Blues guitarists like T-Bone Walker paved the way for a new breed of electric guitar player in the late 1940s and early '50s. Les Paul's innovative redesign of the instrument opened up new possibilities. Chuck Berry shook things up with his unique six-string style in 1955, Scotty Moore's licks were conspicuous on Elvis Presley's early recordings and Sid Manker played a mean riff on Bill Justis's late-'57 hit "Raunchy." When Duane Eddy made his mark in 1958, he created his own trademark "twangy guitar" sound that made him a major rock guitar star with a five year string of instrumental hits (and a few vocal ones as well, though he had help with those and later admitted his biggest contribution to rock and roll was "not singing"). Duane was rock's main axe man and Phoenix, Arizona was where it all went down.
He was born in Corning, New York and his family later moved to the small town of Coolidge, Arizona, about 60 miles southeast of Phoenix, where he spent his high school years. He and his friend Jimmy Delbridge (who eventually recorded as Jimmy Dell) started singing together around 1955 and within a year had performed live on a local radio station, KCKY. Lee Hazlewood, a deejay at the station, produced their only single together, released on a one-shot label, Eb X. Preston Presents (named after an alias Hazlewood used on the air). "Soda Fountain Girl" was credited to Jimmy and Duane with Buddy Long and the Western Melody Boys, a pure hillbilly number that was the first and last time Eddy's vocals were ever heard on record. The song went largely unnoticed outside the Coolidge area.
Hazlewood moved to Phoenix and produced "The Fool" by local singer Sanford Clark featuring backup by Al Casey, another Phoenix-area musician, and his band. First released on the tiny MCI record label, then licensed to Dot Records, the song became a top ten hit in September 1956. By this time Duane had graduated from high school and made the move to Phoenix to take another shot at making records. Casey's recording of "Ramrod," released in 1957 on another small label, Ford, was inaccurately credited to Duane Eddy and his Rock-A-Billies (Duane had been performing with the band at local night spots). The furiously-paced tune was, perhaps, a bit over the top for 1957, but its time would come shortly thereafter.
With the success of "Raunchy" at the end of year, a hit for Bill Justis (as well as Ernie Freeman and Billy Vaughn), came a demand for more guitar- and sax-based rock instrumentals. In an effort to come up with a sound that would interest disc jockeys and their listeners, Hazlewood suggested Eddy play lead guitar using the lower notes (as Sid Manker had done on "Raunchy"). Eddy went one better by bending the strings, which resulted in what Hazlewood called a "twangy guitar" sound. "Moovin' n' Groovin'" was offered to Dot Records, but label boss Randy Wood wasn't interested in the sound Duane had discharged from his Chet Atkins model Gretsch guitar, saying it sounded "...like someone trying to string telephone wire across the Grand Canyon." Lee and his new partner Lester Sill shopped the record around and it was picked up by Philadelphia's Jamie Records, landing on the charts for a few weeks in March of 1958 and leaving the Jamie label heads wanting more.
Casey and company became Eddy's permanent backing band, christened The Rebels. In addition to Al Casey on guitar and piano, his wife Vivian played rhythm guitar, going by the name Corky Casey. Saxophonist Steve Douglas (who would have nearly as much to do with Duane's signature sound as his guitar work), bassist Buddy Wheller and drummers Mike Bermani and Bob Taylor completed the lineup. Rhythm and blues quartet The Sharps (who became hitmakers a few years later as The Rivingtons) also joined in with non-lyrical vocals (and whoops and hollers, another part of the aforementioned signature sound) on some recordings. All the elements came together on the second single. "Rebel-'Rouser," like its predecessor, was labeled with a subhead (and his 'Twangy' Guitar) that appeared under his name on most releases over the next few years (the Rebels were also credited starting with the third release). Link Wray's harder-rocking "Rumble," a milestone in its own right, had beaten Eddy's "'Rouser" to the top 20 by several weeks, but Duane's record was bigger, spending most of July and August '58 in the top ten.
Following his promising debut and breakthrough smash, both written by Eddy and Hazlewood, the band rerecorded Al Casey's "Ramrod" with Duane on lead, adding Douglas's sax and backup yells by the Sharps, yet it was a departure from the previous recordings because it didn't have the "twangy guitar" sound (despite a label designation as such). The record went top 30, followed by "Cannonball," "The Lonely One" and "Yep!," all Hazlewood-Eddy tunes, all top 30 hits ("Three-30-Blues," the flip of "Yep!," revealed a blues inclination beyond the twang). At that point, in the spring of '59, he'd been hitting nonstop for a year and had already outdistanced the rock instrumental competition. His popularity translated into sizeable album sales; Have 'Twangy' Guitar Will Travel (which included his first five hits) spent a year and a half in 1959 and '60 riding high on the album charts.
His success spawned imitators as well as innovators. "Guitar Boogie Shuffle" by The Virtues and "Teen Beat" by Sandy Nelson (with lead guitar by Richie Allen) were both top ten hits bearing Eddy's obvious influence. In 1959 he found himself side-by-side on the charts with many other bands hawking variations on his sound, including The Royaltones, Johnny and the Hurricanes, The Tune Rockers, The Wild-Cats, The Rockin R's, The Hot-Toddys, The Wailers, The Frantics, The Strangers, The Rock-A-Teens and The Fireballs, then The Ventures in 1960 and the countless surf bands that followed. His significance loomed so large that the Guild Guitar Company marketed a Duane Eddy signature model (much as Gretsch had done with their Chet Atkins model several years earlier).
The Eddy-Casey tune "Forty Miles of Bad Road" returned him to the top ten in July '59 (Duane admitted his love of the Arizona desert and the songwriting inspiration he derived from driving through the desert in his Jeep). "Some Kind-A Earthquake" came on with a blast of energy and made its point in one minute and 17 seconds, one of the shortest-running hits in music history. A near-complete change in the Rebels roster occurred in 1960 as Steve Douglas and the others sought work elsewhere, leaving Al Casey the sole remaining original band member. New additions included sax player Jim Horn and keyboardist Larry Knechtel. The irresistible title theme from the film "Because They're Young" (starring Dick Clark in his first role as an actor), written by Wally Gold, Don Costa and Aaron Schroeder, featured a string section, a departure for Duane, and became the biggest hit of his career, top ten in June and July 1960 (Eddy made a cameo appearance in the film, as did James Darren, who recorded a vocal version of the song).
Hollywood seemed to take notice of Duane Eddy after this...or could it have been Richard Boone, "Paladin" of the CBS-TV series Have Gun - Will Travel, who became aware of him through the popularity of Have 'Twangy' Guitar Will Travel, an obvious takeoff on the show's title? Either way, Duane's acting career began with a small part in the 1961 western film A Thunder of Drums, starring Boone, and he made an appearance on Have Gun at about the same time. This led to a larger role in The Wild Westerners the following year and another guest shot on Boone's show, as the two had by this time become good friends.
Like the Rebels several months earlier, Hazlewood and Sill broke away from Eddy to tackle other projects around the beginning of 1961; Sill started Philles Records with Phil Spector later that year (Steve Douglas was involved as well, working as a steady session player for Spector, even releasing an instrumental single on Philles under his own name). For awhile Eddy produced much of his own material, scoring with Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn," a natural choice for a "twangy" adaptation, and more movie themes, including "Pepe" and "Gidget Goes Hawaiian." Hit records were harder to come by during this period and in early 1962 he left Jamie and signed a contract with RCA Victor Records. Around this time he married Mirriam Johnson, a singer-songwriter from Phoenix whose first two singles he had produced for the Jamie label the previous year. It was Duane's second marriage (he had first taken the plunge with Carol Fowler) and lasted until 1968; the following year Mirriam married Waylon Jennings and, as Jessi Colter, had a major hit with "I'm Not Lisa" in 1975, in addition to several duets with Jennings.
The move to RCA Victor revitalized his career. He resumed his partnership with Lee Hazlewood and hit the top 40 for the first time in over a year with the summer '62 hit "The Ballad of Paladin," the theme from Have Gun - Will Travel. "(Dance With The) Guitar Man" was an even bigger hit in the fall, with vocals by The Rebelettes (actually Darlene Love, Fanita James and Gloria Jones of The Blossoms, the actual voices on The Crystals' hit "He's a Rebel," number one at the same time Eddy's single was headed towards its peak in the top 20). The Rebelettes supplied vocals for the next three Eddy singles, "Boss Guitar," "Lonely Guitar" and "Your Baby's Gone Surfin'" in addition to Al Casey's spring '63 hit "Surfin' Hootenanny" (as The K-C-Ettes). Three Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans hits (with Bobby Sheen replacing Jones) and other session work put Love and James's unidentified voices all over the radio airwaves in 1963 (though Darlene did squeeze in a few Spector-produced hits under her own name).
Duane left RCA in 1965, moving to Colpix for a short time and later to Reprise, often working with Lee Hazlewood as he had from the beginning (Lee was very busy during the second half of the decade producing and recording with Nancy Sinatra during her wildly popular hit streak). He continued acting with roles in Kona Coast, again with Richard Boone, and The Savage Seven, both released to theaters in 1968. His version of "Freight Train," a Jimmy Bowen production on the Congress label, picked up a little airplay in early 1970, followed by one-off singles on the Uni and Big Tree labels.
In England, where his popularity had been comparable to what he'd achieved in the States, he made some recordings with producer Tony Macaulay and enjoyed a top ten smash in 1975 with "Play Me Like You Play Your Guitar," featuring vocals by a new group of Rebelettes (in the song he gave a nod to his earlier work by incorporating a riff from "Because They're Young"). He appeared on the country charts in 1977 with "You Are My Sunshine," featuring vocals by Jennings and Willie Nelson and made one final chart encore in 1986 with synth band The Art of Noise on a modernized version of "Peter Gunn," which led to a Grammy Award win in the category of Best Rock Instrumental Performance. The fun didn't stop there; today Duane Eddy is still doin' his "twang thang."
- Soda Fountain Girl - 1955
by Jimmy and Duane
- Ramrod - 1957
- Moovin' n' Groovin' - 1958
- Rebel-'Rouser - 1958
- Cannonball - 1958
- The Lonely One /
Detour - 1959
- Yep! /
Three-30-Blues - 1959
- Forty Miles of Bad Road /
The Quiet Three - 1959
- Some Kind-A Earthquake /
First Love, First Tears - 1959
- Bonnie Came Back - 1960
- Shazam! - 1960
- Because They're Young - 1960
- Kommotion /
Theme for Moon Children - 1960
- Peter Gunn - 1960
- Pepe - 1961
- Theme from Dixie /
Gidget Goes Hawaiian - 1961
- Ring of Fire - 1961
- Drivin' Home - 1961
- My Blue Heaven - 1961
- The Avenger - 1962
- The Battle - 1962
- Deep in the Heart of Texas - 1962
- The Ballad of Paladin - 1962
- (Dance With The) Guitar Man - 1962
with the Rebelettes
- Boss Guitar - 1963
with the Rebelettes
- Lonely Boy, Lonely Guitar - 1963
with the Rebelettes
- Your Baby's Gone Surfin' - 1963
with the Rebelettes
- The Son of Rebel Rouser - 1964
- Freight Train - 1970
- Play Me Like You Play Your Guitar - 1975
- You Are My Sunshine - 1977
- Peter Gunn - 1986
by the Art of Noise featuring Duane Eddy