville area and continues to perform and influence musicians as he has for a generation. He has contributed to the evolution of rock and roll in a major way and certainly has earned a coveted position in the development of its history.