From his family bluegrass band to joining the Byrds and driving the invention of the StringBender, White’s hybrid style and repertoire has inspired generations of pickers since he came on the scene as an in-demand session player in the ’60s.
In the mid 1960s, the Byrds were one of a handful of bands that defined the era. Built around tight vocal harmonies and Roger McGuinn's jangly Rickenbacker 12-string, their chart-topping music incorporated elements of folk, early rock, country, and psych. But by 1968 the original lineup had disbanded and version two—featuring multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Gram Parsons—was also ending. By mid-year, McGuinn was the only remaining original member. But he had an ace up his sleeve: In July of that year, he reunited with founding bassist Chris Hillman and they recruited guitarist Clarence White into the band.
White wasn't just another guitarist. As a session musician, he had already played on three Byrds' releases. He was also a bluegrass wunderkind. Though he was only 24 years old, by 1968 he had almost a decade's worth of recording and touring experience, and his early recordings with the Kentucky Colonels had redefined the role of bluegrass guitar.
When he joined the Byrds, White was a relative newcomer to electric guitar, but he would soon innovate a way of playing that instrument. He and his bandmate Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) invented the StringBender (often called a B-Bender), which let him execute pedal-steel-like bends without taking his hands off the neck.
White's originality and mastery of the instrument put him in the unique position of revolutionizing not one, but two distinct styles of guitar playing. Whole schools, encompassing acoustic flatpickers such as Tony Rice to steel-inspired Tele players like Brad Paisley and Marty Stuart, trace straight back to White. And yet White, despite his stature, remained an understated team player.
“His concern was to make the artist sound good," says Gene Parsons. “He was a minimalist, just putting in what was really necessary. He used to say to me, 'What you don't play is as important as what you do play.' Some of the things he originated, you'll hear guitar players emulate today. The turnarounds, phrasing, and off-time things he used to do have inspired guitar players for the last 50 years."
White, in spite of his resume and extensive discography, was just getting started when he was killed by a drunk driver in 1973. But his legacy lives on. We spoke with his older brother Roland White (whose incredible book, The Essential Clarence White: Bluegrass Guitar Leads, explains the intricacies of his brother's bluegrass playing), Clarence's close associates Parsons and Herb Pedersen, and even some of his musical heirs, like Brad Paisley, to tell White's story.
Going to California
Clarence White was born on June 7, 1944, in Lewiston, Maine. His family was French-Canadian (their last name was originally LeBlanc) and music was an important part of their lives. His father, Eric, was a multi-instrumentalist, as were his father's siblings who lived nearby. Clarence's mother often played their massive collection of country and popular records around the house, and his older brothers and sister sang, harmonized, and played instruments. Between the radio, singing, and practicing instruments, music was ever-present.
White began playing guitar when he was 5, although his father gave him a ukulele to play until he was big enough to handle the larger instrument. By the time the family relocated to Burbank, California, in 1954, the White siblings—Roland on mandolin, Eric junior on banjo, and Clarence on guitar—had the beginnings of a band and, judging by what happened next, they were already somewhat accomplished.
Soon after moving to California, the family band—first calling themselves the Country Kids and then the Country Boys, before finally recording as the Kentucky Colonels—began winning talent contests and performing on local radio and television. They shared stages with established greats like Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, Lefty Frizzell, and many others, and eventually landed a spot performing on the nationally televised The Andy Griffith Show.
“When the show broadcast a few weeks later, we started getting calls from our cousins in Maine," recalls Roland White. “They said, 'We saw you on TheAndy Griffith Show, how did you get that job?' I thought it was just a local show. We didn't know it was nationwide."
In 1959, the Country Boys started playing at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles. Their lineup at that point was Roland and Clarence on mandolin and guitar, Eric on bass, plus Billy Ray Latham on banjo, and LeRoy Mack on Dobro. The club was the local center of the then-booming folk revival. It was their first time playing through a proper PA, with onstage monitors, which was the kick Clarence needed to step up as a soloist. “It made it a heck of a lot easier," Roland says about being able to hear themselves play. The club was also their introduction to a more sophisticated, college-educated audience, and connected them to other like-minded musicians their age.
“I met Clarence in Los Angeles in about 1963," says multi-instrumentalist Herb Pedersen. “My band, the Pine Valley Boys—a bluegrass group from Berkeley—came down to play at the Troubadour, which at that time had an open mic on Monday nights. It featured artists like the Kentucky Colonels, David Crosby, and Roger McGuinn as single artists, Chris Hillman was in the Golden State Boys at the time, and that was right around the time I met Clarence. It was just astounding to meet these guys."
White recorded his first album, The New Sound of Bluegrass America, with his band, renamed the Kentucky Colonels, in 1962, when he was just 18. In addition to White, the album features Latham on banjo, Mack on Dobro, and Roger Bush on bass—Roland had been drafted, stationed in Germany, and missed those first sessions—and Merle Travis, Johnny Bond, and Ralph and Carter Stanley all had a role in its production, while Joe Maphis wrote the liner notes. Featuring cross-picking and other advanced techniques, White's lead style had evolved from his first days at the Ash Grove, and the album represented a new stream in bluegrass music with guitar as a prominent lead instrument.
An early White family band photo of the Country Boys, taken in the 1950s. The lineup included siblings JoAnne White on bass, Roland White on mandolin, Eric White on banjo, and Clarence White on guitar. Photo courtesy of White Family
“Doc Watson was one of the first lead guitar players on acoustic guitar," Pedersen says. “He played fiddle tunes on the guitar and that was pretty amazing. But Doc's style was pretty rigid: It was pretty much note-for-note, and it didn't swing all that much. He just played the fiddle tune like you'd hear it on a fiddle. But with Clarence, he would incorporate different little push beats and that kind of thing. He was a very sly guitar player. He would sneak things over on you and you had to pay attention."
After Roland's discharge from the army, the band did a number of East Coast tours, which included shows in New York, Boston, and a feature at the Newport Folk Festival, and recorded a second album, Appalachian Swing!, in 1964. White's guitars at this time were a duo of Martins: a D-18 and his iconic D-28 Herringbone (now owned by Tony Rice), although the guitars suffered their share of abuse. In addition to manhandling his instruments (He filled one guitar with sand and shot the D-28 with a BB gun.), he ran over both guitars one evening after a gig in Massachusetts, doing significant damage to the D-18. The guitars were repaired at Herb David Guitar Studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which White claimed improved the sound of the D-18.
White was a discerning musician, but a utilitarian gearhead. Consider the humble beginnings of his D-28. “We found that in McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica," Roland White says. “We would go to pawnshops once a month in L.A., and we went by McCabe's and there was this guitar in the corner. The fingerboard just had tape around it, but it was taped to the neck. We asked, 'What do you want for that as it is?' The guy went back and talked to his boss and I think he said either $25 or $35, so we bought the guitar. It was Clarence, my brother Eric, Billy Ray, and myself, and we scraped up money and gave it to him. We took it home and my dad said, 'I can't fix that.' So we took it to this guy in L.A., Milt Owen. He said, 'I can put the neck back on there.' But he looked it over, and the top had been sanded thin. He said, 'You'll never be able to use heavy Martin strings on there. You're going to have to use light-gauge strings, because the top will bulge. You won't be able to play it very well.' He put the guitar neck and fingerboard back on there, strung it up, and I think we paid him $15 to do it. We picked it up a week later, brought it home, and Clarence played it a bit. But he said, 'I can't play it with these strings. I'm going to put on some heavy-gauge strings.' Sure enough, the top bulged up at the bridge. The only way he could play it would be in open G or put a capo on to play the G chord like an A, and then after that it would get real sharp."
While playing with Zappa and Beefheart, this blues guitarist pushed the limits of traditional form within avant-garde rock.
Denny Walley isn’t a household name—but he should be. His exquisite slide work and powerful vocals are integral to classic Frank Zappa albums like Bongo Fury, Joe’s Garage, You Are What You Is, and others. He had a similar role in Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. (His Beefheart alias was “Feelers Rebo.”) He toured extensively with Beefheart, and his guitar appears on the often-bootlegged 1978 classic Bat Chain Puller. But Walley’s work isn’t limited to the esoteric or avant-garde. He spent years as a sideman immersed in soul, funk, R&B, and blues, and nearly hit the big time with the hard-rocking Geronimo Black.
But Walley’s most important accomplishment may be his ability to straddle those dissimilar worlds. Regardless of context—be it far-out, contemporary, traditional, or mutant hybrid—Walley speaks in a unique voice. And that voice, whether quoting one of his heroes or interpreting the visions of a mad musical genius, helped redefine what the guitar can do.
The septuagenarian still does what he does best: straddle disparate styles, pay homage to his mentors, and forge ahead with his creative blend of traditional and not-so-traditional music. Premier Guitar spoke with Walley via Skype. Our conversation (plus archived interviews and many hours of classic performances) paints an illuminating picture of an important and underappreciated guitarist.
Denny Walley was born in Pennsylvania in 1944. His family moved to Brooklyn when he was a toddler and then to Lancaster, California, in the mid-1950s, when his father, an aircraft mechanic, was sent to work at Edwards Air Force Base. The move was a good one. “I was 12 going on 13, and we moved into the same housing development that Frank Zappa lived in,” Walley says. “I became best friends with Frank’s brother Bobby. We had a common interest in blues records—the early blues 45s—and Frank was a big collector. I would go over there and Frank would play those records.”
Walley’s first instrument was the accordion. He started lessons at age 7, but he says that ended when he discovered the blues: “After hearing the guitar on blues, and hearing men sing with passion—men who weren’t afraid to be passionate and sensitive—I said, ‘Damn. I didn’t know men could do that.’ The accordion went under the bed, never to be seen again.” (Well, almost never: Walley played accordion on “Harry Irene” on Captain Beefheart’s Bat Chain Puller.
Walley finished two years of high school in Lancaster before his father was transferred again. Back in New York—smitten with the blues and desperate for friends—he set up his speakers facing the street, cranked old blues records, and prayed for a kindred spirit. He was in luck. Another blues fan lived across the street. Walley fell in with the local blues hounds, and he and his new friends played along with records, trying to decode the music. Walley got his first guitar: a Silvertone Stratotone. “It was a single-cutaway sunburst with binding,” he recalls. “I polished that thing every day. I slept with it. I played it until my fingers blew up like plums—there was no such thing as light-gauge strings back then.”
Walley played his first gigs while still in high school, alongside bassist Tom Leavey (his future brother-in-law). They continued after graduation, spending most of the 1960s performing at clubs in and around New York and touring nationally as the Detours. “I’d lost connection with the Zappas,” says Walley. “The next time I saw Frank was when I was playing with the Detours in Greenwich Village. It was the same time that Frank was playing at the Garrick Theater. I went over and saw Bobby Zappa in the lobby. I told him I’d love to see Frank.”
Walley and Captain Beefheart onstage in 1976.
The Village at that time was an epicenter of late-’60s counterculture. The vibe was heavy, and Zappa was an established figure. Walley went to visit him still dressed for work with the Detours—tuxedo, cufflinks, pinky ring—in other words, clean-cut and square. He didn’t look cool—and Zappa didn’t even know he was a musician. “I went upstairs and saw Frank,” Walley remembers. “He was with Allen Ginsberg, Tuli Kupferberg from the Fugs—all these deep thinkers. I walked in and said, ‘Hey Frank, remember me?’ Oh God, was that awkward.”
In late 1969, Walley moved to Los Angeles and quickly found work. He replaced Al McKay—the future guitarist for Earth, Wind & Fire—as the guitarist in the Real Thing. That band played soul and R&B, working six nights a week as the house band at the Haunted House, a popular Hollywood nightclub. That led to studio work, gigs backing the Valentinos (the Womack Brothers) and gospel singer Andraé Crouch, and tours supporting such entertainers as Rosie Grier and Bill Cosby (as a member of Cosby’s Badfoot Brown & the Bunions Bradford Funeral & Marching Band).
Meanwhile, Tom Leavey had moved to Los Angeles and joined Geronimo Black, the band drummer/vocalist Jimmy Carl Black assembled after Zappa disbanded the original Mothers of Invention. Geronimo Black needed a guitarist, and Leavey recommended Walley. “I met them and we clicked right away,” Walley says. Geronimo Black was hard-rocking and hard-living. They signed with Universal Records, and their first album was produced by Keith Olsen, who would go on to produce Fleetwood Mac, the Grateful Dead, and many other artists. Walley played his ass off. Of note is his raunchy, wah-infected, blues riffage on “Low Ridin’ Man,” the opening track from the group’s 1972 self-titled album debut—and a testament to the band’s power, heavy rumble, and swagger.
But Geronimo Black was doomed from inception. “Russ Regan signed us,” Walley recalls. “We had high hopes and the label did as well. We were wild, but Russ knew how to handle us. After about a month, Russ left Universal to head up another label. No one knew what to do with us—they were afraid of us. We had a few incidents: We might have been a bit drunk and sort of crashed a party for Elton John and proceeded to drink all the beer and eat a mountain of jumbo shrimp before being asked to leave. Shortly after that we were recording at a studio on the UNI lot. It seems a ‘certain band’ purloined a golf cart belonging to one of their major stars, and a drunken joyride resulted in the cart getting trashed. After that they wouldn’t even let us on the property anymore. So we didn’t last long.”
After the group disbanded, Walley went back to work in L.A. He continued with blues, R&B, and soul acts, working with King Cotton, the Kingpins, and others. Near the end of 1974, Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood—another old friend from Lancaster and a longtime Zappa associate—came to visit. “Motorhead said Frank was looking for a slide guitar player,” Walley remembers. “He told Frank about me. Frank had no idea I played because when he knew me in high school, I wasn’t playing yet. So Frank says, ‘Tell him to come on by tomorrow.’”
Zappa and Walley, onstage together.
Zappa Round One
Zappa was preparing for the Bongo Fury tour and subsequent album. The project was a collaboration with Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), another Lancaster alum. Why was this small town such an avant-garde breeding ground? “I think something flew very low over Lancaster,” says Walley. “They were doing a lot of experimentation out at Edwards Air Force Base.”
Slide guitar was an obvious timbre choice for a Zappa lineup featuring Beefheart. It conjured serious blues mojo and complemented Beefheart’s blues-influenced style. But Walley hadn’t seen Zappa in years, and by 1974, Zappa was an institution. Walley was ready for his audition, but nervous. “I walked in the door and could’ve dropped to my knees,” he says. “George Duke was on keyboards. Tom Fowler was the bass player. Chester Thompson was behind the drums, plus Napoleon Murphy Brock and Frank. That was what I walked into.”
The audition couldn’t have gone better. “Frank introduced me to everyone and it was real relaxed. He was so disarming. Frank called ‘Advance Romance.’ I’d never heard it before, but it turned out they played it in A, and I had my guitar tuned to open A. As soon as I heard the beginning I started to shake, because I knew that this was so in my wheelhouse. It was like Frank wrote it for me so that I would pass the test. Halfway through, Frank stopped the song and said, ‘Anyone with balls enough to play those lows notes has got the job.’ That was it. I packed my stuff and went with [road manager Marty] Perellis into the office. He got my information and signed me up.”
Although Bongo Fury is still very much a Zappa production, Walley’s slide and Beefheart’s harmonica make it notably raw and bluesy—and weirdly accessible. And Walley’s playing shines. His fat tone and meaty slide on songs like “Advance Romance” and “Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead” (and his unusual note choices in the guitar’s lower register) create a heavy, earthy feel that stands in dramatic contrast to Zappa’s unorthodox phrasing and effects-drenched tone.
In retrospect, Bongo Fury is considered an important transitional album for Zappa. (Drummer Terry Bozzio replaced Chester Thompson soon after Walley joined the band.) But not everyone saw it that way at the time. As Gordon Fletcher noted in his Rolling Stone review, “In a year that’s seen the release of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, it would be difficult to call Bongo Fury 1975’s worst LP, but … ”
The guitars Walley used during his first Zappa stint remained his mainstays throughout his career, and he still uses most of them. For slide work he favors a Vinnie Bell-endorsed Danelectro Bellzouki model 7020 from 1965—a 12-string with a bouzouki-shaped body. Walley installs only six strings and usually tunes to an open A or G, using a capo to play in other keys. He wears his slide on his pinky. “I can still hold a chord [with my other fingers] but move the slide,” he says. His slide—a metal tube made from the handlebar of a child’s bicycle—is the only one he’s ever owned. “I’ve had this my whole career,” he says. “If I lose it, the show don’t go on.”
His other guitars included a blond 1957 Strat—sold many years ago—and a heavily modified 1962 Telecaster bearing the signatures of Scotty Moore, Les Paul, and Link Wray. Its modifications include a 6-position, Gibson-style Varitone knob, an onboard preamp, and a revolving cast of pickups.
The signatures of Les Paul, Scotty Moore, and Link Wray grace Walley’s heavily modded Telecaster. The large black knob controls a Gibson-style
Walley’s amp with Zappa was an Acoustic 150 head pushing an Acoustic 6x10 cabinet. “Frank wanted me to play through a Vox amp,” he says, “but I just didn’t like the tone. Even though the Acoustic was a solid-state amp, it had a tube quality. When you cranked it up, it had perfect distortion.” Walley says he used few effects: “I only used the pedals that Frank gave me to use, like a Mu-Tron that I used on a few things.”
Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band
Following Bongo Fury—and on Zappa’s recommendation—Walley joined Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Both the music and work environment were unlike anything he’d encountered. “I’d never heard Don’s music before,” Walley says. “Frank gave me Trout Mask Replica to listen to. I put it on and thought, ‘What? Where is my part? Where’s the beat? Where is anything?’ I could not listen with the right kind of ears—I wasn’t ready. Frank’s music was difficult, but there was structure to it. But in Don’s, nothing ever repeated. I listened and listened, and after the third or fourth time I realized, ‘God, this stuff is really just the blues.’ The blues thing was really thick in there, and his voice was amazing. So I decided to give it a shot.”
Walley was a member of Beefheart’s band from 1975 through 1977. They toured Europe and parts of the U.S. and recorded the album Bat Chain Puller, which, due to legal issues and other complications, wasn’t released until 2012. The album—viewed by some as a redemption following Beefheart’s mid-’70s “Tragic Band”—features Walley throughout, notably his stellar slide work on “Owed T’Alex.” Not featured on the original release—although now available for download on iTunes—is the Beefheart/Walley duet “Hobo-Ism.” It’s a mesmerizing blues jam featuring Walley’s acoustic guitar and Beefheart’s raw, uncompromising vocals and harmonica. “It was a one-off, stream-of-consciousness thing that happened in my living room,” Walley says.
But Beefheart’s free spirit, disorganization, and cult-like authoritarian style made Walley’s tenure difficult. “Don used to do this thing where he would play one guy against the other. He would say thing like, ‘Hey man, somebody is thinking C, and you know who you are,’ which would immediately send everyone into defense mechanism. You’d start defending yourself against the indefensible, and this would go on for hours.” Rehearsals were sometimes 14-hour ordeals that didn’t involve playing. Beefheart was brilliant and creative, but difficult and easily distracted. The work environment was frustrating, especially since the band wasn’t getting paid. Walley, not one to be pushed around, stood his ground—maybe one time too many—and was given the boot. “Someone in the band was elected to make the call,” he remembers. “He told me, ‘You’ve made your bed. Now you have to sleep in it.’” But despite his departure, Walley remained on good terms with Beefheart. “In fact,” he says, “after that is when we did ‘Hobo-ism.’”
How come they don’t make stages like that anymore? The Real Thing captured live at Hollywood’s Haunted House club in 1970. (Left to right: Kent Sprague, Ray Hosino, Stu Gardner, Denny Walley.)
Return to Zappa
Following Beefheart, Walley went back to working with Zappa, joining his touring band and working with him in the studio. Walley appears on Joe’s Garage, Zappa’s satirical rock opera in three acts. “All the background singing is just Ike [Willis] and me, doubling and tripling our parts.” Walley appears on many other Zappa albums, both studio compositions and live recordings.
“Frank recorded every concert with his own guys on his own gear,” says Walley. He recorded rehearsals as well. Whole songs, sections, and solos might be taken from live recordings and inserted into other songs or incorporated into albums. A musician’s work could end up on a Zappa album at any time, even years later. “Frank was the master of compilations,” says Walley. “As a result of that I wound up on about 19 or 20 albums.”
Zappa had such flexibility because his band was so well rehearsed, and much of what he recorded was perfect. “It was so accurate,” Walley says. “For example, he was able to take a section of music from a song that was recorded in Chicago and use that with a recording from Pennsylvania. The tempo, the EQ—everything would be right. You could put it right in.”
On tour, the band rehearsed daily during soundchecks, which usually lasted two or three hours. This constant rehearsal kept the band on its toes. “Frank had about 50 hand signals, and each one had a specific purpose. You would get the song and the key—if there was a key change—or if there was a modulation or a crescendo or decrescendo. He read the audience. He saw what kind of reaction he was getting, and he could change the set anytime he wanted because we were already preloaded for that.” New material was constantly introduced. “Frank would hear things—or maybe a mistake or something would happen—and he would say, ‘Put that in.’”
One song—“Jumbo Go Away,” from the album, You Are What You Is—was written on tour about a female stalker obsessed with Walley. “She would show up everywhere, no matter what city. One night as we were rolling into the hotel—Frank was with us—and were waiting for the elevator, and there she was. I turned around and said, ‘Jumbo, go away.’ The next day at soundcheck, Frank handed me the words to a song he wrote called, ‘Jumbo Go Away.’ We learned that song at soundcheck and did it that night. Things like that happened all the time.”
Walley was a fulltime member of Zappa’s band until mid 1979. After that, he did session work and gigged around L.A., but didn’t join another touring band. “After a while I figured, ‘You know what? Maybe I should get a job,’” he says. He worked for a scenery company in Hollywood and then started sculpting and doing projects for amusement parks. He played locally, but didn’t tour.
A recent picture of Walley with his favorite slide guitar: a vintage Danelectro Bellzouki. It’s a 12-string model,
but Walley uses only six strings.
Walley’s solo recording output is sparse. He released a 45—“Who Do” backed with “Tiny Tattoo”—in the late-’70s with a band that features Zappa bandmates Tommy Mars, Ed Mann, and Vinnie Colaiuta, among others. He recorded a solo album, Spare Parts, in Sweden in 1997. “I did a tour with [Swedish duo] Mats/Morgan,” he says. “We were playing blues stuff and originals. At the end of the tour, Morgan [Ågren] asked, ‘Why don’t you record an album while you’re here?’ So we recorded the songs we played on the tour.”
Despite doing little recording, Walley hasn’t stopped playing. These days he’s back to making music fulltime. He recently finished a 13-year stint with the reunited Magic Band. He tours with Zappa tribute bands in Europe and the U.S., sits in with Zappa Plays Zappa, leads his own band, and creates new music. “I’ve been playing Frank’s music and Don’s music all these years, and I love doing that,” he says. “But I love playing. I don’t want to wait around for someone to want me to play with them. I want to play with me, too.”
Without much fanfare or glory, Walley had a major impact on contemporary guitar. He was a student of the early blues and is a master of the style. His long career with some of his generation’s most radical musical thinkers—plus his own innate curiosity and openness—helped redefine how the guitar is played. Walley showed just how far you could expand traditional forms and push the limits of what is considered “listenable.” And he did all of that with a foot firmly planted in traditional music and tone.
And he’s still doing it. “I’m not going to stop playing,” says Walley. “I’m basically playing music for me. But if you enjoy it, all the better!”
Geronimo Black in 1973. (Front row, left to right: Bunk Gardner, Jimmy Carl Black, Tom Leavey, Denny Walley. Rear, left to right: Andy Cahan, Tjay Contrelli.)
Hallmarks of Style: The Slim Harpo EffectHow Denny Walley maintained a blues identity in a non-blues idiom.
Despite being idiosyncratic composers, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart gave their sidemen much creative space. Denny Walley explained some of the elements of his blues style and why it worked within avant-garde rock bands.
Did Zappa give his sidemen a lot of freedom?
Frank hired people not so much for their ability, but for the way they interpreted and heard his music. When you write something on paper, you know tonally what it should sound like, but it sounds different when it interacts with other people’s emotions. You can play a note on your guitar and then give me your guitar. I’ll play the same note, but it won’t sound the same as your note. It’s in your hands. You are the delivery system.
So he picked people for their delivery systems?
Obviously, because I was nowhere near the virtuosity the other guys had in their realms. When I played with Frank, the music dictated the type of playing. I would not be in one of his classical bands because I can’t read that well. He didn’t tell me what to play, and he didn’t tell me to stop playing. He gave me an amazing amount of freedom.
It seems like Zappa gave you more tonal leeway than Beefheart. Did your personality still come come through in the Beefheart material?
Oh yeah. In fact, more than one person has said the material on Bat Chain Puller was the first time that Beefheart would be accessible to everyone without disappointing Beefheart fans—and they point out the slide guitar. My approach and style and influence—from all those blues guys—is where I live. I can’t play 64th notes. I probably could if I tried, but I don’t care about them. Take the Slim Harpo solo on “I’m a King Bee.” It’s one note. He plays it four times and that’s it—but it’s the tension in between. It’s where you don’t put the note, and how serious you are about that note. I like the economy of that. It’s stripped down to the essence of the note’s emotion. That’s what I do. I’ve probably played the same thing on every song I’ve ever played on. But it just seemed like it needed it.
I don’t think that’s totally fair. I watched live Zappa clips, and you and Ike Willis play some difficult unison lines. You can do all that stuff, too.
I can do it if I’m forced to. But left to my own devices, it’s not going to happen. It’s not my style. I appreciate that style, but I don’t hear it. For me, that part would never come into my realm of thinking. I can play it, but I never would have conceived it.
YouTube It—Essential Listening
“Advance Romance” from Bongo Fury was Denny Walley’s Mothers of Invention audition song. His iconic slide solo starts at 2:40.
Check out Denny Walley and the Muffin Men’s amazing rendition of Captain Beefheart’s “Suction Prints” at the Zanzibar Club in Liverpool, England, in 2013. Walley demonstrates his slide virtuosity right out of the gate.
A rehearsal for a 1978 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention show in Germany. Zappa introduces his brilliant lineup, including Denny Walley, at 5:35.
This audio clip of Geronimo Black’s “Low Ridin’ Man” showcases Denny Walley’s righteous wah work.
The gospel guitarist who took his tremolo-shaken country blues from Sunday mass to the masses.
Whenever you hear country blues-inflected guitar played through an amp with tremolo, you’re hearing a sound descended from singer/composer/guitarist Pops Staples. Best known as the leader of a family gospel group, the Staple Singers, his guitar style influenced and inspired John Fogerty, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, and countless others. The dark mystery of his instrument’s wavy sound has become part of the fabric of American music.
Roebuck Staples, known as “Pops,” was born to Warren and Florence Staples on December 28, 1914, on a cotton plantation near Winona, Mississippi. Roebuck and his older brother Sears were named after the Chicago mail-order company that supplied millions of rural Americans with everything from washing machines to musical instruments.
The Staples soon moved to a plot on the Dockery plantation near Drew, Mississippi. As a teenager, Staples would make money participating in local boxing contests, but other interests had already begun. Though secular music was forbidden in his family, his brother David played blues guitar. By age 14 Staples was paying fifty cents a week towards a Stella he saw hanging in a store window. Like many blues artists of the time he picked cotton during the day, but when work was done he’d commune with the guitar, taking it to bed and playing under the covers as long as his father would allow.
In Drew, he heard blues legend Charley Patton, who played at a local hardware store in the evenings. The sight of Patton, Howlin’ Wolf, and others making a living playing music inspired the young Staples to practice. By age 16 his diligence paid off with party gigs on the plantation circuit. The house manager collected contributions from the attendees, sometimes paying the guitarist $5 a night—a fortune by sharecropper standards.
Despite his love of the blues, Staples remained involved in the religious community, singing in church and later touring with a gospel quartet, the Golden Trumpets. At the time the guitar was associated with “the Devil’s music” and forbidden in churches, though Staples never saw the contradiction—he felt the blues were just telling a different story.
At 18, Staples married 16-year-old Oceola Ware. A daughter, Cleotha, and a son, Pervis, soon followed. Seeing no future for his family in the South, he journeyed to Chicago. There, Staples put the guitar down for a dozen years while working in a slaughterhouse and a series of other jobs. Oceola worked as well, and gave birth to two more daughters: Yvonne and Mavis.
The Staple Singers pose with Don Cornelius (right) on the set of Soul Train. This publicity photo was taken during production of the June 8, 1974 episode.
Chicago in the ’40s was a hotbed of R&B, blues, and bebop. The Staples family lived in the neighborhood that spawned such talents as Lou Rawls, Sam Cooke, and Johnny Taylor. Gospel was also on the rise, with guitar-based male quartets and piano-accompanied female soloists working a circuit of churches around the nation.
For a while, Staples joined the Trumpet Jubilees as a vocalist, but in 1948 he decided to form a group closer to home. He pulled out an old guitar and taught Mavis, Cleotha, Pervis, and Yvonne harmony parts to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The family’s debut at an aunt’s church brought seven dollars and promises of more gigs. The Staples warm Southern sound quickly caught on, and soon they were branching out to other cities and states.
In 1950 Staples bought his first electric guitar, an amp, and the tremolo effect that would help define his sound. Pops played a variety of mostly Fender guitars throughout his career: Telecasters, Jazzmasters, Jaguars, and Stratocasters. In Greg Kot’s book, I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom's Highway, Sam Cooke’s guitarist Leroy Crume recalled: “When Pops came on the scene, he brought this little gadget you put on an amplifier—at the time they weren’t making amps with tremolos … People used to call it ‘Pop Staples and his nervous guitar.’” The effect was most likely a DeArmond 601 Tremolo unit, which became available in 1948.
Though Pops Staples never left the church, he’d spent his fair share of time in juke joints playing the blues. With his family band committed to gospel, he now joined a Baptist church and was “born again,” giving up secular music for the moment.
In 1953, Pops had the newly named Staple Singers record a single to sell at shows. A Chicago label, United Records, soon signed them, but their first label record, “Won’t You Sit Down (Sit Down Servant),” failed to hit. An early version of “This May Be the Last Time” (later covered by The Rolling Stones as “The Last Time”) was cut but not released until years later, and on another label. United wanted the band to move in a more rock ’n’ roll direction, and for Mavis to sing the blues. Pops refused to agree.
It was back to the factory for a while, but the Staple Singers’ singular sound—14-year-old Mavis’ low voice, Pops’ falsetto, and country soul in an urban environment—couldn’t be denied. Another part of their unique appeal was Staples’ guitar. Though artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Pops’ favorite, Blind Willie Johnson, had incorporated guitar into gospel, the Staple Singers were one of the first Chicago gospel groups to employ this previously shunned instrument. They were allowed to enter local churches that had previously permitted only keyboard accompaniment.
In 1955, the Staple Singers’ worth was recognized by Vee-Jay records (who later recognized the Beatles’ talent, distributing their records in America when Capitol initially refused). After a couple of false starts, they released the haunting “Uncloudy Day.” It became the Staple Singers’ first hit (at least by gospel standards) and allowed them to begin touring nationally.
Part of the Staples’ appeal lay in a down-home sound and attitude that reminded Northern urban churchgoers of their rural Southern roots. The Staples’ stripped-down performances—just Pops’ guitar and their voices—stood in stark contrast to the more flamboyant gospel acts of the day.
Pops’ playing is the foundation of the tracks the Staple Singers cut for Vee-Jay between 1955 and 1961. As Greg Kot describes it in his Staples book: “His style created an atmosphere that was immediately distinctive, a hypnotic swirl of reverb, repetition, and riff. Chords were implied as much as articulated, notes were blurred, tones and overtones were carefully layered like the bricks Pops used to cement into place at his construction jobs.”
While the Staple Singers’ repertoire wasn’t strictly gospel, identifying themselves with that genre gave them an advantage over R&B groups: They could play hundreds of small churches across the country, sometimes doing two or three services a day at a single church. Like many R&B artists, though, Staples carried a gun in his briefcase to ensure payment by crooked promoters and to protect the money afterwards.
In the 1960s, the Staple Singers moved to Orrin Keepnews’ jazz and folk label, Riverside Records. Keepnews added more prominent bass and drums to their recordings, helping them extend their audience beyond the church while remaining true to their homespun roots.
The group managed to fit into the “folk” music revolution of the ’60s, often crossing paths with Bob Dylan on TV shows and at festivals. The fledgling legend was a huge fan—to the point of asking Mavis to marry him. The group recorded “Blowing in the Wind” for Riverside before Dylan’s own version hit the streets.
Pops often found folk music’s message to be in tune with his family’s ideology. Dylan’s music, and a meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired him to record songs reflecting the civil rights and anti-war movements for their record This Land.
Cleotha, Yvonne, and Mavis Staples (left to right) are the female vocalists of the Staples Singers. The first song their father, Pops Staples, taught them to sing harmony on was “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
In 1965, the Staples signed with Epic and recorded with producer Billy Sherrill. Sherrill was known for creating the “countrypolitan” sound of artists like George Jones and Tammy Wynette, but had started in music playing the blues.
That year also brought the famous Selma to Montgomery civil rights march. Pops Staples, upset by the images of clubs, dogs, and tear gas, was moved to write his iconic song “Freedom Highway.” The group performed it for the first time at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church, where Sherrill recorded the entire performance for the live Freedom Highway record. Al Duncan on drums and Phil Upchurch on bass add admirable support, but Pops’ guitar anchors the recording, from the country blues licks of “When I’m Gone,” to the rockabilly rhythm/lead combo of “He’s All Right.” By the concert’s end, the Staple Singers had defined the meeting place of the African-American church and the American civil rights movement.
The Staples were devastated by the death of their friend and hero Martin Luther King in April 1968, but by July they’d recovered enough to sign with Stax Records, where Al Bell and Steve Cropper helped them continue on their path toward gospel-infused pop music.
Bell also wanted to produce solo records for Pops and Mavis. He and drummer Al Jackson, Jr., had the idea of making a record featuring three Stax guitarists: Pops, Cropper, and Albert King. Though Pops’ tremolo guitar is overdubbed on a number of Jammed Together’s tunes, its full low-tuned mystery is reserved for the one Pops feature, “Tupelo.”
Guitarless in Muscle Shoals It wasn’t until Bell produced the Staple Singers in Muscle Shoals that the group had their first crossover hit, “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom).” But it was their next one, “Respect Yourself,” that solidified the Staple Singers as crossover stars, hitting the pop charts at number 12.
For the follow-up, “I’ll Take You There,” Bell played a Jamaican record, “The Liquidator,” by the Harry J Allstars, for the Muscle Shoals crew. They lifted the intro practically intact and put their own spin on Aston and Carlton Barrett’s reggae rhythm. Though Mavis breathes, “Play, Daddy” before the guitar solo, Muscle Shoals guitarist Eddie Hinton performs it.
In Muscle Shoals Pops was not permitted to play guitar. Though the “Swampers” had utmost respect for his sound, his style was too idiosyncratic to fit into their well-oiled music machine, though the spirit of Pops’ sound remains in Barry Beckett’s spooky electric piano and the soulful guitars of Jimmie Johnson and Eddie Hinton. Pops wasn’t happy about not playing on the sessions, but his feathers were smoothed when “I’ll Take You There” became a number one pop and R&B single.
These secular successes brought some expected backlash from the gospel community, who took the Staples’ political and pop songs as a sign they were turning their backs on the church. Pops felt the group was still doing the Lord’s work by bringing messages of hope, pride, and unity to the black community. The group played a prominent role in Stax’s celebration of black pride, the 1972 Wattstax concert, and was featured on the best-selling recorded documentary that followed.
Staples’ guitar was absent on the next round of Muscle Shoals sessions as well. Despite being a retread of “I’ll Take You There,” “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)” gave them another top 10 hit in 1973. “Touch a Hand (Make a Friend)” followed it up the charts later that year. The album, Be What You Are, also contained a track called “Heaven,” featuring acoustic and electric guitar (and a solo) from another Staples fan: Jimmy Page.
The Weight Part II The Staples left a failing Stax Records in 1975, but were quickly signed by Warner Brothers, who paired the group with Curtis Mayfield as producer. Mayfield was working on a soundtrack for Let’s Do It Again, a movie featuring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier, and wanted the Staples to sing the title song. Initially put off by its sexual innuendo, Pops was brought around by his respect for Mayfield and his daughters’ enthusiasm, leading to yet another huge hit.
In 1976 Martin Scorsese convened a special shooting session of the Staple Singers and the Band singing “The Weight.” The Staples had covered the song back in 1968, weeks after the Band’s first album, Music from Big Pink, was released. The group had been unable to play the concert filmed for the Last Waltz, but the Band considered the Staples’ vocal sound a huge influence on their own vocals and harmonies, and wanted them in the movie.
The late ’70s saw many bands struggling with the rise of disco, and the Staple Singers—now simply known as the Staples—were likewise caught in the conundrum. Chasing trends with tunes like “Let’s Go to the Disco” was no answer. They returned to Muscle Shoals in 1978 in hopes of recapturing some of their original magic, but cutting a bunch of dance tracks, even with the Swampers, was no help.
Working in Allen Toussaint’s studio with Meters bassist George Porter and arranger Wardell Quezergue also failed to reignite the Staples’ success. In 1984, on yet another label, the Staples had a new flirtation with the R&B charts thanks to a recording of the Talking Heads tune “Slippery People.” This led to Pops acting in Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s movie True Stories. Other acting jobs followed: Barry Levinson’s film Wag the Dog and the Chicago production of Bob Telson’s gospel-based musical, The Gospel at Colonus. Finally, Mavis left the group for a solo career, and Pops began his own solo flight.
The Staple Singers with Stax label mates Booker T. & the MG’s in a late 1960s rehearsal.
Solo Staples Virgin Records subsidiary Point Blank was signing a spate of blues artists in the late ’80s, including Albert Collins and John Lee Hooker. At the behest of Hooker’s booking agent, they signed Pops.
Peace to the Neighborhood let Staples bring his guitar to the fore once more on tunes like “I Shall Not be Moved,” “Miss Cocaine,” “Down in Mississippi,” and “World in Motion.” With guest artists Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and Ry Cooder helping out, the record earned a Grammy nomination in 1992. Pops’ tremoloed guitar appears on about half the Point Blank follow-up, Father Father, which, despite a lack of blues tunes, won the 1994 Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy.
Pops’ career slowed, but the awards continued. In 1998 Staples was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1999 the Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The following year, on December 19, 2000, Pops Staples died after suffering a concussion in a fall near his home in Dalton, Illinois, just nine days before his 86th birthday.
Despite failing health, in 1998 Pops had begun sessions for another solo record. Shortly before he died, the ailing musician asked Mavis to play him the unfinished tracks. When they were done, he pleaded to his daughter, “Don’t lose this.” That became the album’s title when it was finally released in 2015. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who has produced acclaimed records for Mavis, reworked the music, stripping away most of the original session tracks, leaving Pops’ signature guitar, vocals from Pops, Cleotha, and Mavis, and a few tasteful overdubs.
Don’t Lose This serves as a fitting finale for Roebuck “Pops” Staples, the man who brought the sound of electrified country blues guitar to the church, the city, and the world.
Pops Staples plays his Jazzmaster onstage with the Staple Singers circa July 1971.
Hallmarks of Style: Pops Staples’ GuitarPops Staples’ deceptively simple guitar style seamlessly combined strumming with bass lines and picked melody notes, all rendered with a vibe-heavy groove.
When bluesman Rick Holmstrom took the job as Mavis Staples’ guitarist, he brought the spirit of Pops’ without feeling the need to be a carbon copy. Mavis was onboard with that, deriving new inspiration from his personal approach. Nevertheless, Holmstrom has studied the gospel patriarch’s style in great detail.
“Watch him on videos, where he’s playing E7 in root or ‘cowboy’ position,” says Holmstrom. “He may be tuned down to D and capoed up to Eb, depending on the time period, so I took one of my Teles and tuned it down a whole step—it gets the spookiness down there. Pops would take that first position E chord and pick out little melodies with his pinky on the high E and B strings He might also be doing a hammer-on on the D string from D to E,or from Ato B on the A string. Sometimes he would slide up to the root on the A string. He might have had an alternating thumb bass going on the low strings, but it was not strict like with country guitar.
“You can hear Charlie Patton, Son House, and Big Bill Broonzy in his playing. People have laughed at me when I say he reminds me a little bit of Scotty Moore, but he was not all blues. On ‘Suzie Q,’ James Burton plays that E7 chord with a little lick, and it sounds like something Pops would’ve done. Pops wasn’t any kind of great technician, but he had this great vibe.”
For Marty Stuart, seeing Pops Staples play in The Last Waltz was revelatory. “After that, I became enamored of the Vee-Jay recordings,” he says. “I have always been a fan of a guitarist who can take two notes and wreck you.”
Stuart met Staples when working with the Staple Singers on the Rhythm Country and Blues record, and was quickly adopted by the family. When Pops died, Mavis and Yvonne gave the country star the rosewood Fender Telecaster Pops played in The Last Waltz. Stuart has compared it to being handed Excalibur.
“It’s an instrument of light and truth,” says Stuart. “When I put that guitar on, there is a responsibility that falls around my neck. I left it tuned down to Eb, the way Pops played it.”
The guitar started off with standard Telecaster pickups but, according to Stuart’s co-guitarist, Kenny Vaughan, was later modified with a Fender Wide Range Humbucker and 6-way brass saddles.
“It’s real heavy—one of the solid ones,” says Stuart. “I’ve tried to play country and rock on that guitar, and it won’t come out. But as soon as I play gospel, it comes to life.”
Stuart recalls one time when Pops visited Nashville. “Pops called and said, ‘Marty, I need two things: a Fender ’65 with a shake on it and a stretch-out car.’ I said, ‘No problem,’ and then I called Mavis and asked, ‘What is a Fender ’65 with shake on it and a stretch-out car?’ She said, ‘Oh Marty, that’s a Fender amp with tremolo and a limousine.’ [Laughs.]”
Stuart beautifully summarizes the elusive magic of Pops’ playing: “It’s like trying to tell somebody about the Grand Canyon if they’ve never been there, or explain a dream you had last night. Sometimes when you can’t analyze something, the best thing to do is to shut up and let it entertain and inspire you.”
In this rare clip from 1968, Pops accompanies his daughters on the gospel classic “Wade in the Water” with only a Fender Jaguar. The song is associated with the Underground Railroad.
The Staples Singers “I’ll Take You There” was the number one hit in 1972 when this TV performance was filmed.