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Herb Remington  

Herb Remington's Ride
Interview with Graham Lees




Ace steel guitarist Herb Remington grew-up in Mishawaka, Indiana. His mother bought him a steel guitar and a course of lessons from a door-to-door salesman when he was twelve years old. His fascination for the steel guitar had already been energized by the Bing Crosby “On The Road” movies that often featured the sliding sounds of the Hawaiian guitar. At the age of fourteen Herb had started his own band playing in various pubs around South Bend, Indiana and earning some income.

While I was in Texas to attend a couple of the western swing festivals at Snyder and Wichita Falls (June, 2007) I had the greatest of pleasures in seeing Herb Remington perform on stage and also take the opportunity for an interview with one of the greatest names in steel guitars.

At 81 years of age the day after I did my interview with him, Herb stated: “I’ve never known anything else but music. I stated playing piano when I was five. I didn’t care for piano, but took lessons and played to my mother’s satisfaction. I finally tired of it and wanted to play guitar!!! I took guitar lessons and then I heard this Hawaiian sliding sound of the Herb Remington on stage at Snyder Western Swing Festival 2007steel guitar and thought Oh-Boy, I’ve got to do that!!! I had some lessons on the steel and it kinda took off from there. I kept it with me throughout WWII….never did go overseas, but I kept it in the barracks back here in the States and was able to play at services clubs while I was in the service.”

It was the Hawaiian music that mainly captured Remington’s interest: “It was back in the 40’s when we heard the Hawaiian Calls (radio) show that was recorded right on the beach of Waikiki. Al Kealoha Perry and his Singing Surfriders were the stars of the shows. It was on every Sunday afternoon direct from the islands.”

The nucleus of this group was drawn from Al Kealoha Perry's 1935 "Honolulu Hale Glee Club" and later became the house band for the famous "Hawaii Calls" radio broadcasts. Herb remembers: “They had a steel player Jules R .Seal and he played a C6 tuning and played much like Jerry Byrd and then Jerry picked it up and played the C6 tuning on country music over here. So that’s how I started…from Hawaiian, with the cord changes and the beautiful music of the Hawaiian people….and I’m still enthralled by it to this day. I have a group…we play Luau parties and I have about 400 tunes and Hawaiian melodies in my head.

Herb Remington left the armed services in 1946 and at this time Bob Wills and western swing was all the craze. “I heard that Bob Wills was auditioning for a steel player to join (his brother) Luke Will’s band who was up in Fresno. So I auditioned for the band at a hotel in Hollywood and Bob was listening. I played for him and he said..…you play well, what do you know about my music? I said, well “Steel Guitar Rag” and I played another tune called “Dream Train”. It was an old standard with right nice little melody….it was a vocal, not intended to be an instrumental, but I used it that way and he liked that. He said…let’s keep the kid here! (me) and let Roy Honeycutt who was currently with him go with Luke. So they kept the Kid!!!”

Leon McAuliffe was one of Bob Wills best known steel players. Herb reminded me: “Leon had left the band and had Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys tour bus 1940's been in the army. Noel Boggs had played with Bob after Leon, so there was an interim where he went through several steel players before he settled on me. When Leon got out of the services he formed another group…Leon’s Western Swing band I think they called it. He wanted to come back with Bob, but I had that chair and Bob wouldn’t push me out, so I was very fortunate!!!”

I wondered what it was like to play with Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys. Leon states: “He was a wonderful man. He overpaid everybody, which was his downfall in the end. He wanted to compensate them for all their skills and their talents. He didn’t mind paying good salaries and he paid all expenses. We even had a paid vacation just like a regular day job. He treated everybody just great. Of course he hollered our names, which enhanced our careers after we left Bob. He made reputations while we were there with him and was very helpful in our careers.” Bob Wills was such a good employer that many of the musicians who played with the likes of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller’s big bands left to join Bob Wills Texas Playboys.

Herb Remington worked for Bob Wills from June 1946 until June 1950. Herb declares: “By then I’d had my fill of one-nighters and I went out to California to join Hank Pennies band who was doing well in Los Angeles. Another band I played with was T. Texas Tyler who was also hot at the time. Los Angeles was real fickle when it came to western swing or country music. Bands came up, went down and disappeared…jobs weren’t plentiful. Speedy West was in L.A. when they had that big record strike. Knowing that the strike was ahead and they wouldn’t be able to record any more they got it all done then. Speedy got on all the recording sessions in Hollywood. The union rates were $400 per session and he’d do three or four of those a day every week for months….Oh boy did he have a pile of money!!! That was fortunate for Speedy, but there wasn’t any room for anyone else, so I got out of there. Huston had a bunch of western swing bands, so I came back there. I met a girl, fell in love and got married…that took care of all of that!!! She knew what I was doing and didn’t try to pull me out of it, and I’ve been in it ever since!

In 1948 Herb Remington started building his own steel guitars. “I started building pedal steel, because I thought that there was a need for a better steel guitar! I made some good ones and sold quite a few. It then kinda died on the vine. Triple-neck Remington Steel GuitarInterest in non-pedal steel…like a lap steel became fashionable and so I got into that. I should have done it long ago when there was a need for it. Fender built fine steel guitars, but they stopped making them. So I came in at the right time, and now I’m up to my neck in making non-pedal steels (laughs). Single necks, double neck and also triple necks and I’ve sold quite a few in the U.K. My good friend Gerry Hogan in Berkshire (well known British steel guitarist who with his band Hogan’s Heroes performs regularly with Top British guitarist Albert Lee) has a steel guitar dealership and has a steel guitar get-together every year (The British Steel Guitar Festival, Newbury). Steel guitarists come form all over Europe to play at the convention there.

Some of the artists that Herb has played with include Slim Whitman, Floyd Tillman and he recorded with Buck Owens on his early recordings. Herb states: “Anybody who came through Houston…..we had recording sessions right there rather than Nashville or Hollywood. That made it nice! We have some good recording studios in Houston. I’ve also done a lot of solo albums through the years. I’ve written a lot of steel guitar instrumentals…..some have done well and some nobodies ever heard!” (laughs). Just a couple of his most famous numbers are "Bootheel Drag" and "Remington Ride": “That was originally with Hank Penny. And back then I didn’t have a BMI contract whereas you got royalties for airplay. Had I had it, it would have been real great from me, because that tune (Remington’s Ride) was played as the disc jockeys theme song and they also played it at the end. Today they get logged and they are paid for. Back then it seemed that every country station used “Remington’s Ride as their opening number and closed with it……which I was proud of!!! Later on I did get a BMI contract, but its not retroactive. It’s still out there and still being played. If I had had the contract I might have retired and gone to Hawaii (laughs). Herb Remington on stage at Snyder Western Swing festival

To close the interview with Herb Remington I asked him to tell me one of his many anecdotes from when he was on the road with Bob Wills Texas Playboys: “Back then we had a bus that we travelled in. And that old bus was made in 38. It had no air-conditioning, no heating and we travelled the whole year round, so you can imagine how cold it got and how hot with all the windows down. But one winter particularly that I remember. We were up in Montana somewhere with snow and ice piled up on both sides of the highway. We were playing poker in the isles on top of some suitcases, trying to forget how cold we were and trying to get to the next town. It got so cold that we had to give up. We got to a small town and somebody suggested running into a hardware store and picking up an oil heater. What we didn’t anticipate was it smoked a lot from the kerosene. We fired that thing up and the black smoke filled the bus and we couldn’t even see the cards we were holding to play (laughs). Then we opened all the windows and all the black smoke would pour out the back of the highway and it looked like a bombe going down the road. Then we closed the window and choked again. That’s how it was back and forth to survive and I would guess that it looked very comical (laughing)”.

I greatly appreciate the time Herb took to talk to me; he had a long drive ahead of him and needed to head out. Herb Remington was a lovely man to talk to and I’m sure if we had had more time together he‘d have had many more amusing stories to tell.