Born Wesley Webb West on January 25, 1924, in Springfield, MO; died on November 15, 2003, in Broken Bow, OK; son of Finley G. (a linotype operator and guitar player) and Sue (Arthur) West; married Opal Mae, 1941 (divorced, 1964); married Mary, 1966; children: two.
Legendary pedal steel guitar player Speedy West was "one of the greatest virtuosos that country music has ever produced," according to All Music Guide. Leo Fender and Don Bigsby made innovations in the still-new instrument specifically for West, including the placement of all four pedals in a row. Best known for his recordings with Jimmy Bryant, he was also in demand as a session player. Throughout his career, West played with well-known artists such as Spade Cooley, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Hank Penny, and many others.
Wesley Webb West was born on January 25, 1924, in Springfield, Missouri, to Finley G. and Sue Arthur West. The elder West worked as a linotype operator for a gospel publishing company, and played guitar and sang gospel music as hobbies. With a supportive musical environment of family and neighbors surrounding him, West began to play guitar at the age of nine. West eventually asked his father for a National steel guitar, an expensive purchase for the family, and his father sacrificed his own guitar to purchase the instrument for his son.
After his marriage in 1941, West lived in St. Louis, Missouri, for a year and took a factory job while continuing to play music. A year later his family moved to a farm owned by West's father in Strafford, Missouri. Because of World War II, farming was a vital occupation, and West was exempt from the draft. He continued to farm after the war, but was much more interested in playing music. A Grand Ole Opry traveling show featuring Eddy Arnold and Minnie Pearl arrived in Springfield, Missouri, in 1946, and West attended. He drew inspiration from Little Roy Wiggins, Arnold's steel guitar player, and began thinking more about a career in music, especially after he heard that musicians in Southern California could earn as much as $25 a night. He purchased a seven-string, doubleneck steel guitar, in order to try and emulate Wiggins's playing. Other important influences on his musical development were players such as Leon McAuliffe, Bashful Brother Oswald Kirby, Joaquin Murphy, Billy Robinson, and others. While West was playing at a radio station-sponsored jam session, the master of ceremonies introduced him as "Speedy West," a name that proved fitting and which he would adopt later in his career.
West and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1946, where he worked both day and night jobs. "First thing I did was get a job in a dry-cleaning plant," said West in a 1991 Tulsa World interview. "I worked dry-cleaning by day, beer joints by night. Counting driving time, it was an 18-hour day for two years." As he continued to play, West sought to develop his own style. He also bought a whole new set-up in 1947, purchasing a customized, three-neck pedal steel guitar with four foot pedals from instrument maker Paul Bigsby, and an amplifier from Leo Fender. The instrument was only the second Bigsby had made. As explained on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame website, "The four pedals were side by side, a design that would later influence all pedal guitars." Created in 1939, the instrument was still relatively new, and West was in fact the first country artist to play pedal steel guitar regularly.
With the new instrument and his own unique style, "West bridged the western swing and rockabilly eras with eye-popping steel guitar," proclaimed All Music Guide. "Adept at boogie, blues, and Hawaiian ballads, West played with an infectious joy and daring improvisation that, at its most adventurous, could be downright experimental. It's doubtful whether anyone could collect all of Speedy's solos under one roof, but it was his sessions of the 1950s and early '60s--especially those with Jimmy Bryant--that found his genius at its most freewheeling and dazzling."
Became a Full-time Musician
While working one night in 1947, West first met guitar player Jimmy Bryant. They were working at nearby clubs, and after each heard the other play, they became interested in working together, although this would not come to pass for several more years. Spade Cooley, the country big band leader, was keeping West busy. West regularly played dances with the band and performed on Cooley's television variety show. Cooley had a reputation for being difficult, particularly when drinking. He first fired, then tried to rehire West, calling him constantly for a year. "We worked shows together after that, but I never would return to work for him," West told Rich Kienzle in Southwest Shuffle: Pioneers of Honky-Tonk, Western Swing, and Country Jazz. West never recorded with Cooley because of a union recording ban that lasted through 1948.
West's talents had come to the attention of Cliffie Stone, who worked for Capitol Records, and West was hired by the label as a session musician in 1949. According to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame website, "One of the first lessons he learned was to play 'commercial,' and produce the sound expected by the producer. Speedy learned very quickly that he would not be able to develop his potential for session work if he continued to focus on his own style and try to dazzle everyone with his own talent."
However, West was able to stretch creatively in Hank Penny's western swing outfit. Penny appreciated West's work in The Penny Serenaders. "Speedy was brave," Penny told Kienzle. "He had distinctive ideas of his own. He was very good at tone and dynamics, young and full of vinegar. He would come in like a storm and did one hell of a job." Later that year, Stone hired West away from Penny. Stone and his band had a daily radio program called the Dinner Bell Roundup, plus a regular weekly dance program and later a television program. According to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame website, Stone "allowed and encouraged Speedy, as well as other band members, to be creative and expand their talents as much as possible. Many performers launched their careers with the help of Cliffie Stone's Hometown Jamboree, such as Tennessee Ernie Ford, Merle Travis, Eddie Kirk, and many others." Stone was also very supportive of West. "Cliffie is the guy that probably opened more doors for me than anyone for recording and TV," he told Kienzle. "He wanted every person on that stage to be a star in their own right and have their own following. I owe him an awful lot." West would record his first solo instrumental, "Steel Strike," during a 1950 recording session for Stone.
Paired With Bryant
West also recorded in sessions for popular artists such as Tennessee Ernie Ford and Kay Starr. Capitol offered West a contract in 1951, and Bryant soon joined him. West and Bryant not only contributed to Ford's recordings, they appeared on a lengthy list of artists' recordings--everyone from Gene Autry to Sheb Wooley. Most notable of these was "Sixteen Tons," which was a crossover hit for Ford. According to Country Music: The Rough Guide, "During the '50s, West and Bryant were a practically unbeatable guitar team who played together not just on their own mind-blowing recordings, but on countless gun-for-hire sessions." The list included country and popular vocalists such as Doris Day, Betty Hutton, Wanda Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Horton, Spike Jones, Frankie Laine, Ferlin Huskey, and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. David Gates in Newsweek called them "the [Dizzy] Gillespie and [Charlie] Parker of country."
Nick Tosches wrote in Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock'n'Roll, "Pedal steel guitars were harder to master than conventional guitars. Men sat at this strange shining tool, their fingers gleaming with metal--doctoral, they seemed, and mystical, too." Tosches added, "In two 1952 recordings, Hank Thompson's 'Waiting in the Lobby of Your Heart' (Capitol) and Slim Whitman's 'Song of the Old Water Wheel' (Imperial), Speedy West used a bizarre, high-volume wah-wah effect that got the attention of the industry. Soon the pedal steel work heard in records coming from Nashville was louder, more emphatic than it had been." West was doing this without some of the modern equipment musicians now take for granted, such as electronic effects. Amplification was still relatively new as well. Kienzle observed, "Speedy generated all their adventurous sounds with nothing more than nimble hands and fingers, picks, and fertile and creative minds."
According to Country Music: The Rough Guide, "The sounds introduced by West ... were like nothing country music had ever heard before--or has ever heard since. While an amplified steel guitar had been used to add color and depth to country music since the '30s, West's pedal-steel work was from another galaxy entirely---his solos a wild, unchained, and sometimes zany torrent of sonic loops, leaps, curves, hums and gallops." Roy Harte, a drummer who had played with Stone's outfit, remarked on the style of the Bryant-West pairing. "You know what it was? ...These guys had six ears. Most of us have only two," he said in Southwest Shuffle. "They could hear what was coming as well as what they were playing and what was past."
Their first duo recording was 1954's Two Guitars Country Style. It was the only album to be recorded under both their names. They released an estimated 50-plus instrumental recordings between 1951 and 1956. These included originals such as "Stratosphere Boogie" and "Caffeine Patrol." West alone would play on an estimated six thousand-plus recordings between 1950 and 1955, for 177 different artists. "I broke the all-time record for anyone playing any instrument," he told Tulsa World. He kept his own session log, noting details of each job in his own handwriting. West continued to perform on Hometown Jamboree, but also made many appearances on different network television variety programs including those hosted by Red Foley, Bob Crosby, Dinah Shore, and Lawrence Welk. He made his Grand Ole Opry debut in 1951.
West and Bryant made their final recording session for Capitol in October of 1956. Although the team was no longer intact, West continued to play for Capitol under a new contract and did so until 1960. Stone's Hometown Jamboree program was cancelled in 1959. West and the other musicians formed Billy and the Kids, which was a regular band on the Nevada club circuit. West was often called in to produce. One spring day in the 1960s, West was asked to produce an unknown female singer who showed up with her husband in tow. Early in the session, the young woman impressed West. He suggested hiring a better group of musicians and a better studio for the single, and brought in Roy Lanham, Harold Hensley, Roy Harte and Billy Liebert. He also suggested that, like Patti Page, she overdub her own harmonies. The recording was "Honky Tonk Girl"; the vocalist was Loretta Lynn.
When country music session work in Los Angeles tapered off, West began exploring other career options. Pedal steel had fallen out of favor in country recordings during this period. He moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1960, to manage a warehouse for Fender Musical Instruments, while continuing to play part-time. He recorded for Capitol until 1962, and worked with Leo Fender as a steel guitar design consultant. In 1971 he moved to Broken Bow, Oklahoma, with his second wife, Mary. West still continued to play and record, and was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1980. Following a stroke in 1981, West was no longer able to play, although he continued to attend events devoted to steel guitar playing. His health deteriorated, and West died on November 15, 2003, in Broken Bow, Oklahoma.
by Linda Dailey Paulson
Speedy West's Career
Began playing guitar, 1933; moved to Los Angeles, 1946; purchased custom equipment, 1947; met Jimmy Bryant, 1947; hired as session musician by Capitol Records, 1949; under contract to Capitol, began session work with Bryant, 1951; recorded Two Guitars Country Style, 1954; last work with Bryant, 1956; played estimated 6,000+ sessions for Capitol, 1950-55; Grand Ole Opry debut, 1951; moved to Tulsa, OK, 1960; last session for Capitol, 1962; moved to Broken Arrow, OK, 1971; ceased playing after stroke, 1981.
Speedy West's Awards
Inducted into Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, 1980.
- Selected discography
- West of Hawaii Capitol, 1958.
- Steel Guitar Capitol, 1960.
- Guitar Spectacular Longhorn, 1962.
- Steel Guitar from Outer Space See for Miles, 1989.
- With Jimmy Bryant
- Two Guitars Country Style Capitol, 1954.
- For the Last Time Step One, 1990.
- Stratosphere Boogie: The Flaming Guitars of Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant (compilation), Razor & Tie, 1995.
- Flamin' Guitars (box set), Bear Family, 1997.
- Swingin' on the Strings: The Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant Collection, Vol. 2 Razor & Tie, 1999.
- There's Gonna Be a Party (compilation), Jasmine, 2000.
- Doggett, Peter, Are You Ready for the Country, Penguin, 2000.
- Kienzle, Rich, Southwest Shuffle: Pioneers of Honky-Tonk, Western Swing, and Country Jazz, Routledge, 2003.
- Tosches, Nick, Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll, 2nd edition, Da Capo, 1998.
- Wolff, Kurt, Country Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides, 2000.
- Los Angeles Times, November 18, 2003.
- Newsweek, November 13, 1995.
- Tulsa World, November 16, 2003.
- "Speedy West," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (January 13, 2004).
- "Speedy West," Rockabilly Hall of Fame, http://www.rockabillyhall.com/SpeedyWest.html (January 13, 2004).