The King of Twang--DUANE EDDY
by Chris Rice
- December 01, 2005
I had never met a real legend before.

You see, there’s popularity, there’s celebrity, and there’s fame. But then there’s “legend.” The first three are right now. No history necessary. The first three can be immediate, and can last as little as fifteen minutes. The first three can be defined in the present, according to the present. But “legend” is different.

“Legend” means time has passed. “Legend” means history. “Legend” means history was influenced. “Legend” became part of that history. “Legend” means the present is different than it would have been. A “legend” will last, because it has already lasted.

Duane Eddy is a legend. Every time his name comes up in a music magazine article, or in an interview with a radio DJ, or in a conversation with a serious guitar player, somehow the word “legendary” quickly finds its way into the conversation. Followed by, “THE Duane Eddy?”

“Yeah. THE Duane Eddy.”
“He’s still around?”
“Wait, you know him?”
“Yeah. [I say ‘yeah’ a lot.] He played on my record.”

From that point on, nobody’s interested in ME anymore. It’s suddenly, Duane, Duane, Duane! And deservedly so. And I love it.

The man has sold over 100 million records! Starting in the 1950’s. When rock n’ roll music was an infant. If you ‘happen’ to have lunch with Daune, you’ll hear stories about Frank Sinatra, Dick Clark, Paul McCartney, the rest of the Beatles, Sammy Davis Jr., The Everly Brothers, and an ongoing list of other legends…and he’s not gloating. He’s just reminiscing about old friends in an era-long-gone. And somehow, you don’t feel like you’re in a different category to him. You feel just as important, and liked, and enjoyed in that moment as you think these others were almost half a century ago…back when the whole world was in black and white, not yet in color. Back when a needle, not a laser, played the music. Back when the songs were found on black vinyl, not as digital downloads. Back when your songs, not your reality TV show, made you a household name. Back when your parents, and grandparents were dancing at the record hop.

Well, Duane was kind enough to come over to my house the other day, let me rig up the mini-disc recorder, and record our conversation in my living room…

CR: I want to find out about how all this started out. So you started out in New York?

DUANE: I was born in Corning NY, which is upstate, and lived there to the 8th grade. I was about 12 or 13, and then we moved up to Tucson AZ. I started playing guitar when I was about 5, just bangin around. I used it to sing Happy Birthday to my friends.

CR: Your dad taught you?

DUANE: Yeah, he knew 3 or 4 chords. I don’t know what happened to that [guitar]. Of course, my heroes in those days were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers…all the cowboy singers…Hank Williams. We moved to Tucson, my dad got his own store in a little town called Coolidge, halfway between Tucson and Phoenix. I was 15 by then, and started working night clubs and honky tonks out in the middle of the desert.

CR: Did that just start because you loved music and needed to find places to play?

DUANE: Yeah, my dad ran into a DJ at the local radio station and told him that I played, and he said, “Well, bring him out and we’ll record something.” I did a little Chet Atkins type instrumental. People heard it and found out I could play and so another kid, Jimmy Dell, (Dellbridge) was his name then, he and I started playing together, doing just country stuff. Then this other guy in town called me to work in his band. Jimmy and I worked, played in church…they totally ran us out of there ‘cause we were…well Jimmy kinda played like Jerry Lee Lewis, (we hadn’t heard of Jerry Lee yet) but you know, it was the church thing. I was playing like Chet, so it got a little bit “rockabilly” and the church elders didn’t appreciate that all that much. Jimmy was a character anyway, and he eventually became a minister. It was good fun. Anyway, then we moved up to Phoenix and I started working up there, doing television shows. Lee Hazelwood, my first producer, came to Coolidge and his first job was a DJ. He moved to Phoenix as well and we all ended up there doing our different things, and Lee started producing records. He tried one first with Jimmy and I, but that never got off the ground. So he and I started working together in the studio doing instrumentals in late ‘57, and in January 1958 I had my first record out called “Movin’ and Groovin’”.

CR: Did that take off right away?

DUANE: Yeah, about March it peaked at about 70 with an anchor.

CR and DUANE: (laughter)

DUANE: As opposed to a bullet. [Duane is referring to the charts of the top songs. The song reached #70. “With a bullet” means the song is still climbing. So Duane’s phrase “70 with an anchor” means it got stuck at #70 and didn’t get any higher.]

So we went back in late April that year and released “Rebel Rouser” and by July it was a top ten record.

CR: And that was a totally different time musically and with the business and radio.

DUANE: PEOPLE picked records in those days, you know? It’s like “Rebel Rouser”. The B-side was called “Stalkin’” and it was kind of a bluesy kind of thing, and Lee (the producer) and Dick Clark, who had American Bandstand, and the record company all thought “Stalkin’” was the A-side. And I’m saying “I don’t think so.” But I had nothin’ to say…I’m the artist, right?

CR: (laughs) Not much has changed.

DUANE: (laughs) Yeah. So they played “Stalkin’” for 2 weeks on Dick Clark, and it wasn’t happening. So he said, “Well I guess it’s a short career here for you, and I guess that’s it.” So I said, “Can’t you get them to turn it over [play the other side]?" He says “I don’t know…everybody likes Stalkin’”. A couple weeks later Dick Clark started playing “Rebel Rouser” He told me later that he had forgotten a box of records at the record hop and ran out of songs, so he started playing B-sides of the records. He’d been playing “Stalkin’” so he turned it over and played “Rebel Rouser.” He said the kids kinda milled around the first few bars because it was just me, and when the rest kicked in they all started dancing, and he said “I had to play it 3 more times that night.” So that’s how it was in those days--people picked the songs.

CR: And Rebel Rouser was one of your more recognizable songs…

DUANE: Yeah, it made a big impact at the time. And people can still hum it to me.

CR: “Rebel Rouser”, “Cannonball”

DUANE: “Ramrod”

CR: “Peter Gunn”

DUANE: “Forty Miles of Bad Road”

CR: I heard the story behind “Forty Miles”, where the idea came from…

DUANE: We were thinking the obvious ideas for the song. I used to go out into the desert with my Jeep, but we were trying to think of something. And we went to a movie one day and heard these two old Texas cowboys talking about their dates the night before and one of them said, “Well, mine was prettier than yours,” and [the other cowboy] said, “She was not…she had a face like forty miles of bad road!”

CR: (laughs)

DUANE: I thought Lee was gonna fall on the ground laughing! So that became the title. We just had the “road” part of it, “the road across the desert.” We were trying to think of “rough road”, “curve…desert road” but when that guy said “a face like forty miles of bad road” we said “That’s it!”

CR: Everytime I read about you, or your name comes up, or I mention you when I’m being interviewed about my CD, the word “legendary” keeps coming back…I’ll bet you’re tired of hearing that word.

DUANE: It’s better than NOT hearing it…

CR: It’s a wonderful word, and it’s true. That’s what comes to MY mind when I think about you and my question is…in the middle of your career taking off, late 50’s and early 60’s, did you have a sense that this was gonna be big? Or was that something that came later? Does that concept of status come into your mind early or late in the process?

DUANE: Well it didn’t at the time. Late, because TIME DIGNIFIES EVERYTHING, you know. When we started out we were making country records with drums, basically. Rockabilly, rock and roll. Elvis came along, Elvis Presley, and opened the door for everybody. And there was one rock and roll record before that called “Rock Around The Clock.” That was 1955, and Elvis was even before that in 1954. So we were sensing it and feeling it and doing it, and it’s what we were doing in Phoenix before we even heard it. Like in 1953 and ‘54 before we even heard Elvis. Doing the same thing because it was a natural progression of the influences that came before us. So we were just jivin’ up country music, and adding a drummer for the dance band. We played every weekend at Madison Square Garden in Phoenix, or Able Hall, or Sciotts Ballroom (a big ballroom for big dances). We had drums, piano, bass, guitar and steel in the band and different singers. So we could do all that type of stuff. Jimmy and I were basically doing rockabilly before we ever heard the term. It hadn’t been called that yet.

CR: So it was a natural progression of the influences up to that point.

DUANE: Right, some of us in the country heard country [music], and some like Little Richard were into the blues, and some like Dion and the Belmonts were into barbershop quartet, the doo-wop thing in New York. All that became rock and roll, from different parts of the country. Dion, I found out later, was a big country fan. He knew every Hank Williams song there was. I said, “Well, how’d you learn that, living in the Bronx?” And he said, “I listened to WWVA, Wheeling West Virginia,” which I had listened to when I was in upstate NY on Saturday nights (“The Barn Dance”) and he listened to WCKY in Cincinnati, which you could listen to late at night to get your country fix. So the same influences covered all of us pretty much.

CR: And spread pretty much world wide…

DUANE: And people like the Chuckwagon Gang, the country gospel…like with Elvis, the southern gospel, both black and white. Mix it all together and you had rock and roll.

CR: And we’re glad.

DUANE: I sure am. Back to your original question: We had no idea. We were just trying to make records, trying to get hits. And then when we got hits we went out on the road for 3 or 4 years straight, only coming home to do a new album. You know how that is. A lot of promotion, concerts, and tours.

CR: Hard work.

DUANE: Hard, hard work. But you don’t get a sense that you’re doing anything permanent. In fact, every record you figure is gonna be your last.

CR: My take on that is, you exhaust your creativity for that record, so up to that point, that’s really all you have. You put it all into that record, and when it’s done, you feel like you may never be able to do that again. But then the well fills back up.

DUANE: It does…

CR: And then it’s time to do another record and you’ve got…

DUANE: And you keep trying new things and new angles and new dimensions to your music, until you get so exhausted from being on the road and new ideas, that you suddenly run dry, till it fills up again.

CR: Times are different, the industry’s different, music is different. I see a surge of people going back to pick up what you guys were doing back then, and making it part of what we do now. That influence has always been there, but there’s a new trend in my younger friends where they’re attracted to what was going on back then. I don’t know if they’re just tired of what music is like now, and just want to go back to something more real or more authentic. Seems to me that today music has suffered because ‘celebrity’ has become more important than music.

DUANE: Well, in those days, when I was having hits, I loved what I heard on the radio. I’d hear Jack Scott or Jimmy Clanton, or Elvis or Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers and I loved everything I heard, practically. So that inspired you to go into the studio and make more records like you do. But today, I don’t think…I don’t find anything to draw upon. There’s nothing to say, “I love this so much that I’ve got to do that, or something like it, or my version of it.”

CR: It’s not as inspiring as it was?

DUANE: No it’s not. And there are great artists around today and better people in the music business than there were then, but there seems like there’s a stopper at the top that’s keeping all this down and keeping it from exploding. All this talent is here, but they keep compressing everything and making it all sound the same until you can’t tell who’s what. And they keep designing records by committee.

CR: (laughs) True.

DUANE: That’s why I love your records. Your new album…my wife and I listen to it and there’s not a bad track on it. Everything is original and fresh and sounds great, of course, and it’s…

CR: And there’s one heck of a guitar player on the front end of that record!

DUANE: That’s right…I remember that guy. That was fun to do and fun to hear.

CR: Totally fun for me.

DUANE: It was a little different for you. But that’s what makes music exciting.

CR: Exactly…it’s hard sometimes, once you’re categorized, to not just cater to that fan base and what they want. I think it’s more important to do what you love, and out of the billions of people on the planet, you’ll find people who love what you do. So, yeah, there’s some experimenting on my last record, and you helped me go where people wouldn’t think I would go. What freedom. It makes music exciting again.

DUANE: Everybody is loving this album because of that. You and I both know when we listen to our favorite artists and we want some of what they’ve done before that’s familiar, but maybe with a new version or twist…

CR: And at the same time, I look forward to hearing something new from them as well.

DUANE: Right. Well, your voice is your common denominator, and you can tell it’s you singing, but you can put that voice against almost any kind of background and any idea to go with it…and I think your fans would love that…as long as you slip one on the album that they love and recognize, you can get pretty far out.

CR: When you look back on the stars from the 50’s and 60’s, even up into the 80’s…musical, film, any kind of celebrity…(well, for example I just saw “Walk The Line” about Johnny Cash, and they do this in that movie) there seems to be a huge emphasis on the fast, hard, wild section of their lives. So it seems that now these young guys who are going after the music thing, and a lot of them are my friends, they seem to think that you have to experience that kind of fast, hard, troubled life in order to have things to write about, or to be legitimate rock n’ roll. This may sound like a leading question, but I’m truly open to any answer you have for that…

DUANE: Oh, I have an opinion.

CR: I’d love to hear it.

DUANE: Here’s my example for you. [Sometimes] you’re extremely sad and down and depressed, you put on you favorite song to cheer you up, you recognize that it’s the song that fills you with joy, but you’re just not in the mood. It can’t lift you out of it. I think it’s the same with creativity. If you’re sad and bitter, people say, “Oh he’s been through so much, that’s why he can write those songs.” But I think you write your best songs when you’re happy. You can even write a sad song when you’re happy.

That’s where they miss the boat. As far as the hard living, and all that…that used to be a thing in country music, started with Hank Williams Sr., and he was in agony a lot, and would take pain pills and uppers, and he’d drink a lot. But when they’d write about this, they made it sound quite romantic, because he was such a wonderful songwriter, and such a communicator with his voice and his music. And some people figured, “Well I gotta go get drunk to be like Hank. I’ve gotta do that or I won’t be a true country artist.” And Johnny Cash was no exception. He came along and wanted to party, and get pills and raise hell, and maybe he thought that would make him a better artist…live the life. I think its all wrong. You don’t have to live that life.

CR: Sometimes that kind of life happens to you, and you make bad choices, and that becomes part of who you are, and how you communicate from then on. But if you go after that stuff in order to be someone you’re not, then you’re not being authentic and writing from who YOU are. You’re trying to be what somebody else was. I do have friends whose real life was difficult, and they’re great writers because they truly came out of that, and truly lived through that stuff. But I think some miss the point if they go after that lifestyle to make them a better rock n’roller.

DUANE: I have known people too like that. But they were fighting against it. They weren’t going after it to try to be romantic. They were in it trying to get out of it.

I once told a doctor, “It must be great to be a doctor and really contribute something to this world, healing people.” He said, “Well you ought to know. You’re a musician. Your records have made a lot of people happy. Don’t sell it short. Music is a healing agent.”

CR: That leads to my next question, and that may be part of your answer. But let’s get a little philosophical. When you think about music, for humanity, on this planet, what is the purpose of it?

DUANE: I think the purpose of music is happiness. It’s what we all strive for, in various ways. When we reach it, that’s normal. You start out as a baby happy. Whatever happens to you as soon as you are old enough to recognize it as not good, then you get unhappy. As you grow up and take things into your own hands, you go for happiness. I don’t think anybody goes deliberately for unhappiness. Although there are some that might convince me otherwise. But anyway, I think music contributes to people’s happiness. It’s like a balm for the soul. You hear it, you respond to it and it makes you feel better. It describes things.

CR: It gives people words to communicate what they’re feeling. Or gives me a reason to get up and dance. Any kind of art, especially music…it carries people somewhere.

DUANE: A friend of mine once pointed out “Art is life as it should be, not as it is.” That’s another aspect. I don’t like movies and books that depict life at it is with an unhappy ending. I want a happy ending.

CR: Have you received criticism over your work over the years?

DUANE: The criticism I’ve always had was that it was too simple, or, “What’s the big deal about that?” Well, I was creating a mood. It’s funny, the guys that can pick up the guitar and play circles around me, really great musicians, they all got it. They understood what I was doing. It’s the wannabe’s and the B-team, and the fringe area folks that don’t get it. They say, “Well, he can’t play…he only plays ‘dow, dow, dow, dow!’ He’s only playing a little melody right there. What’s the big deal about that?” So that’s the kind of criticism I got. Of course in the early days of rock n’ roll we were ALL criticized. We were the “music of the devil.” And actually, we kids, we just wanted to dance and have happy music. And that’s what rock n’ roll was to us. Older people at the time thought that was a bad thing. They thought we were rebelling. And we weren’t rebelling. We were finding a different way than they had. They waltzed and foxtrotted, and we wanted to boogie.

CR: And we all still do!

DUANE: And we all still do. Getting back to what we were saying earlier, that’s such a deep subject, of what music contributes to our lives. I remember the most religious experience I ever had. A bus driver friend of mine took me to his church in the Bronx or Brooklyn somewhere. A black church. They had two choirs, not one, but TWO. And I sat back there and I listened to this music, and it was so glorious and so rocking, and this man was preaching in the middle of it, and I realized right then music is so important to our happiness because it just gives you a lift. Those people lifted me right out of my seat.

CR: And I think music, more than most processes in life, connects with us in a deeper way.

DUANE: It calls to our soul.

CR: There’s something in music that touches deeper than everything else, and echos something built into all of us that says, “I’m part of something bigger. I’m part of something joyous, that really does exist, and that’s more than just the day to day.” Music, whether it intends to preach, or whether it’s just a good rock n’ roll song, connects with us there. I think that’s why music has always been important.

DUANE: I wish I’d said that. That’s very well put, Chris. You should write that down and put that in there. And I agree with you 100%.

CR: I’ll fit it in. Music takes us somewhere. Whether it’s a rock n’ roll ‘twangy’ guitar, or a church hymn, it does something for us, and that’s why we keep running back to it. That’s why we love it. That’s why people like you become “legendary” because you’ve touched so many humans with your work over time.

DUANE: I was blessed. I was blessed by God to be able to do that, and we’re all blessed to have music in our lives. That’s just one of the blessings we all get.

CR: I agree.

DUANE: When we started, we were just trying to make records, make a living, but we didn’t think we were making lasting music. It was just the flavor of the day or of the month. It was only through time and through the years that we found out we were doing something a little more than that, because it’s held up through the years. And the best thing I think is the people who come up and say that I influenced them, and they are now huge stars or fantastic musicians, but they started out playing my stuff, and my contemporaries’ [stuff]. That has always been big. People come and say, “You started me in this music business,” and I say, jokingly, “Well don’t blame ME for that.” But at the same time, I’m very complimented and pleased. I feel like I made a contribution somewhere along the way.

CR: Somehow what you did really influenced a major part of where music went for the next generation. Music can change whole cultures. That can happen in a huge way or a small way. It’s huge when you sell 100 million records. It’s small when you’re a dad with two kids and write a lullaby that you sing to them every night.

DUANE: It’s just as important. That’s why I love everybody who picks up a guitar, whether they play in the honky tonk, or just sit around at home. It’s like a fingerprint, every time they pick it up. Everybody’s got their own individual approach. Getting back to what you said a minute ago. Back to YOU and YOUR music. I think it will be around a long time. And I think the only way we do that is to be honest to yourself, and let it all hang out, which you’ve been known to do. On that album, there are a couple of songs on there that just broke my heart, or pleased my heart, whatever you want to say. They were just beautiful, and I thought, we’ll he’s got nerve to put that down. It says what I want said, but I can’t say it. You have that gift of being able to take words and say something in a way that speaks for me. It speaks to me. It speaks for me. Because I can’t do that. I can play a guitar, but I cannot sit down and string words together like you do. I often wish I could say something that would be that well said.

CR: But there are similarities. Your work may not have been lyrical, but it says something to people.

DUANE: It’s communication.

CR: Then you find out it communicates for other people too.

DUANE: That’s one of the biggest rewards I’ve had in this whole life and business, this whole career. I’ve already said it, but to hear people come up and say, “You’ve influenced me.”

CR: Well we’re glad you’ve done that.

DUANE: Who knew? At the time we just thought we were dinkin’ around. Having fun making records and trying to get hits. And like I said when we started, “Time dignifies everything.” Even rock and roll.

CR: Is there anything you can tell us about future stuff. Is there something you’re working on?

DUANE: (leans in to the mic and whispers) It’s a secret! (laughs)

CR: Are you done with music?

DUANE: I’ll never be done with music. When I stop breathing I’ll be done with music.

CR: So there’s more?

DUANE: Yeah, I’m working on a new project with Monroe Jones, your producer and mine. A man we love and respect and admire for his amazing talent. And he’s also a halfway decent guy too.

CR: I kinda like him.

DUANE: You have to like him, you live next door to him.

CR: I’m stuck with him.

DUANE: We’re doing a project. We’re gonna have some guest artists.

CR: Can you mention who?

DUANE: For sure we have Brian Setzer (Stray Cats). We got one track finished with Brian. It’s what you’d expect from Brian and I, blazing away together with our guitars, and him singing about “That’s how it was when we started rock and roll.”

CR: I heard the track and I’m crazy about it. I can’t wait to get my own copy!

DUANE: Old 50’s style rock and roll. We’re also talking to the Moody Blues, and we might do something with Paul Simon, and Phil Everly of the Everyl Brothers.

CR: Wow, an all-star cast right there.

DUANE: And we have others we’re hoping to get. I’ve contacted B.B. King’s manager. I hope he’ll want to be on it. I don’t know who might show up and who might not.

CR: More legendary people who are fans of yours and want to be involved in your project!

DUANE: A lot of those kids. I call ‘em kids, but they’re not kids anymore. But they were kids when I was having my hits. We’re gonna include a few instrumentals too, which we’re working on now. Maybe enough for a whole instrumental album as well as a friends album. We’re hoping it will be out sometime in ’06.

CR: Well, I’m looking forward to it. You have one fan.

DUANE: (laughs) Thanks!

No, thanks to YOU Duane Eddy. Thanks for your humility in your greatness. Thanks for your contribution to the world and its music for generations to come. And especially, thanks for sitting in my living room, and thanks for playing on my record. I’m honored!

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