As the second great steel guitarist to join Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Herb Remington needed
to make his mark. Wills, in particular, pushed the Indiana native because Leon McAuliffe — Remington's predecessor in the
Playboys — had just scored a hit with "Pan Handle Rag."
So in early 1949, Remington sat with his steel guitar and began work on "Boot Heel Drag." The song proved
a masterful showcase for Wills' band: Remington's steel guitar — an instrument he co-designed — springs to life
from the outset, slurring through an ear worm of a melody before letting the fiddle, piano and guitar
take some licks, while Remington pings and slides his vamps in the background.
Remington died last week in Houston, where he'd made his home since the 1950s. His legacy includes a
number of ageless compositions and a distinctive approach to an instrument crucial to the sound of western swing. He also left
behind instruments he designed that bore his name: Remington Steel Guitars.
Remington was 92.
Born in Mishawaka, Ind., he grew up during the Depression, but Remington's parents had a piano, his first instrument, and
they secured him a catalog guitar and mail-order music instruction books. His trailhead, though, wasn't radio or
a concert. As a high school student, Remington recalled seeing a movie in the theater that featured a variation on
the Hawaiian steel guitar tradition.
"It didn't sound like anything else I'd ever heard," he told the Chronicle. "I was a kid in Indiana. And it seemed to
be calling from somewhere far away."
Remington spent two years in the Army. In 1946, at age 20, he entered hotel room to audition for bandleader Luke Wills, but instead
caught the ear of Luke's brother Bob.
"Of course I was nervous," Remington said. "But I knew I could play."
As the Texas Playboys' leader, Wills had a big set of boots to fill: Houston native McAuliffe is among the most influential guitarists
of the 20th century. McAuliffe was a member of the storied Light Crust Doughboys as a teenager before joining
Doughboys alum Wills' Texas Playboys in 1935. McAuliffe left the Playboys in 1945, and was replaced by Noel Boggs,
who was then recruited by Spade Cooley. Roy Honeycutt filled in briefly, but when Wills heard Remington,
he moved Honeycutt to Luke Wills' band and hired Remington.
For three years Remington could be heard making all manner of contributions to the Playboys' sound. "Boot Heel Drag" was
among the most heard because it was the b-side to "Faded Love."
The sounds of the Texas Playboys evolved in an intriguing way with Remington in the fold. His work with the
great guitarist Eldon Shamblin and the electric mandolin and fiddle played by Tiny Moore electrified
the band's sound. The jazzy interplay between these three instrumentalists is on brilliant display on Wills'
"The Tiffany Transcriptions," a set of recordings made in San Francisco between 1946 and 1947 for a radio show.
"Herby was the kid in the band when they hired him, but they hired an original," says Ray Benson, frontman of
the western swing institution Asleep at the Wheel. "His tunings were unique, they were his own. He told me it's because
he didn't want to sound like somebody else. And it worked. I'll tell you the best compliment you could imagine.
I was talking with Chet Atkins one time. He asked about who was playing with Wills in the late 1940s because it was
the most incredible steel guitar player he'd heard. I told him, 'That'd be Herby.'"
Wills and the Texas Playboys also cut quite a few sides for MGM during this time. A lively anthology from the era gets
its title from Remington's composition: "Boot Heel Drag: The MGM Years."
"Playboy Chimes" was another notable song from that era, one Remington co-wrote with Wills. Remington plinks out the song's
theme at its outset, drawing Wills' approval: "Well, that's Herby," the bandleader sing-speaks. "Aaaaaw, that
Remington holds the song down while the other instrumentalists rip through their solos, restating the theme between breaks. Then
Wills welcomes him back, "There he is again!"
He sits back initially on "Ida Red Likes the Boogie," a song that starts moving with fiddle and vocals before the full
ensemble kicks in, Remington's steel guitar the quake that sets off the wave of sound.
Though operating in the western swing style, Remington's playing often showed flashing glimmers of that Hawaiian sound that
first caught his ear: Just listen to the lines he plays in his solo on "Papa's Jumpin'," elongated almost imperceptibly.
In 1949, he left Wills' employ and joined Hank Penny's band, where he contributed the instrumental "Remington Ride."
Remington married and settled in Houston in the early '50s, where he was a regular session player, though often
uncredited, on some Starday recordings, including some made by George Jones. For Starday he also also cut some
songs of his own in the '50s like instrumentals "Slush Pump" and "Fiddlesteel."
He continued to tour and play on albums, and can be heard on recordings by Merle Haggard,
Floyd Tillman, Merle Travis and Willie Nelson, whose 1959 recording of "Rainy Day Blues" derives much
of its blue mood from Remington's sweeping notes.
"If I called him with a question about a song, nine times out of 10 he'd have played with that
person," says Dan Johnson, an Austin-based steel guitarist, who was one of Remington's students.
"Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Slim Whitman . . ."
Remington toggled between old school western swing and his first love, after he formed a band with
his wife Melba called the Beachcombers that drew from his love of Hawaiian music.
He scaled back his touring and focused more on building and selling non-pedal steel guitars in 1978,
work that carried him into the 21st century. And he also mentored younger players like Johnson, a punk
rock kid who honored his dying father's wish to give up rock 'n' roll and learn to play country music.
"This was before the internet and cell phones, so I had to hunt him down like I was searching for Yoda," Johnson says.
He got a phone number and connected with Remington, whose terms were simple: Buy a $1,200 Remington lap steel g
uitar and you get one free lesson.
"It changed the course of my life," Johnson says. "That this guy took the time and cared enough to teach
me this skill that so many people would consider a dead art."
Three years ago Remington's wife died. Johnson says, "He just kept playing. The concept of retirement didn't
register with him. Why wouldn't he play. That's the meat and potatoes of who the guy was. And he never got worse.
He was playing stuff in his 80s that was incredible."
Still for those unfamiliar with Remington's remarkable life and work, the Wills' "Tiffany Transcriptions"
recordings will always be a timeless point of entry, a peak period for the western swing style. They're a deep
document of music, as well as testament to Remington's brilliance as an instrumentalist as well as an accompanist,
who found his own language on his chosen instrument, which has been carried forward by generations of subsequent players.
"Everything he did was in a Herb Remington way," says Will Van Horn, a young Houston pedal steel guitarist. "You
can hear something, just a couple of notes, and you know it's Herb. He took the Hawaiian music and the western swing
and made something of his own. If you want to learn the instrument, you have to know the vocabulary he created."
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