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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Jerry Byrd, steel guitar pioneer

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

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.

For a time, he appeared on the "Hawaii Calls" radio show and did gigs at the defunct Blue Dolphin nightclub at the Outrigger Waikiki hotel, where, as Byrd recalled in his autobiography, Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead showed up one night to ask if Byrd could give him steel guitar lessons.

"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.' "

"He certainly did things his way," said Leah Bernstein, president of Mountain Apple Co., which recently distributed Byrd's newest CD, a reissue entitled "The Master of Touch and Tone."

"He was a lot of fun, but not big in promoting his albums," Bernstein said. " 'Oh, no, I just make the music,' " he would tell Bernstein, declining radio interviews or other marketing options. "He would bring the masters of his recordings for Mountain Apple to release — that's what he wanted — and he did it his way, not the Mountain Apple way. Which was all right."

Bernstein said when she visited Byrd recently at a hospital, few knew who he was. "I brought a box of CDs so he could pass them out," she said. Among the birthday greetings and photos, Bernstein said she saw a photo of astronauts for the next space mission, who had written a note to Byrd when they saw he was in the hospital through postings on the Web.

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.

According to his autobiography, "It Was a Trip: On Wings of Music," Byrd said he got hooked on Hawaiian music in 1933, when, at age 13, he encountered a touring Hawaiian troupe during the height of the Depression. "There were six or eight of them, and the stage drop was a scene with palm trees along an ocean shoreline, and a volcano erupting," he writes. "All that exotic stuff, like in the movies. And the music — you couldn't have captured my attention any more if you hit me in the head with a hammer. But it was the sound of the steel guitar that captivated me the most."

He still believed in Santa Claus then, and asked for a steel guitar for a present. But that year, he found a banjo-'ukulele beneath his tree. "I could have shot Santa Claus!" he wrote.

He tuned in to "Hawaii Calls" and was enchanted by the steel tunings of David Keli'i.

Byrd also was a prominent country radio personality between 1935 and 1937 on WLW in Cincinnati and also gigged at WJR in Detroit from 1942 to 1944.

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.

Services are from 8 to 11 a.m. Saturday at the Elks Club, to be followed by a scattering of ashes.

Reach Wayne Harada at 525-8067, fax 525-8055 or wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com.