Zero to 180 – Three Minute Magic

Discoveries of a Pop Music Archaeologist

“BluEmmons”: Landmark Steel Guitar Jazz

Just as Louis Jordan’s pairing of jump blues with country-style steel guitar might have been seen as a radical move in 1947, Buddy Emmons‘ decision to feature his masterful steel guitar stylings within a modern jazz context was considered equally bold in 1963 when Mercury released groundbreaking album, Steel Guitar Jazz.  “BluEmmons” – a Buddy Emmons original – is the album’s kick-off track:


Buddy Emmons (1963)

Buddie Emmons – Pedal Steel Guitar
Jerome Richardson – Tenor & Soprano Saxophones
Bobby Scott – Piano
Art Davis – Bass
Charli Persip – Drums

Buddy Emmons wasn’t the first musician to be featured playing a pedal steel guitar in a jazz setting, but it is unlikely that anyone else recorded an entire date playing one prior to this 1963 session.  Although both he and the instrument are indelibly associated with country music, Emmons makes it work for several reasons.  He’s surrounded by some top players, including Bobby Scott, Jerome Richardson, Art Davis, and Charlie Persip; he also interacts with the band rather than overdoing the special effects available to him, especially the horn-like sounds obtained from his use of the slide.  Emmons also chose an intriguing mix of material.  Obvious highlights are the loping treatment of [Rodgers & Hart’s]Where or When,” featuring Richardson’s delicious soprano sax trading off with the leader, and Emmons’ hot playing of “(Back Home Again In) Indiana.”  Equally rewarding are the jazz classics:  Ray Brown‘s soulful “Gravy Waltz,” an intricate romp through Sonny Rollins‘ “Oleo,” and Horace Silver‘s toe-tapping “The Preacher.”  This was pretty much a one-time affair for Emmons, who returned to country music, though he did record some additional jazz with guitarist Lenny Breau during the 1970s.  Although the instrument never really caught on in jazz, this highly recommended album, which was finally reissued on CD in 2003, is well worth checking out.

Ken Dryden, All Music

In his liner notes for Amazing Steel Guitar: The Buddy Emmons Collection, Music historian Rich Kienzle, highlights a tragic missed opportunity to work with legendary jazz figure, Quincy Jones, on Steel Guitar Jazz:

Emmons stayed with [Ernest] Tubb until 1962, when he made two major changes:  leaving the Troubadours and, after disagreements with Shot Jackson, leaving Sho-Bud.  He and North Carolina inventor Ron Lashley formed the Emmons Guitar Company shortly after that, creating a steel that included many of Emmons’ design ideas that Shot had rejected.  Early that year, when Jimmy Day left Ray Price‘s Cherokee Cowboys, Emmons replaced him in the band.  Again, Buddy was working with one of the premier country road bands.

Off the road, he often played jazz with other musicians around Nashville.  When Ernest Tubb’s son Justin, a successful singer in his own right, heard Buddy at one of these jam sessions in 1963, he suggested that Emmons try an all-jazz steel guitar album and soon interested Mercury Records in the concept.  Jazz arranger, Quincy Jones, working as head of pop A&R at Mercury, suggested some tunes, and was originally set to produce the session.  Jones couldn’t do it, but Buddy, who’d wanted to record in Nashville, was set to record in New York on July 22, 1963 with a jazz rhythm section.


Buddy vs. Buddie?

Only his mother knows

Steel Guitar Jazz LP

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One Response

  1. An album I’m hoping to write a long-form appreciation of; thanks for posting the clip and for the Louis Jordan contextualization. But I’d think twice before accepting almost any AMG write-up these days, even by someone who publishes as widely as Dryden, who’s otherwise on the right track about why the LP worked, with the advantage of about 50 years’ hindsight. He doesn’t have a clue as to how Emmons looked for opps to play jazz throughout the remainder of his career in N’ville, not just with Breau, nor about other steelers, actually quite a large number, who did jazz and earned at least selective respect among straightahead players, despite the obvious “country,” honky-tonk or Western swing pigeonholing of the instrument’s sound and settings.

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