Tuesday, January 17, 2006


Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, Stratosphere Boogie.
Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, Flippin' the Lid.

Jimmy Bryant, on electric guitar, played bebop-fused country, reeling out knotty lines at speeds rivaling Bud Powell, with picking as clean as water. Speedy West was a peacock--his playing was studded with flamboyant runs up the guitar necks while he rapped the fretting bar against the strings.

But listening to "Stratosphere Boogie," their best track as soloists, provides a far better sense of what the two men could do than mere words are able to.

Ivy J. Bryant was born in Pavo, Georgia, in 1925. He served in Europe during WWII, was injured by a grenade and convalesced in a Washington DC hospital in 1945, where he began playing the guitar, his greatest inspiration being Django Reinhardt. Wesley West, born in Springfield, Mo. in 1924, worked on his family's farm to raise crops during the war, becoming subsumed in learning how to play steel guitar like his idol, Leon McAuliffe, Bob Wills' classic guitarist.

By 1946, both men had married and had moved to Los Angeles. One night at Murphy's Bar the two met and jammed for the first time, and realized they were kindred souls. Over the next seven years, they became session gods, playing on hits like Tennessee Ernie Ford's "I'll Never Be Free" and the great Jean Shepard tracks featured last week.

Each was armed with a new type of guitar: West played a three-neck pedal steel, custom-made by Paul Bigsby (using a pedal enabled the steel player to play more adventurous chords, while Bigsby's perfection of the whammy bar gave the player greater control of the instrument's sound.) Nor did West play like a traditional steel guitarist, who typically sat on the stage, stone-still, as if setting linotype--West hopped around, sweeping his arms across the frets.

And Bryant was the first professional guitarist to endorse Leo Fender's prototype, the solid body electric guitar known as the Fender Telecaster.

On their solo sessions (they made about 50 instrumentals for Capitol), West and Bryant were recorded without artifice--their amps were faced against each other in the studio, using the same microphone; West and Bryant would typically grind out four tracks at a pop: the tracks were often improvised, with no take sounding the same, and with track names tacked on as an afterthought.

"Stratosphere" was born when Bryant got a new guitar--the double neck Stratosphere Twin, which had six-string and 12-string necks, enabling Bryant to essentially duet with himself. With West's soaring contributions, the performance sounds like it's been multi-tracked, or performed by a guitar armada. And the wild "Flippin' the Lid" is fused from the wreckage of the folk/country standard "My Pretty Little Pink".

Both were recorded on September 2, 1954, in Los Angeles. "Stratosphere" was released as Capitol 2964 and, although it didn't chart nationally, was quite popular among the emerging class of DJs. "Flippin'" was released as Capitol 3026. The band included Billy Strange, providing superfluous rhythm guitar, Cliffie Stone (b), Les Taylor (p) and Pee Wee Adams (d). Both can be found on Stratosphere Boogie, a great Razor & Tie compilation.

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