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The Story of a
Steel Guitar Whizz

Some 20 years ago,
I was visiting with a good buddy of mine in Richmond (Surrey, England) - who's also a famed record collector and seller - when, after dinner, he played me a bunch of platters from his own collection : little gems like 'Pretending Is A Game' by Sleepy Jeffers (Starday) or 'Bip A Little, Bop A Lot' by Joe Penny (a scorching rocker on Federal) ; then, he put a Capitol '45 on the turntable and asked me what I thought about it ... Well, all I can remember is that I was suddenly at a loss for words to describe the excitement generated inside of me by this new discovery called 'The Night Rider' and played by steeler Speedy West and guitar maestro Jimmy Bryant !!! I also recall vividly that I bought it on the spot, along with singles by Johnny David (Dot), Sonny Burns (Starday), Jackie Lee Cochran (Decca - sadly he's gone now), Andy Starr (MGM), The Vandergrift Brothers (Cozy) plus the above-mentioned Joe Penny killer !! Back home in France, I played the Speedy West single to death and began researching his discography.

The Night Rider !Little did I know then that I would meet this fabulous musician in 1987 at Hank Penny's house in Chatsworth (California), thanks to the late Hank Penny himself and his Family whom I'm proud to call Friends ; Hank had arranged for Speedy to come over to his house from Oklahoma (where he still resides) for a Special Party he used to throw each and every year, knowing that my wife and I - West/Bryant fans #1 - would be over the moon to spend some time with him !! Mind you, the theme tune for my weekly radio broadcasts, 'Crazy Times', was 'The Night Rider' for a couple of years and I once wrote a column for the French music mag, 'Latch On', called 'Chatter Box', named after another amazing West/Bryant instrumental !! The following story is based on extensive interviews I conducted with Speedy at that memorable time (the tapes are in my library).

Wesley Webb West was born on January 25, 1924, in Springfield, Missouri. At an early age, he was attracted by the sounds of a steel guitar and he told me how he once cried his heart out to get his parents to buy him a steel he saw in a pawnshop. His parents were poor and young Wesley Webb really wanted to master the instrument in order to repay his debt.
He did just that and soon became known as
Speedy West - for obvious reasons !! At the time, he used to grow tomatoes for a living - playing in clubs at night. However, he decided to get rid of that backbreaking job and moved west to California in the late '40s with his wife, his car and everything he owned inside !!

Speedy West (left) in Ray Hahn's Missouri Wranglers.The first band he played with in California was that of
Ray Hahn & The Missouri Wranglers. Speedy was very much influenced by Joaquin Murphy, a tremendous steeler whose solos enlightened many recordings by Spade Cooley, Tex Williams and Smokey Rogers among others. But, unlike Murphy who thought pedals on a steel guitar were useless, Speedy wanted a pedal steel and asked the renowned Paul Bigsby to build one for him. By 1948, Speedy West had taken delivery of it and began playing with the likes of Spade Cooley and Herbert 'Hank' Penny, one of the true unsung heroes of Country Music (more on him shortly on this very website). While in Penny's band, he was spotted by Cliffie Stone who had a popular radio show and who also worked as a musician and talent scout for Capitol Records. Hank Penny told me in '87 that he let Speedy go with Cliffie because he knew that Stone was the right guy to help Speedy explode on the Country music scene.

Click & hear some of Speedy's stylings in 1952 !!Soon afterwards, Speedy teamed up with super talented
Ivy Jimmy Bryant on guitar and 'The Flaming Guitars' were born !! They were asked to back up most of the acts on the Capitol roster, beginning with Tennessee Ernie Ford (remember his duet with Kay Starr on 'I'll Never Be Free', released as Capitol F 1124 in October, 1950?). From then on, they spent most of their time in the studios and on radio shows - either as soloists or as backing musicians (check out this short list of artists whose sessions they played on, together or separately : Eddie Kirk, Molly Bee, Helen O'Connell, Skeets Mc Donald, Gene O'Quin, Doye O'Dell, Sammy Masters, Johnny Horton, Ella Mae Morse, Monte Hale, Bob Roubian, Merrill Moore, Jeanne Gayle, The Sons Of The Pioneers, Sheb Wooley, Bing Crosby, Billy Strange, Hank Penny, Hank Thompson, The Billy May Orchestra, Red Ingle, Terry Fell, Moon Mullican, Jimmy Lee, Wanda Jackson, Johnny Bond...). We'll now take a look at their career as an instrumental duo.

Speed with his 3-neck Bigsby pedal steelFrom 1951 to 1956, they cut a bunch of '45s for Capitol which remain the Holy Grail of Country music. Speedy had found his way (bar shivers, whistles) and Jimmy Bryant brought along his feeling for Jazz, the two combining their astonishing virtuosity to create incredible numbers such as 'Stratosphere Boogie' (F 2964, with Jimmy playing his double-neck Stratosphere guitar), 'This Ain't The Blues' (F 2675), 'Jammin' With Jimmy' (F 2762, featuring Jimmy on guitar and fiddle - he could also play piano but nobody knew it !!), 'Serenade To A Frog'/'Bryant's Bounce' (F 2444), 'Shuffleboard Rag' (F 3348), 'Pickin' Peppers' and its noisy, rockin' flip, 'Pushin' The Blues' (F 3454). Most of these cuts plus a few more - like the delightful 'Yodeling Guitar', the atmospheric 'Railroadin' and Speedy West's most popular number, 'Speedin' West' - were collected on two Capitol LPs in 1960 : 'Country Cabin Jazz' (T 1314, credited to Jimmy Bryant) and 'Steel Guitar' (T 1341, credited to Speedy West). In 1954, Speedy & Jimmy had released the legendary album, 'Two Guitars Country Style' (H 520 as a 10" LP or T 520 as a 12" LP), which contained other masterpieces such as 'This Is Southland', 'Country Capers', 'Midnight Ramble' (where Django Reinhardt's influence on Bryant is especially audible) and 'Low Man On A Totem Pole'. After 1956, Jimmy Bryant (who was a 'hellraiser' according to Hank Penny) was dropped by Capitol Records, so Speedy cut a solo LP in 1958 ('West Of Hawaï', T 956) and then teamed up with another killer guitarist, Roy Lanham. Roy, along with Billy Strange, Billy Liebert and Rock'n'Roll/Rhythm'n'Blues drummer Earl Palmer, played on Speedy's last Capitol album in 1962, 'Guitar Spectacular' (ST 1835). Strange and Lanham alternated on lead guitar.
The stereo copy is simply fantastic, giving true dimension to tracks like
'Double Or Nothing', 'Afternoon Of A Swan' or the magical 'Reflections From The Moon'.

Speedy went on to work for the Fender Company and didn't play with Bryant until the late '70s when the duo cut a session produced by Pete Drake, another top steeler whose albums on Starday, Smash or Stop (his own label) are not to be missed. That work was eventually issued on LP in 1988, then on CD in 1990 by Step One Records in Nashville ('For The Last Time', SOR-0062). Tracks like 'The West Is Calling' or 'Jumpin' Jeepers' showed that both musicians had lost none of their skills nor their telepathic musical rapport. Also on board was a remake of 'Rolling Sky', the original flip to their sensational 'The Night Rider' (Capitol F 3635). In 1981, Speedy West suffered a stroke which ultimately left him unable to play again - the worst thing that could happen to him. Jimmy Bryant played on countless sessions from the mid-'50s to the mid-'70s and cut several LPs for Imperial Records, the best being 'The Fastest Guitar In The Country' (LP 12360) in 1967. He also released a very rare single on Big J (# 162) in the '60s, arranged a couple of songs by Tony Epper for Gallahad Records (# 101) and played with Noel Boggs on a single by Harold Hensley in 1973 ('Boodle-Dee-Beep', on Ubande). Unfortunately, he died of lung cancer on September 22, 1980.

Speedy (right) with Ernie Hagar (left). Photo courtesy of Ernie Hagar.West and Bryant were a truly unique duo and influenced many Country and Rock'n'Roll musicians : steelers like
Basil Smith, Buddy Emmons, Tommy Elliott and Ernie Hagar tried to emulate Speedy's sound, whereas pickers like Albert Lee or Danny Gatton learned a lot from Bryant.
In 1952,
Les Paul himself talked Capitol into not releasing the duo's rendition of 'Lover' which was un tour de force par excellence !! It remained unissued until 1997, when Bear Family Records in Germany released a 4-CD box set (BCD 15956) which collects all their work as a duo in one place. You'll also hear the dazzling 'China Boy', Jimmy Bryant's early sides for Modern Records, some studio chatter and much more !! Buy the set for the music first and foremost, but also for the photos and Richard Weize's definitive Capitol discography.

Last, but not least, Speedy West is a gentleman - just like his longtime friends Hank Penny and Harold Hensley. He used to tell me : "You know, we're all made of flesh and blood ; we're all the same". He was always modest but proud to see that his musical achievements - with and without Jimmy Bryant - were acknowledged well beyond the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
When I met Speedy for the first time at
Hank Penny's house, we both were in our pajamas - now, I wasn't sleepwalking : it was reality - and reality is so much better than dreams ... !!!

One last thing : for years, I've been working on a West/Bryant discography and sessionography - including their solo work and their sessions as back up musicians. I'll gradually publish this stuff in these pages !!

Copyright Paul Vidal * Privas, France * 1998-2005

From left to right
Billy Liebert, the late Cliffie Stone, the late Eddie Kirk, Bucky Tibbs, the late Tennessee Ernie Ford, the late Harold Hensley, Speedy West with his Bigsby steel guitar & Herman The Hermit (early '50s).