Duane Eddy Interview 08/06/2011
It’s hard to believe that a Rock n Roll legend that whose influence has been omnipresent over the years and had UK hits every decade from the 1950s to the 1980’s hadn’t recorded an album for around 25 years before this year’s ‘Road Trip’ but that is how it is. Duane Eddy was born in New York in 1938 but relocated to Arizona as a child he is one of the few guitarists that came up with an instantly recognisable style of playing, an instrument he picked up at a very tender age, he recalled those very early days to Vive Le Rock, ‘I started playing at the age of 5 just three chords that my father taught me, he had a guitar laying around the house somewhere down in the basement I guess, I asked what was that and he said a guitar he explained it to me showed me a couple of chords and I just fell in love with it. I went to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies and saw those guys playing guitar, that interested me further I just loved the instrument and stayed with it for the rest of my life. I started working when I was 15 in country clubs and country bands and honkytonks in the Arizona desert and that’s how it all began’.
I didn’t take long for that playing in bands and on radio stations to progress to recordings, his first was with friend Jimmy Delbridge, a duet recorded as Jimmy and Duane entitled ‘Soda Fountain Girl’ and was produced by a man who was to go on to have a massive creative input in Duane’s early career, as he reflected, ‘The first record Lee Hazelwood produced with Jimmy Dell and myself, we sang together when we were 16/17 we were backed on the record by Buddy Long and his Western Melody Boys, I wasn’t one of them it was Buddy’s group but I later worked with Buddy in a group called the Sunset Riders in Phoenix I played guitar in the group, we did local TV shows, dances and clubs’.
‘Soda Fountain Girl’ can be found on YouTube it is pure unadulterated hillbilly just at the time rockabilly was spring-heeling itself out of Memphis and proliferating the south, it didn’t take long for young Duane to dump the rhinestones for rockabilly, though it wasn’t such a huge diversion in style, ‘Country to rock n roll was natural progression, we were doing rockabilly but didn’t know it, we were doing up-tempo country songs, a couple years later somebody named it rockabilly it was just country/hillbilly music that was played with a rock beat it was just a natural progression for us and myself and when I first saw Elvis in 1956 well I just understood perfectly what he was doing and he just made it easy for all of us to jump on that rock n roll bandwagon so we started to play a lot of that sort of stuff at our dances.’
It wasn’t until November 1957 that Duane recorded his breakthrough hit single ‘Movin’ n Groovin’, the style he adopted was intentional, ‘I did a few sessions before I started recording myself and I realised with different things that happened in those sessions that the bass strings sounded more powerful when I listened back. When I started doing my own recordings I did some on the high strings and some on the bass strings and the bass strings sounded more powerful. I had an echo reverb unit in my amp which was a very powerful one so when I got on stage the natural echo of the building an armoury or auditorium and the echo of my amp would make up for the echo that was on the record which was why we had the echo on the record so it would sound live, more live anyway, some of those armouries and civic halls had echo so big it would hit to wall bounce back and slap us right in the face and throw us off our time it was so strong it was just a natural echo of the buildings pretty much.’ The studio they were using was a rather basic set-up so they came up with a rather unorthodox method to recreate the ‘live’ feel that they were after, ‘We went down to the Salt River which is a dry river, there was a junkyard down there that was full of these 1500, 2000 gallon tanks old water tanks, oil tanks all kinds of tanks so we yelled in some of these tanks to see if they had any echo, it was just an idea somebody had, maybe the owner of the studio, Floyd [Ramsey] or Lee Hazelwood so we found this 2000 gallon tank that echo’d back at us pretty good so Floyd bought it and had it trucked up to the studio and put it on a frame so it didn’t roll away anywhere, it was huge and heavy, we put a mike in one end and a speaker in the other end and ran the wires in as it was out in the parking lot outside the studio the music came out of the speaker, swirled through the tank then into the mike at the other end and we had our echo it worked very well.’
Movin’ n Groovin’ made number 72 in the US national chart early in 1958, the days when you had to sell plenty of records to do that so the water tank was soon partially redundant as finances enabled more sophisticated recording techniques, Duane had coined a ‘signature sound’ which was the revolutionary for the time use of the bass strings as he explained, ‘When I did my next record which was Rebel Rouser I did it all in that neighbourhood down in the bass strings and it just became a trademark, it became my sound. I knew I wanted a sax to play the answers on Rebel Rouser and a solo somewhere. We didn’t have a rock n roll sax player in Phoenix so Lee Hazelwood took it to Hollywood’s Gold Star studios and overdubbed Gil Bernal on sax, he also overdubbed the Sharps who later became The Rivingtons, a black vocal group, on Rebel Rouser doing the hand claps and the yells that became the sound, I wasn’t there, I stayed in Phoenix, Lee sent me a demo, I couldn’t believe it because he added some of the Gold Star echo to our echo and it was an amazingly different record than the basic track that we sent over there.’ The imaginative layering worked as Rebel Rouser became a #6 hit from which he never looked back going on to sell millions of records and inspiring guitarists the world over.
Duane’s choice of Gretsch guitar has often led to comparisons with another iconic guitarist of the era Eddie Cochran, with that the idea that Eddy had influenced Duane, they were indeed friends and there is obvious affection in Duane’s voice when he remembered how their friendship and mutual admiration had developed but also put to rest the inspiration idea.
‘I met Eddie Cochran for the first time in Phoenix he came to do a show, I went back-stage with a friend of mine who knew him and I met him briefly talked a little bit, we both played a Gretsch I think that was in 1957 before I cut any records then after I had hits we did a couple of shows together and hung out looking for Mexican restaurants with Ritchie Valens, we never did find any but we had a lot of laughs looking. As for an influence he wasn’t that much ahead of me to be an influence, in a way I actually I influenced him, Guybo [Smith] his bass player used my lick off of Movin and A Grovin on one of his records I snuck up in the audience one night in New York City in the side door the kids didn’t notice me, I was just another kid, I had hit records and all but I wasn’t working that show so they didn’t expect to see me so didn’t see me my back was to most of them anyway. I went right up close to the stage right in front of Guybo, Eddie was laughing his head off because he had already spotted me, when he was starting playing that Duane Eddy lick I just concentrated until I caught his eye (laughs), he looked up and he realised it was me, his expression was priceless we had a big laugh out of that.’
The two remained close friends and were in England before Eddie’s tragic death in 1960, that time is a very poignant one for Duane who explained, ‘I was with Eddie in 1960 in England, we were in the same hotel he came in one afternoon, we hung out and swapped guitars, he showed me a song he had written that he wanted me to record he hadn’t demoed yet. After we finished working we went to an afterhours club and had a few drinks and made all these plans for when we got back home, in a couple of months I’d be back, he was going to come to Phoenix we were going to go out in the desert in my Jeep and do some target shooting. He liked to shoot guns too, not to kill anything but to shoot into rocks and the occasional rattlesnake if we saw one. We were going to do that, write some songs together, demo some songs and cut and instrumental together, but it was not to be, a couple of days later he got in a car and headed for the airport and was killed on the way, he was a good friend’, there was a pause before he added with palpable emotion in his voice, ‘I really loved him, we had a lot of fun in the short time we had together’.
It took decades before Duane performed and recorded with another legendary rockabilly guitar slinger Carl Perkins, though meeting has fond memories ‘I never knew Carl Parkins in the early days but did run into him in 1994 when we did a project together and found him to be a lovely man, we did a live show with the Mavericks that was great fun. I got a chance to sit and talk with him for a while and appreciated his guitar playing, I had never thought about it before what a great guitar player he was, that was the first time for both of us that we had worked together on a show and in a studio, it was a lovely experience, wonderful.’
Those odd occasions recording apart this year has seen the first proper foray into the studio for Duane since the mid-1980s and it is one that he has evidently relished. The story behind the album actually begins with his continued interest in music and in particular other guitar players. The seed for ‘Road Trip’ was sewn on a chance viewing of co-collaborator Richard Hawley on the Internet ‘The idea came from me listening to Richard before I knew him, my wife discovered him on the Internet because he was playing a Duane Eddy Gretsch in one of his videos, she got me to listen to him because she liked him. We bought a couple of albums and drove around in the car playing them it was great, his sound is so big and wide there were times there when I thought man I’d love to get in the middle of this sound and just do a solo right there. There were a couple of different songs where that happened. Last year in June I met him at the Mojo awards I got the icon award and Richard the album of the year. I met him that evening I told him about listening to his albums and riding around and that I’d love to jump in the middle of some of those things and play a solo, he said well we can make that happen.’ he laughed, adding, ‘Graham Rich who manages Richard and now me, said well we’ve got no budget and we’ve got no songs, let’s do an album!’
Road Trip was recorded in the UK which rather than rather alien as you might expect hailing from the Nevada Desert was almost a trip down memory lane ‘Later on we decided that I’d come to Sheffield to do the album together, Richard came up with a few ideas and I had a few that I’d been holding we got in the studio with the band the band we individual stars every one of them we spent 11 days in the studio with our heads down working out, writing and demoing and then recording 11 songs it was a great experience for me. I was kind of tired and exhausted because I had a bad cold but I perked up whenever I’d hear what they came up with it was really great, it reminded me of the old days in Phoenix when everyone was in the studio together all coming up with things and all playing at the same time. It just went so smoothly and so easily like we’d been doing it together all of our lives, it was just a great warm experience for me’ Typically humbly Duane add with a laugh, ‘Richard was the driving force behind the whole thing and I just let him drive went along for the ride and I think it worked out quite well.’
It was difficult to pin-point particular highlights in the album but some tracks warranted a special mention, ‘With ‘Desert Song’ Richard played a beautiful melody I just quietly snuck in and answered his melody and thought this is fun, sometimes I played along, it half wrote itself between us once I saw what he was doing and where he was going I just answered him, in the end we liked it so much we just left it that way, very raw and very new all at once. ‘Curveball’ for example I had the first lick then Richard came up with the rhythm thing and both with it that way it just varies.’ Once again modesty creeps in as he added, ‘Shez [Sheridan] came up with ‘Franklin Town’ a beautiful little gut string song and ‘Mexborough Ferry Boat Halt’, I don’t know where the title came from, but it’s a happy little tune I think I might helped with part of it, the bridge of something’.
In the era of bands often taking several years to record an album coming up with one that has met with such critical acclaim might be seen as a minor miracle but Duane sees the recording process differently as he explained ‘People that take years or even months to record an album, if you have all the time in the world you have time to over think it and the engineer has time to over engineer it then they spend days mastering and mixing and I think what happens to much, then they add all this compression to it. This album actually took three days to master, which is unusual it’s normally a one day job but Duncan Cowell did a great job on it he mastered it one way then another and then compromised between the two and did it to where he was happy with it and I’m really happy with what he did. I think it has a lot of character and warmth to it that doesn’t come across these days.’
Road Trip is out now on Mad Monkey/EMI
Duane Eddy was talking to Simon Nott. (First published in Vive Le Rock magazine)
© Simon Nott