Jerry Byrd, a legendary country music steel guitarist in Nashville of the 1960s and a fixture on the Hawaiian music scene since the 1970s when he relocated here, died yesterday in Honolulu. He was 85.
"He changed his whole style of playing Nashville steel to Hawaiian steel," said singer Melveen Leed, who worked with Byrd on many albums. "He loved Hawaiian music and he traveled with me to Nashville. He was one of the greatest musicians I've ever come across; inside and out, he had a pure heart. We will miss him."
Byrd was widely respected and acknowledged as one of the pioneers of steel guitar, in both the country and Hawaiian music genres. He performed with some of the greatest country headliners of his generation, including Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Burl Ives and Chet Atkins. When he was head of a publishing firm, he was the first to sign on Dolly Parton, who would — years later — hire Byrd to play steel guitar for her set-in-Hawai'i TV series.
When he moved to Hawai'i more than 30 years ago, the steel guitar was not in vogue but he helped bring it back into the mainstream through his work with local artists, including Danny Kaleikini and Leed. He recorded sessions with other Island talent, including Irmgard Aluli and Puamana, Emma Veary, Karen Keawehawai'i, Don Ho, Joe Recca, Alan and Julie Grier, Eddie Kekaula, Hui 'Ohana, and Gary Aiko.
"Last week, Gordon Freitas (a local entertainer) and I went to see him at Malama 'Ohana at Kaiser's Moanalua hospital, and had a long talk with him," said Honolulu musician Keith Haugen. " 'I did it all,' he said. 'All that I wanted to do.' That sort of summed it up for a man who was truly the greatest steel guitar player ever, and a musician's musician.ÊI remember when he came to Hawai'i and was so happy to be teaching young Hawaiians to play what everyone outside of the Islands called the 'Hawaiian guitar.' "
Byrd was born March 9, 1920, in Lima, Ohio, the oldest of five siblings.
He is often credited for defining the steel guitar sound of early Nashville — the twang that characterized many recordings — as well as the lush tunings he incorporated in Hawaiian music renderings.
Byrd was the first inductee into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, and his Rickenbacher lap steel, common among pioneer country musicians, holds a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
His first instrument was a mail order number he paid $65 for, from a Spiegel catalog. He later acquired, in 1937, a Rickenbacher Electro Steel Guitar, which came with an amplifier, for $150, working out payment with the seller, a man named Ronald Dearth, who operated a music studio in his hometown.
His first band was a Hawaiian-styled combo. He toured cities such as Dayton and Chicago before joining Tubb as a backup musician in Nashville.
Over the years, he underestimated his own popularity. He conducted his steel guitar classes at Harry's Music Store in Kaimuki, and one day, his autobiography notes, Alan Yoshioka, an employee there, called Byrd to ask him to come over since two musicians wanted to meet him. They were Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother Jimmie Vaughan, two contemporary icons from The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Byrd later gave Jimmie lessons in Hawai'i.
In Hawai'i, Byrd performed at such venues as the Royal Hawaiian Surf Room and the Halekulani's House Without a Key.
Survivors include his wife, Kaleo Wood, who was at his side when he died. His two daughters, Lani Jo and Luana June, also were present, along with a brother, Jack.
Byrd died of complications from Parkinson's disease. He had been hospitalized since March 4.
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