For most artists, to pull off one comeback in a career is remarkable enough. But two? All too often, such a double return can only be the result of dark record company machinations… or a new jeans advertisement. So it’s easy to understand the broad smile visible on Duane Eddy’s face when he took to the stage of London’s 100 Club in June, hammering out the riff to Moovin’ And Groovin’.
This man – who once described his greatest contribution to rock’n’roll being the fact that he never sang – can’t believe his good luck. ‘By rights,’ he drawls, ‘I should be at home sitting by the fireplace, watching television and burning old records.’
Duane first burst out of Phoenix, Arizona over five decades ago with the biggest, twangiest, toughest guitar sound on the planet, and his career has shot up and down with the about the same alacrity as the Greek currency.
But this time around – thanks to an unexpected alliance with Sheffield songsmith Richard Hawley – it feels as though the quiet, unassuming guitarist could be in our sights for a while. His new album Road Trip was recorded with Hawley in the producer’s chair. Far from merely paying lip service to past glories, it’s a vibrant slice of instrumental anarchy that sees Duane Eddy handling everything from crazed surf instrumentals to a lilting folk air.
Duane’s praise of Richard Hawley is unstinting, and he begins by explaining the unlikely coincidences that led to the two meeting. ‘I was driving around Nashville with the car radio on, and I heard some of Richard’s stuff; I really liked what he was doing, this big sound he had but with lots of spaces in the arrangements, and I thought “I really would like to jump in there with a guitar solo!”
‘A few months later I came to England to be presented with a Mojo Icon Award. I got talking to Richard’s manager, and told him what I’d thought. He said “Well, we might be able to arrange something there,” and a few months later I found myself in Sheffield. Since that time I’ve been working with Richard’s band in the UK, and they’re just amazing.’
The man who inspired a generation of rock guitarists with no more than a Bigsby equipped Gretsch 6120, some reverb on his amp and a home-made echo chamber started his career on the Phoenix country circuit at just 15 years of age. His parents were supportive of his musical aspirations, but insisted that he learn to play the Hawaiian lap steel guitar.
‘I had half a dozen lessons and even went on a radio station, advertising my teacher – but I quit; I just wasn’t enjoying it. I ended up teaching myself guitar, by playing along with the radio.’
Duane’s first electric guitar was a 1954 Gibson Les Paul goldtop, but with his love for the tremolo arm and admiration for Chet Atkins, there can’t have been much contest when he first saw an orange Chet Atkins Gretsch 6120 on sale in Ziggie’s Music Store in Phoenix in 1957. ‘It had the sweetest neck and played so well,’ remembers Duane.
These days he plays a reissue. ‘They took the measurements and it looks like the original, plays like the original… and it sounds just great.’
Lee Hazelwood was a local Phoenix DJ who’d hit paydirt in 1956 with The Fool, a record he produced for local rockabilly singer Sanford Clark. By the time that he got together with Duane Eddy in 1958 to record Moovin’ And Groovin’, he was already working as a staff producer for Los Angeles-based Dot Records.
‘Lee liked to analyse the sounds he heard on hit records he was DJ-ing, and knew just what he wanted; he’d work all day just to get one thing right,’ recalls Eddy. ‘We’d mic everything – the drums, piano.
We had three tracks and although it was pretty primitive, for Phoenix it was state of the art; maybe not as good as the ones in California, New York or Nashville, but still pretty good. After Rebel Rouser the studio invested in a four-track machine… that may sound puny, but that’s all they had at Abbey Road in 1962 for the Beatles.’
Two things lay at the heart of the Duane Eddy sound, and the first was the titanic echo on his recordings, a sound that came courtesy of a water tank salvaged from a local scrap yard.
‘Lee and I went out one day and yelled into these big tanks down by the Salt River, decided which one had the best echo, and the studio owner had this 2,000-gallon tank trucked up to the studio,’ Duane recalls. ‘Jack Miller the engineer built a wooden rack for the tank outside in the parking lot, just the other side of the studio wall, rigged up a speaker at one end and placed a mic in the other; the sound would swirl around the tank.
We had problems with police sirens, and we’d have to chase the birds off, but it came up with some amazing effects!
‘At the time everyone was trying to come up with a good echo. Chuck Berry told me that Chess didn’t really know what they were doing in the studio, but – as you can hear on Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel – Nashville and RCA certainly did! Steve Scholes signed Elvis to RCA, and told me he gave Elvis a gold Cadillac before his first session.
When he showed up driving this car, the people at RCA were incredulous! They said “He’d better be good or you’re outta here, pal!” Steve told me he was sitting there biting his nails because Elvis had a hellacious cold and he could see his career going down the pan! Luckily Elvis sang his butt off, but Steve told me they soaked him in echo to cover up the snots and sniffles – but you can still hear it!’
The second vital ingredient in the Duane Eddy sound was his amplifier, adapted for him by Buddy Wheeler, a local pedal steel and bass player. ‘Buddy always wanted a good clean powerful sound, so he used a Magnatone which originally came with two 12" Jensen speakers, and changed them for a 15" JBL with a tweeter.
He also hopped up the power to over 100 watts, covered it with a nice black naugahyde and grille cloth, and fitted a new power pack. It was better than anything else on the market at that time.’
Despite his contacts in the Californian music business, Lee Hazelwood still had difficulty in finding interest for Duane’s first record, Moovin’ And Groovin’. ‘His partner in LA, Lester Sill, activated a little label called Jamie Records, managed to get Dick Clarke and a few other DJ’s to play it, and the record eventually got to about 70 in Billboard,’ says Duane. ‘But however much payola goes on, a record will not make it unless it’s got it. If it doesn’t have it in the grooves it won’t sell. But Lee and I were just a great combination, there was a good chemistry between us. I had my sound, and he had his unique ideas.’
But it was Duane’s next release Rebel Rouser that sent his big Phoenix sound roaring across the American airwaves. It was the start of an unequalled five-year run of hit records.
‘Link Wray came on the scene about the same time making great use of the tremolo, but I just thought “That’s cool – we’re both thinking along the same lines, and he’s on the East Coast and I’m in the South West.” Tremolo was a fairly new device at that time and it was a cool effect, which is why I’d used it on Rebel Rouser.’
Duane and Lee Hazelwood hit on a winning formula; after recordings were made in Phoenix, Hazelwood would take the master tapes to Goldstar studios in Los Angeles where sax solos and the background voices supplying those trademark whoops, yells and handclaps would be added. Goldstar – later used by Phil Spector – was an inspired choice; in these glory days of rock’n’roll, it had the best echo chamber in the country.
The barking tenor sax solos – played by Steve Douglas or Jim Horn – were as essential a part of the Duane Eddy sound as the man’s own Gretsch, but finding a sax player able to pull off these rasping R’n’B solos was no easy matter. ‘They just don’t grow on trees, and never have,’ he chuckles. ‘Even back in ’57 and ’58 there were only a couple of guys in LA, plus King Curtis on the East Coast – that was it.
‘Steve Douglas played sax on Cannonball and some of my records, got known for that and started doing a lot of session work. Then I hired Jim Horn, but even he had to learn how to play that King Curtis style. There just weren’t many guys that played rock’n’roll sax; quite a few guys could honk but they couldn’t get that Yakety Yak sax, that really raspy sound.
It was because we had no one in Phoenix that we had to go to LA to overdub it; Plas Johnson played on Moovin’ And Groovin’ and Gil Bernal did Rebel Rouser. Ron Dziubla, who’s with me now, is amazing; when he plays Moovin’ And Groovin’ he sounds like Plas Johnson, and he plays like Steve Douglas on Peter Gunn.’
With the phenomenal success of his early records, Duane was very quickly soon out on the road to work, work and work.
‘I’d be one of the headliners on bus tours with eight or 10 acts playing coliseums and big arenas all over the States. I could have headlined myself, but because I didn’t feel that an instrumental act should close the show I’d play for half an hour and then let Paul Anka or Frankie Avalon finish. There was a backing band for most of the artists, but Bo Diddley and myself both carried our own bands.
‘I first came to England with Bobby Darin and Clyde McPhatter in 1960 and loved it; when we went in a car going to the hotel, the guys were all saying “This is just like the movies, the old buildings, the taxis…” We were as excited as we could be.’
For UK players, Duane’s huge guitar sound in the pre-Marshall era was a revelation. ‘I brought my own amp and used a step-down transformer,’ he recalls. ‘We had the same band that I used on the record – Jim Horn, Larry Maxwell, David Sanborn – so it sounded identical. We were tight, and when a band gets to be that tight of course it produces a big sound.
The crowds seemed amazed, but we were shocked to death; after every song there’d be just polite applause! A third of the way through, Jim Horn leaned over to me and said “I don’t think they like us,” because in America they’d scream through the whole act. That never bothered me. I’d just play louder than they were screaming!
‘But at the end the place exploded with feet stomping, hand clapping, cheering and chants of “We want Duane!” They kept it up for about 25 minutes, and even when Bobby Darin went on they were still chanting four numbers into his set. Bobby was a consummate performer so eventually he did have them in the palm of his hand, but the next day Disc magazine said Duane Eddy was the hit of the show, which didn’t please him. Luckily, we were good friends!’
With his twangy guitar sound firmly entrenched in the charts worldwide, Duane must have felt uneasy when he broke with the tried and tested Phoenix formula to record Because They’re Young.
Written to be a movie theme, the tune was recorded in Universal Studios in Hollywood with a large string section and a couple of unexpected session players.
‘I walked in the studio and said “Hi” to Lee and then saw [session guitarist] Howard Roberts, which surprised me. We got talking and he said he was going to play rhythm… which I thought was cool, but a waste of manpower! We also had Barney Kessel, and I was so shocked to meet him that I found it hard to shake hands.
He was the hottest jazz guitarist in the world at that point, but he did sessions to add to his income. The string players all filed in with their little cases wearing suits, tuned for a while, passed out the music, we did it in maybe five or six takes, and that was it.
‘We also recorded the Theme From Moon Children, which was a little more difficult, but not too much. I was so nervous that I just turned my back on them so they couldn’t see how bad I was doing! They knew this and were so sweet for the rest of the time; apart from a 10-minute break, the session was over in under three hours. Howard started showing Barney some new old guitar he’d got, something that amounted to a Stradivarius of guitars.
They were both ooh-ing and aaah-ing, and Barney was playing it. Shelley Mann, who was drumming, sat back down with his brushes and Red Callander picked up his upright bass. They played Witchcraft for about 12 minutes and the rest of us were just freaking out! It was one of those special moments in life, and I was just so lucky to be there.’
In 1963, after five years of touring, Duane came off the road and watched the British Invasion take over. ‘I’d had enough – I was damn near exhausted. When I went to England in 1960, the charts had been 85 per cent American and 15 per cent British, which I thought was one-sided. I knew British artists like Billy Fury were recording rock’n’roll – Tommy Steele had sent me a big picture of himself saying “A big welcome to England” which I put in every dressing room where I played.
‘But suddenly it was 95 per cent British bands in our American charts, and I thought, “Whoa, that’s too much!” Everybody loved them, so we gave up easily. We just laid down and accepted it.’
With a new RCA contract for three albums a year, Eddy became a studio musician. ‘I’d get up and go to work and come home at five like a guy going to the factory.’ A baffling variety of titles were issued during these years – Surfing With Duane Eddy, Duane Eddy A Go Go, Twang A Country Song and even Duane Does Dylan.
It wasn’t until 1970 that he returned to the hit parade – but this time it was the ‘easy listening’ charts that gave a home to his recording of Freight Train.
‘We were constantly looking for ideas, but RCA often wouldn’t release my next album for three or four months. That was frustrating. With Jamie Records, if I recorded a Twist or Mashed Potato dance record, anything I did would be out the next week and right there on top of the trend. Sometimes the trend followed me, and sometimes I followed it!’
Apart from the 1975 chart success of Play Me Like You Play My Guitar, Duane was off the radar for years, and it took a chance encounter with an old friend, Don Randi, to entice him back into the limelight. A series of 1983 gigs at Randi’s small LA club not only boasted a stellar backing band that included Ry Cooder, but also attracted a star-studded audience… Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and James Burton.
One of the highlights of each show – and at Duane’s recent 100 Club appearance – was a version of Three-30-Blues. ‘When Ry played bottleneck on that number people would just go nuts, but I’d hardly heard any blues until I was about 17 or 18,’ Duane reveals. ‘I was introduced to blues by the Rivvingtons, who did my backing vocals.
‘After one LA show they took me to the 54 Ballroom in Watts where a big blues orchestra asked me to sit in. The bandleader nodded to me to play a solo, and as I’d heard what the guitar player had done before me, I thought I’d just try and copy that. I got through it and the bandleader said “Go again,” So I thought “Okay!” I let it blow, and that’s how I accidentally learned to play blues.
‘Soon after that I went to a studio with [producer] Lester Sill and there was a guy playing some great blues licks in the booth. Turned out it was BB King, and I shaped Three-30-Blues after his style.’
In 1986 Ry Cooder, Art Of Noise, James Burton, Steve Cropper, old Rebels Jim Horn and Larry Maxwell, George Harrison and Paul McCartney all collaborated with Duane on what should have been the ultimate comeback album.
Following as it did hard on the heels of Art Of Noise and their top 10 hit with a version of Peter Gunn, it couldn’t fail – on paper, at least. ‘We had Jeff Lynne producing… it didn’t get any better,’ says Duane. ‘It wasn’t a project – it was an adventure, great fun. I loved it, but I was totally let down by the record company who failed to market it properly.’
Once again, Duane lay low to lick his wounds. In 1992 he guested on Hank Marvin’s Into The Light album; ‘I was in Switzerland and Hank got in touch and asked if I’d play Pipeline on his new record; apparently the Shadows had recorded Shazam way back.’ But apart from popping up at a number of award ceremonies over intervening years, the twang master has been rather conspicuous by his absence.
However, it’s clear that Duane’s relishing every minute of his unexpected renaissance. ‘The chemistry between Richard Hawley and his band is unbelievable,’ he promises. ‘The ideas just kept flowing, and I also fell in love with Sheffield – I liken it to a young Nashville… they’re getting their own sound together, and everybody’s been so great.
‘I figure that I’m 73 years old, and music’s been good to me. I never got wealthy but I made a good living, so this is all a wonderful bonus.’