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Mercury & Decca Years

Jerry Byrd was one of the foremost stylists of the steel guitar ; he even went on to become its main 'ambassador'. Always true to his Rickenbacker single neck lap steel, he played with ease and fluidity, whatever the musical context. But his heart really belonged to Hawaiian music.
In the following piece, we'll take a look at the early years of his long recording career.

Jerry Lester Byrd was born in Lima, Ohio, in 1920. His career started in radio in 1938. In 1947, he came to the Grand Ole Opry, playing for Ernest Tubb and later, Red Foley. In 1948, Jerry returned to Cincinnati and soon had a radio show at WLW. At around the same time, he signed a contract with Mercury Records. Early in 1949, 'Steelin' The Blues' was released (Mercury 6175), with an excellent vocal by Rex Allen. It was most probably cut at a split session with Rex as Jerry played on Allen's 'Tennessee Tears'/'Song Of The Hills' (Mercury 6171) which bore close matrix #. It became a hit and a steel guitar classic instantly. Hank Penny once told me how he was amazed to see Byrd play this complicated track with consummate ease whereas other pedal steel players had a tough time with it, switching pedals and all ! Jerry cut a total of 23 singles/78s for the label - including a 78 rpm book set of Hawaiian music with Danny Kuaana & His Islanders (Album A-82), famous for that incredibly fast and furious rendition of 'Hi Lo March'. However, more Hawaiian-flavored tracks are to be found on his other releases. Rex Allen, for his part, lent his vocal to only one other single, 'Bandera Waltz'/'Steelin' Is His Business' (#6232).
Along with Zeke Turner and Louis Innis, Jerry was part of the Mercury - and King - house band for several years. At Mercury, he can be heard backing up Rex Allen but also Red Kirk, Eddie Hill, Daisy Mae & Old Brother Charlie, Judy Perkins, Pete Cassell and of course, Louis Innis on his solo outings.
The Eddie Hill sides that Jerry played on are very interesting, notably 'The Hot Guitar' (Mercury #6347), a classic bopper from 1951, which also features Chet Atkins and Hank Garland on guitars, trading exciting and elaborate soli. 'Educated Fool' b/w 'Cold, Cold Woman (& the Hot Guitar)' (Mercury #6375) is also outstanding, the top side having been recorded at the 1951 session above.
Several LPs were later released but the cream of Byrd's highly praised Mercury cuts is featured on the 'Steel Guitar Favorites' album in 1957 (MG 20345). The Master of touch and tone, who once kept his tunings secret, does a marvelous job indeed and even creates 'wah-wah' effects at times, without pedals or other devices ! His rendition of 'Steel Guitar Rag', with that terrific slappin' double-bass intro, is awesome. Other classics include 'Limehouse Blues' (one of Ernie Hagar's favorites), 'The Jitterbug Waltz' (only Chet Atkins's version on his 'Chet Atkins In Hollywood' RCA album from 1959 could rival Byrd's) and 'Gold Coast Blues'.
Another excellent LP was 'Man Of Steel' (MG 20932) which featured other noteworthy tracks such as 'Three String Swing', 'Byrd's Boogie', 'Drowsy Waters' and 'This'n'That'. In fact, his entire Mercury output is top class despite a sometimes raw sound (check out 'Texas Playboy Rag' for example). Although not credited, Chet Atkins certainly plays on some of the cuts.

Mostly credited to Jerry Byrd & The String Dusters up to #6393.
With thanks to Big Al Turner & Dave Sax whose booklet 'Mercury-The 6000 Hillbilly Series' is another must !
#6175  Steelin' The Blues (2350) * / Drowsy Waters (2351) * #6291  St-Louis Blues (7006) / South (7056)
#6198  Byrd's Boogie (2353) * / Moonland (2352) * #6306  Over The Waves (7087) * / Twilight Blues (7086)
#6215  Steelin' The Chimes (2619) */ Wabash Wah-Wah Blues (2618) * #6362  Blues Boogie (7225) / Cocoanut Grove (7226) *
#6232  Bandera Waltz (2674) * / Steelin' Is His Business (2675) #6393  Limehouse Blues (7355) / Kohalo March (7354) *
#6241  Panhandle Rag (2671) * / Steel Guitar Rag (2670) * #6415  Hula Blues (YW 7364) / This'n'That (7282) *
#6255  Three String Swing (7004) * / Kilima Waltz (7005) #70130  Elmer's Tune * / Don't Sing Aloha When I Go
#5461  At Sundown * / Harbor Lights #70184  Honolulu March / Gold Coast Blues *
#6264  I Regret To Say Aloha (2684) / Maui Chimes (2685) #70245  Byrd's Nest / Farewell Blues
#6265  Kaimana Hila (2690) / Makalapua (2687) #70312  Georgia Steel Guitar */ Paradise Isle
#6266  Be Mine, Sweetheart, Be Mine / Kaulana O Hilo Hanakahi #70466  Sugar Blues / Texas Playboy Rag *
#6267  Little Lani Jo (2686) / HiLo March (2691) #70519  Hawaiian Sunset / Wang Wang Blues *
#5531  Beyond The Reef / Pagan Love Song EPs - Nani Hawaii (1-3024) - Jerry Byrd's Best (1-3279)
* Denotes tracks which appear on the 'Steel Guitar Favorites' LP - * Denotes tracks which appear on the 'Man Of Steel' LP.

In the mid-fifties, he was appearing daily on a noon-hour program over WSIX-TV in Nashville, Tennessee, where he had now made his home.
All the while, like Speedy West or Noel Boggs in Hollywood, he was asked to play on hundreds of sessions
, Country and Pop. He can be heard on records by artists as diverse as Hank Williams, Red Foley, The Davis Sisters (take a listen to their lively 'Rock-A-Bye Boogie', RCA #47-5345, with an alternate take on Bear Family BCD 15333), Wade Ray, Guy Mitchell, Rosemary Clooney or Patti Page. Occasionally, he could switch to electric guitar when no steel was needed.
He signed with
Decca in 1955.
His stay there did not last more than one year and only one single was issued : 'Sweet Corn' b/w 'Paradise Waltz' (# 29646).
But he cut enough sides to fill another fantastic album called 'Hi Fi Guitar' (DL 8643), which was released in 1958 I think. Recorded in Nashville with the likes of Hank Garland & Grady Martin (lead guitars), Ray Edenton & Harold Bradley (rhythm guitars), and Bob Moore (bass), it contains the second version of 'Steelin' The Blues', tremendous renditions of both 'Remington Ride' and 'Memphis Blues', plus my top favorite, 'Slippery Elm', a fast, fluid number written by Byrd and fellow steeler, Walter Haynes (hear it below). It also included :
'The One Rose (That's Left In My Heart)', 'The Teen-Agers Waltz', 'Come A Little Closer', 'La Cumparsita', 'La Golondrina', 'The Moon Of Manakoora', 'The Dance Of The Goldenrod' and 'La Rosita'.
An EP (Decca ED-2558) was culled from the album and featured 'The One Rose', 'La Cumparsita', 'Slippery Elm' and 'La Golondrina'. The sound is superb and, as with the Mercury LPs, Chet Atkins probably graces some of the tracks.

Click to hear Jerry Byrd.

In January '58, Jerry cut a scarce album for RCA Victor under the supervision of Chet Atkins, 'Hawaiian Beach Party' (LPM-1687). George Morgan, who used Jerry on some Columbia sides, wrote enthusiastic liners on the back cover of the LP which indeed contained some splendid stuff - a recut of 'Drowsy Waters', 'Show Me How To Do The Hula', 'Sand' among others. [My thanks to Carl R. Krigbaum for making those sides available to me !]
Shortly after the RCA long-player, Jerry Byrd began a long association with Monument Records where he cut his best-known albums ('Admirable Byrd', 'Byrd Of Paradise', etc). There, he also backed up Grandpa Jones on a goodly number of sessions. Not surprisingly, he later retired to Hawaii.
He was idolized by many other renowned steelers - including Ernie Hagar, Curly Chalker and Sneaky Pete. He was also known for being an ardent fisherman.
Sadly, Jerry Byrd passed away on April 18, 2005.

© PAUL VIDAL * Privas, France * January 2006/April 2014

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