Conversation with Lee Jeffriess, Part 2

M: Do you think you picked up a good sound approach from the beginning or did you have to go back and correct a lot of bad habits?

L: I’m sure I’ve got a ton of bad habits and stuff. The only thing I would say is, I think the key is you’ve got to get the information but you can’t let it take you over. Do you know what I mean? It’s like you’ve got to take it in, try and understand it and then forget it and make your own language from it or something. I wish that I’d been more studious, to be honest, but the other side of the coin is you throw yourself in there and you make it happen—you pull it out of the air. You don’t sit down and transcribe and study, you just keep playing and get all over the guitar and play it and listen to a lot of people. I remember when I sat down to listen to Speedy and Jimmy, I really wasn’t interested in what notes Speedy was playing—I was trying to suck up the energy of it.

M: That’s the one thing I get when I listen to you—I hear that energy and I hear the overall sound. It’s like you’re a conduit of that kind of energy.

L: Well, I appreciate that! I think it’s his mantra of just dig yourself in a hole and then dig yourself out, just throw yourself out there. I think that’s where the energy comes from, just this crazy nervous stuff that he manifests, and Vance had it, too. That’s the danger, man. Speedy had this one path, like a Shaolin monk, his thing was just throw it out there. And it makes for exciting guitar playing. I mean, you are going to fall on your ass, too, you know? That’s the other side of it. I mean, I might have these skeletal themes but in a live setting I just try to play it completely off the top of my head as much as I can. And sometimes there isn’t anything in my head, and other times, bingo! Everything you try comes off….

M: I don’t think I could play music unless I played it like that.

L: It ain’t there all the time, sometimes your receiver’s not tuned in, is it?

M: No, but I’ve learned how to live with denial, like that never happened! Once those notes are gone, they’re real gone.

L: There’s nothing like a night when you’re on and the band’s cooking and there’s feedback from the audience. That excitement’s contagious, people are dancing…I’m really adamant about if I’m going to go out and play music with people, there’s got to be people dancing. I’m not interested…you know, we’ll do stuff that’s introspective like On The Alamo or something like that which is nice and breaks up the pace, but most of the time I want people to dance.

M: And yet, you write such pretty, introspective songs…

L: [laughs] Well, I’ve been constantly rewriting Moonlight Serenade. [laughs] I’ll tell you what—it’s a piece of music I’ve been obsessed with since I’ve been about 8 or 9 years old. I think it’s my earliest recollection of hearing music, there’s something about it. It’s haunted me all of my life.

You know, I wish that more people were in tune with just flat out beautiful, pretty music. I look around and see these people and all they listen to is this bizarre negative, atonal crap. I’m sorry, that’s what it is to my ears. Or you know, borderline satanic rock music and it’s just like heartbreaking. They can’t sit down and appreciate something like Claire de Lune or Parker With Strings—some of the most beautiful music ever made. I feel sorry for them that they don’t have that in their lives.

M: That’s why when someone does come along and shows an interest in music we’re so quick to want to help them out and bring them along, because it’s rare. It’s rare when someone is that hungry for it and if you can bring beauty to them, that’s doing a good thing.

L: Yea, people have done it for me—I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of cool people and they’ve helped me along the way. I’ve asked a lot of questions—I’ve talked to a lot of old-timers and I picked their brains and some of them probably thought I was a pain in the ass, but I just had a thirst to know.

M: Well, I’m so glad you did, because you got a lot stuff from them that would be gone now.

L: I’ve got to mention this guy because barely anyone knows who this guy is. I’ve sat down with Joaquin Murphey and watched him play, right, and seriously that’s a pretty major thing to have happened in my life. I met Speedy and Bobby Koeffer and Herb Remington and Billy Tonneson, you know, I feel blessed. But there’s one guy I met and I’ve seen him play a couple of times and just will never get the recognition those guys had and he was just as much monster. He had a completely unique style—the closest thing you could think of would be Koeffer, but with way more dissonance and altered harmony. His name is Frank Kay and he’s still alive and he lives in Kansas City. Frank led a really big Western Swing band in KC right through the ’50s—in the early ’50s he toured with Cowboy Copas. He was good friends with Koeffer, Hank Garland, anyone who came from Kansas City knew Frank Kay and/or played with him. At one time he played twin steels with Curly Chalker and Thumbs Carlyle was the guitar player, he really did play with some heavyweight guys and he had all their respect as well, he was of their caliber, too.

I was introduced to Frank about 12-15 years ago and I went to his home several times and watched him play and he primarily played McAuliffe E13 and he sounded like a jazz pianist. He was that sophisticated. He played stuff that I have no idea how the hell he got to it. I’d stop him and say “what were you doing?” and he’d play me the chord back and I’d ask “that was the chord you just did?” and he’d say “yeah, but you know it’s the chord that came before and the chord that came after it, your mind fills in the blanks.”

I was really interested in how he got to that point and he said “Look, in the mid 50s there were guys that came from Herman’s band and some that played with Basie and I could hire them. They’d put on a western shirt and come play with me. At one point I had this kid–I called him a kid but he was only 2 years younger than me—and he studied with Dodo Marmarosa.” And he goes “I had a helluva time trying to find these guitar players that play that really good comp, those Eldon Shamblin type passing chords. I sat down with that piano player and I said there’s got to be a way I can fake this on the steel, can you help me figure it out? And the piano player said, “Sure, write out how that thing’s tuned” and the guy studied on it and they got together and he said “Here you go Frank, I’ve kind of laid out some substitutions you can play” and I just wrote it out in tab….” I’m probably not telling this in the most accurate way, but basically that was the premise. And Frank just ran with the ball. It was like the beginning of his rebirth of his style. Even Chalker recognized it, too. I know someone else who independently met Chalker and said, “hey, do you know Frank Kay?” and Chalker just turned around and said, “Frank Kay’s probably one of the best steel players I’ve ever seen!” And you know you never heard Chalker compliment anyone. [laughs] That was pretty enlightening. I remember walking away from the first time I’d seen him play going, “Man, you really don’t need a pedal steel when you can do what he can do.”

M: He got the information from the best possible source, you know piano players.

L: Interesting, I think some of the hipper steel players were hip to piano, like Joaquin was hardcore into Shearing and Peterson.

M: I think it’s right around the time of Spade Cooley’s Dance-O-Rama record that I really noticed the extended harmonies in Joaquin’s playing.

L: Absolutely, He’s thinking more chordally at that point isn’t he?

Hawaii hana Hou – Joaquin Murphey

M: And that Hawaii Forever tape might be some of my favorite of all his playing—that’s a side of his playing that I really love.

L: It’s beautiful, man. There’s some really beautiful outros things on there that are very Shearing-like the way he starts stacking chords up. Back to Debussy, I guess—there’s a lot of Debussy in Shearing.

There’s a few people that didn’t get it—it was too understated for them. I was like, “You kind of got to give it a chance.” It’s very mellow and they couldn’t understand this other facet of his playing, they were so used to Joaquin’s crazy flights; that’s there in there, too, I mean he plays some beautiful single note things in there, but by this point he really knows what he’s doing with that tuning and he’s added pedals to it and he’s getting some beautiful chords.

Go to Part 3

3 thoughts on “Conversation with Lee Jeffriess, Part 2

  1. A friend and great steeler, Russ Wever, sent your “Conversations with Lee Jeffriess” to me. After reading Part 2, I was amazed at the flattering words he had to say about me. He was much too kind. I do not know his e-mail or I would personally let him know how it made me feel. At my age, 81, these compliments are rare. The praise I could return to him and wish him much more success in his life. I would appreciate his e-mail if he would send it so I can converse with him directly. Thank you.


    Frankie Kay Kuebelbeck

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