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Who Speedy West
When November 15, 2003
Where Brokern Arrow, OK
What Steel guitar legend (Speedy) West dies
 

Steel guitar legend West dies

Wesley Webb “Speedy” West, a Tulsaarea resident whose innovative and ubiquitous steel-guitar licks made him one of the best-known musicians ever to play that instrument, died Saturday. He was 79.

Services are pending with Bixby Funeral Service.

Born in Springfield, Mo., West moved from a Missouri farm to the West Coast following World War II, spending a couple of hard dues-paying years before landing a job with the popular western-swing band of Oklahoma expatriate Spade Cooley.

“I got out there and like to starved to death,” he recalled in a 1991 interview. “First thing I did was get a job in a drycleaning plant. I worked drycleaning by day, beer joints by night. Counting driving time, it was an 18-hour day for two years.”

Taking a cue from recording star Alvino Rey, who’d introduced the pedal-steel guitar to pop audiences, West had a custom instrument built that featured three necks and four pedals, thus becoming the first country-music steel-guitarist to use pedals. That became one of his major claims to fame, as did his incredible run as Capitol Records’ first-call steel player from 1950 through 1956.

“I broke the all-time record for anyone playing any instrument,” he said. “During that time, I played on more than 6,000 records for 177 different artists, both pop and country — Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, the big bands of Nelson Riddle and Billy May, Jim Reeves.”

In addition to playing on others’ records, he and guitarist Jimmy Bryant cut a number of albums under their combined names, with many of their recordings still available. It’s on those sessions that West opened up and gave flight to his musical imagination, coaxing stratospheric leads, wobbly bent notes and exploding chords out of his instrument.

Listening to West on these tracks, as writer-historian Rich Kienzle notes in his book “Southwestern Shuffle,” is “like peering into a volcano.”

In the 1991 interview, he admitted to being depressed after his stroke. But then, he said, “I sat down and made up a positive side and a negative side for all the things that had happened to me. . . . When I added it up, I had about 100 positive things and only one negative thing, and I thought, ‘Old buddy, you’d better change your way of thinking.’”

He is survived by his wife, Mary West; a daughter, Tauni Oakley of Broken Arrow; a son, Gary West of Bethany, a vocalist and guitarist who performs in the Oklahoma City area under the name Speedy West Jr.; and three grandchildren.

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