Friday Night Forgotten Oldie: Pedals and levers

This week the Country Music Association announced its latest inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Ray Charles. No description necessary.

The Judds. Mother and daughter singing duo.

Eddie Bayers. A studio session drummer who has played on 300 gold and platinum albums.

And Pete Drake. Who?

Pete Drake.


Not just any guitar. Pedal steel guitar.

Pin on Pedal steel guitars

More on Drake in a bit.

Sometime in the mid-1980’s when I was News Director and morning drive host at WUWM-FM Milwaukee Public Radio I got the chance to interview a pedal steel guitar player who also had a guitar manufacturing company in Hendersonville, Tennessee. The musician was in Milwaukee to play in a back-up band for a big country concert downtown.

My steel trap of a mind fails me. Can’t remember the guitar player or the big name country artist on the marquis.

But I did get a great story about the pedal steel guitar. About its design. Its sound. How difficult it is to master, requiring use of fingers, thumbs, hands, legs, knees and feet.

A feature on this rather unusual musical instrument was a perfect public radio story and mine went the typical 8-9 minutes with sound bites and audio clips.

Needless to say my interviewee who not only played but actually made the twangy guitars was passionate about them. I saved one particular sound bite for the end of my report where he said his dream was to see one day where a pedal steel guitar shared center stage with a major symphonic orchestra.

Obie Yadgar, a famous classical music announcer I worked with at WUWM followed my program and during our daily morning chat between shows he got a chuckle about the very thought of a pedal steel up there with violins, violas, and cellos.

The subject of my feature returned home to Tennessee with tape of the report and played it for Pete Drake, also a Tennessee resident with the reputation of being the world’s best and most famous pedal steel guitar player. I was later informed Drake wept when he heard what I put on the radio. Drake played on 118 Gold and Platinum albums in his career. In addition to his solo work Drake won awards for his music with artists ranging from Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Ringo Starr to Elvis Presley and George Jones.

Here are just a couple of recordings you can hear Drake’s pedal steel.

“Lay Lady Lay” peaked at #7 on the Billboard chart in 1969.

Elvis and the Jordanaires recorded with Pete Drake in a studio in May of 1966.

A heavy smoker, Drake died of lung disease in July of 1988. He was 55. From the Country Music Association:

Country Music as the world knows it wouldn’t sound like Country Music without the pedal steel guitar. And the pedal steel wouldn’t sound like pedal steel without Pete Drake.

Drake helped define the sound of the pedal steel on some of Country Music’s most enduring hits, among them Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden,” Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl” and George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

He was born Roddis Franklin Drake in Augusta, GA, on October 8, 1932. Brothers Bill and Jack were also musicians, playing together as the Drake Brothers; later, Jack played bass for Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours. However, young Pete’s real inspiration came from watching Jerry Byrd play lap steel on the Grand Ole Opry. Drake went back to Georgia and bought a single-neck Supro lap steel for $39 at a pawnshop. As he heard and saw players like Leon McAuliffe adding pedals and necks, he built his own instrument, one that had four necks and a single pedal. He also formed a band in Atlanta called Sons of the South, which counted Jerry Reed, Roger Miller, Jack Greene, Doug Kershaw and Joe South among its members at one point or another.

In 1959, Drake moved to Nashville with the goal of playing on the Opry, as his hero Byrd had. He backed Don Gibson, Marty Robbins and Carl and Pearl Butler, but he didn’t take to road life, so he decided to stay in Nashville and try to become a session musician.

One night, while Drake was playing for Carl and Pearl Butler at the Opry, Roy Drusky heard him and asked him to play on an upcoming session. The song they cut that day, “Anymore,” became the first hit to feature Drake’s steel, but it certainly wasn’t the last. Drake quickly became known as part of Nashville’s A-Team of session players, and estimated that he regularly played on three sessions a day, five days a week. As his studio bookings increased, Drake bought a Nash Rambler, giving him a place that he could nap for an hour or so between sessions on Music Row.

Drake could make the pedal steel sing, moving a bar across its strings to make it swoop and sigh, and pressing its pedals or squeezing its knee levers to make it moan. The pedal steel, Drake liked to say, was the closest instrument to the human voice.

Not only could he make the pedal steel sing, but he could also make it talk. Literally. After seeing a film with musician Alvino Rey and his “talking” steel guitar, Drake developed one of his own.

Drake used his “talk box” on station breaks for Nashville radio station WSM-AM and on records like Roger Miller’s “Lock, Stock and Teardrops” and Jim Reeves’ “I’ve Enjoyed as Much of This as I Can Stand.”

In 1966, Drake played on sessions for Elvis Presley’s How Great Thou Art album. He also appeared on the soundtracks for Presley films “Spinout,” “Easy Come, Easy Go,” “Double Trouble,” “Clambake” and “Speedway,” work that opened doors to acceptance in the pop and rock realm.

He played on Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, recorded in Nashville in 1967, as well as on Dylan’s subsequent albums, Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait. The Dylan recordings led to an invitation from George Harrison to fly to London and play on sessions for his All Things Must Pass album. At those sessions, Drake met a 20-year-old Peter Frampton and demonstrated his talk box for the fascinated young guitarist (Frampton would take the effect to multi-Platinum heights a few years later on records like “Show Me The Way” and “Do You Feel Like We Do”). Drake also invited Ringo Starr to Nashville and, within a matter of days, was producing Starr’s Beaucoups of Blues album with Country musicians, marking the first time a Beatle had recorded in the United States.

The Country sessions continued, as well, with Drake playing on records by artists including Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson, Ronnie Milsap, the Oak Ridge Boys, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, The Statler Brothers, Hank Williams Jr. and Ray Charles. During his lifetime, Drake played on 118 Gold and Platinum albums, but his impact was felt beyond the recording sessions on which he played.

Drake was inducted into the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1987. The following year, on July 29, Drake died at his Brentwood, TN home due to complications from emphysema. He was posthumously inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame (2007) and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame (2010).

Drake is the first pedal steel player to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Recording and/or Touring Musician category.

A formal induction ceremony for Bayers, Charles, Drake and The Judds will take place at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in the CMA Theater at a to-be-determined date.

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