The Most Exciting Guitar
This month's "SPOTLIGHT" LP features the extraordinary guitar
skills of one of the finest "cowboy jazz" players ever - Roy
Lanham. While Roy was very busy as a leader, sideman and studio musician
as far back as the 1940's, (and continuing through the 50's 60's, 70's
and 80's) his name is not nearly as well known today as it should be.
Roy's first prominent exposure came in Cincinnati as a staff guitarist
for radio station WLW, which was a fertile proving ground for many other
stellar country musicians and performers including Homer & Jethro,
Merle Travis, Joe Maphis, Hank Penny and Grandpa Jones. At the same
time Roy was the leader of the very fine vocal/instrumental group The
Whippoorwills. (The Whippoorwills line-up featured Roy on lead guitar
and vocals, Doug Dalton
on mandolin and vocals, Dusty Rhoads on bass and vocals, Gene
Monbeck on rhythm guitar and vocals, and Juanita Vastine/" Sweet
Georgia Brown" on vocals.) The Whippoorwills program might include
an old western vocal like "Skyball Paint" or a pop-flavored
tune like "Blue Raindrops" followed by an absolutely blistering
instrumental like "Air Mail Special", "Stompin' At The
Savoy" or a rousing version of "Tea For Two".
Roy was an active session musician and appeared on records by artists
like the Delmore Brothers (on King)
In the early 1960's Roy joined the legendary Sons of the Pioneers as
a lead guitarist/vocalist. He was active with them through the 60's,
70's, and much of the 80's until health problems forced him to retire.
Roy passed away in early 1991 and the guitar community lost a unique
and gifted player.
The Most Exciting Guitar was recorded for Seattle-based Dolton
Records some time in 1959 and released in 1961. Roy displays his versatility
by adroitly handling pop tunes, jazz standards and country classics.
And lending his trademark style (constantly melodic - always swinging)
to each one. Roy's guitar technique was so unique! His approach to chord
melody was unlike any other guitarist I've ever heard. Truly innovative,
he used incredibly hip chord inversions with very cool voicings and
liberally mixed a pick and fingerstyle technique. He also was one of
the very few jazz oriented professional guitarists (possible the only
one??) to regularly use a Fender Jazzmaster. (Check out the Jazzmaster
on the cover of LP. It's Fiesta Red with a cool tortoise 'guard. Nice
tux too!) This gave him a very unusual tone: a rich jazz sound perfectly
blended with country twang. (He occasionally used a Fender Jaguar and
I've seen photos of Roy playing Strat and even a Duo-Sonic. Not exactly
your typical jazz boxes!!)
"Lost Weekend" starts this LP off in fine fashion. This mid
40's Woody Herman chart features some fancy single note pickin' paired
with Roy's interesting chord work. Definitely swingin'! "Where
Or When" is just incredible! This is my all-time favorite version
of this beautiful Rodgers & Hart song. Roy's wonderful chord melody-based
arrangement moves along quite a bit faster than most versions of this
song. His ultra-cool chords and imaginative voicings really make this
highlight of the LP. (I like this one so much that I adapted it for
my style of playing and try to play much of it just like Roy - although
my tempo is a bit slower and I'm sure that many of my voicings aren't
exactly perfect.) Even the ending is cool! "Body and Soul"
gets a beautifully lush arrangement as does "As Time Goes By".
And once again, Roy's very distinctive chords highlight both of these
Roy gets some very fine support from two veteran players, Red Wootten
on bass and Earl Palmer on drums. These guys really lay down a solid
groove on every tune, including the exceptionally fine cover of the
Charlie Christian/Benny Goodman song "A Smooth One". Roy really
works the chords on this one!
Roy's country roots are well represented by the country/steel guitar
classic, "Steel Guitar Rag", which gets a brisk up-tempo treatment.
Very cool! He also pulls out another country classic, "Wildwood
Flower", in which he effortlessly navigates from Mother Maybelle
Carter's "drop thumb style" to Travis/Atkins "thumb style"
to pick style - and back again. "Lover Come Back to Me" features
some intricate chords for the melody and a signature/trademark Roy Lanham
"lick" for the ending. (Jay Lacy astutely copped his "lick"
for the ending to "Up A Lazy River"/"Sweet Georgia Brown"
on his CD Back to the Tone Age.) The "Kerry Dance"
is another uptempo selection and it features a very hot chord solo/sequence
expertly sandwiched between two fine single note solos. The Most
Exciting Guitar concludes with the great old fiddle standard "Old
Joe Clark". Roy starts it off with a very jazzy (and subdued) introduction
and then goes into the main melody at a blistering pace. There's a lot
of interesting single note and chord-based things happening on this
one. Very nifty!
At some point in the future I hope to do a more in-depth profile of
Roy. Until then, I hope this "SPOTLIGHT" column will interest
some of you who don't know about Roy to look for his records. (Unfortunately,
finding Roy's records probably won't be real easy. They've been out
of print for years. But trust me, the search is worth it.) The easiest
way to get a small sampling of Roy's awesome ability is to pick up the
fine CD Legends of Guitar - Country, Vol. 1 (Rhino Records CD R2 70718).
This CD features the track "Lost Weekend", the only Roy Lanham
material I'm aware of that is available on U.S. compact disc under his
own name. Hey Dolton/Liberty/EMI!! How about a CD reissue of The Most
The Most Exciting Guitar is available in stereo on Dolton LP
BST 8009 or in mono on Dolton LP BLP 2009.
Special THANKS to Deke Dickerson for putting me on to some of
Roy's Sage & Sand material that I wasn't familiar with. And - EXTRA
SPECIAL THANKS to Jeff Heinz and Dusty Rhoads for the very cool
Whippoorwills radio broadcast transcriptions.
A final note on a separate topic: Fans of steel guitar will be happy
to hear about a book I'm working on. Tentatively titled "Steel
Guitar: The players and the Music", it will be published by Centerstream
Publishing and distributed by Hal Leonard Publishing Corporation. (These
are the same folks who brought you Jay Scott's book on Gretsch instruments
and Richard Smith's fine book on Rickenbacker guitars.) If you're a
fan of steel guitar I encourage you to write or call me if you have
old photos, albums, ideas, information, etc. Or if you just want to
talk about your favorite steel player(s).
The author welcomes correspondence with fellow fans of guitar music.
He listens to a wide range of styles but his special interests are in
the instrumental jazz, "cowboy jazz", and country vein. Steel
guitar too. Write to Jim Hilmar at 7903 18th Avenue SW, Seattle, WA
98106. Or call him at (206)767-7840.
7903 18th Ave SW,
Seattle, Wa. 98106