Conversation with Frankie Kay: Kansas City Steel Man

Frankie head shot

Frank Kuebelbeck was born before the first electric guitar was ever made, in 1930. By the time he was in high school, Frankie Kay (as he would become known) was already a bandleader in his native Kansas City, Kansas, playing steel guitar. In 1951, he was a studio musician at KCMO radio, playing morning shows and then playing 6 nights a week in the clubs, when he was offered the opportunity to join Cowboy Copas’ band in Nashville.

When Frank got to Nashville, Dale Potter (fiddle player) suggested he take up residence in a rooming house for Opry pickers. His roommate was none other than Thumbs Carlisle. “One of the funniest things I remember about Thumbs—he played a Bigsby solid guitar—he’d wake me up in the middle of the night sitting in the room in his BVDs just playing up a storm for 2 or 3 hours.” Thumbs and Frankie became close friends and when Thumbs grew tired of the road work (he was with Little Jimmy Dickens at the time), he called Frankie and was offered a job in Kansas City playing in Frankie’s band. “We had a 5 piece group at this Western Swing club and we had all kinds of fun.”

“I’ll tell you one little story about Thumbs—when he first started, he started on the steel guitar. He played the open E tuning and he said the bar drove him nuts. So he pulled the nut off the end of the guitar and he used his thumb. So, anyway, I said, “Can you still play the steel guitar?” he said, “Oh, hell yes!” My steel guitar friends would stop in to see us and I kept one of my necks tuned to E for Thumbs, and he just played the living hell out of it. He’d play stuff like Steel Guitar Rag and he played it just as well as he did on guitar. It would amaze my steel guitar friends.”

Frankie worked in package shows while working with Cowboy Copas in Nashville with artists like George Morgan, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe and Jerry Byrd. “Jerry Byrd, I admired that man so much but he wouldn’t give me the time of day. He was working with Owen Bradley as studio band man up in WSM. We were road people and they all worked for WSM (as we did) but didn’t hobnob with the road people. I was fortunate to know Hank Williams, Sr. and talk to him. I knew enough about horses to talk breed lines with him. He was kind of reclusive and just sat over by himself in the corner, but he was very nice and I’d go over and talk horses with him and he’d talk with me as long as I wanted to talk. And his boys, Don Helms, Cedric Rainwater, Jerry Rivers and Sammy Pruett, lead guitar player, were all friends of mine and were super nice. But I had to get back to Kansas City and make some bucks.”

Frankie went to Riverside, Missouri where a club called the Riverside Rancho was opened and he became the house band. “My brother-in-law ran the place and they allowed me to name the place. When I was with Copas, we went out to the west coast and we just had to see Riverside Rancho, the big place where Noel Boggs, Joaquin Murphey, Tex Williams and all the big boys played. We booked in big bands—we booked Leon McAuliffe and his Cimarron Boys, Bob Wills. I had befriended Leon when I was at KCMO. Leon was coming up to Carthage, Missouri and an engineer friend of mine said, “Do you want to go and see Leon?” I said, “I really do!” We went down there and I met Leon and I got to know the band personally by name and, you’ll never believe this…Leon asked me to sit in! Well, all steel guitar players carry their bar and picks in their pocket if they’re worth a hoot. I sat in and played a blues and I was out of place as a you-know-what! But they tolerated me.”

Curly Chalker is another musician Frank befriended and hired when he was in need of work. Curly was once asked if he knew Frankie and Curly’s reply was, “Frankie Kay is one of the best steel players in the world.” Of course, Frankie says it’s not true. “I became friends with Curly just out of pure guts. I knew that guy had some talent that I’d never ever seen. So I went up and introduced myself and he tolerated me. Next thing you’d know, he’d play himself out of a job and he’d call me up and I’d help him try to find another job.” Phil Sperbeck, pedal steel player, was a protégé of Frankie’s. Phil went on to play with Bob Wills.
“Anyway, Curly was out of a job again, I believe 1954, I said come on out. I’m short one horn man this week. You can work the opposite end of the stage. He said, “What are we gonna do? Two steel guitars?” I said, “That’s been going on a long time with the Western Swing bands. I’ll play it straight, and you just go play anything you want. And he did. At this period of his career, he was HOT! He was a musical athlete when it came to single notes—he would just rip them off—brrrrrrt! I was in steel guitar heaven.”

“I’m really a chord man when it comes down to it. I love good chords—I can’t stand it when somebody plays a wrong one. I don’t mind alternate chords, but I don’t like wrong ones. When I started my Western Swing bands, the Country drummers and piano players were too damn dull for me. They didn’t swing—neither did the bass man. So I hired a jazz piano player, a jazz bass player and a jazz drummer and we took off. The rhythm section was just a swingin’ son-of-a-gun!”

Frank, you are man after my own heart! From one chord man to another, I hope I’m still swingin’ at 81 years old like you are!


Mike: You hail from the home of so many wonderful Jazz musicians through its history, such as Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Count Basie–just so many wonderful musicians….

Frankie: Yardbird! He was a Kansas City, Kansas guy!

MN: Who was the one who really caught your ear the most when you first got hip to Jazz? Was it Charlie Parker?

FK: I would say it was a local jazz horn man by the name of Jimmy Keith (note: a member of one of Kansas City’s superb big bands). He was a helluva good tenor sax man. He and I got to be real good friends—he’d be playing in a black club and I’d be playing in a white club and we’d meet after hours and have a drink or go downtown and have a little sandwich of some sort. He and I just hit it off real good and he steered me toward a lot of happenings and recordings and everything like that. Even before that, I had a disc jockey friend of mine that turned me on to a lot of jazz and I really hadn’t heard much of the different guys, but he started me out on Red Rodney, the trumpet player. I thought, “Oh hell, there’s a lot more out there that I’m hearing than I know of!”

Jimmy Keith, front row, 1st on left

MN: When you first heard it you must have been like the rest of us who just can’t help but wonder, “What the heck are they doing?” Harmonically, it’s just so different, a whole other language—it’s a mystery.

FK: I know it—I did. I would just grasp bits and pieces of it. Another thing, Mike, I was lucky that I always had a good jazz piano man in my Western Swing band. I stood right next to the piano and I really gleaned a lot of the chord formations from him, especially if he was on top of things. We had a lot of good jazz men that just weren’t doing anything in my early days in Kansas City and I, being a leader, I was fortunate that I could hire who I wanted. Even though I might have a Western Swing band or a Country type, if I had piano player who was a jazz player, he could play anything.

MN: I guess that’s the way that the jazz language crept its way into Western Swing—because they would hire players with that harmonic knowledge and they would bring that kind of stuff to the Western Swing.

FK: Absolutely. Like Tommy Morrell and all of the players he played with—they’re all jazz players with cowboy suits on.

MN: Right. But I mean you can even hear it in the earliest recordings—little elements of jazz finding their way into the music little by little.

FK: Oh yeah, Bob Wills and Spade Cooley and all those guys had musicians that were capable of playing whatever in the hell they wanted to play. [laughs]

MN: When you looked at the piano player, you could actually look at his hands and see what he played? Do you play a little bit of piano?

FK: No, I’m not a piano player—I wish I were. In those days, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, we only had one microphone on the bandstand. It was really primitive. I would just be close enough where I’d hear all those nice chords that he was playing. I couldn’t play them, but I could substitute maybe 2 notes out of the chord, or 3 if I was lucky.

MN: I remember Lee Jeffriess telling me that you had a piano player who studied with Dodo Marmaroso and he was helping you out with some of the voicings and things like that?

FK: Yeah, he was very patient with me and he showed me voicings and substitutions and he told me, “You don’t have to have 3, 4 or 5 notes to make a chord. As long as you get the voicings right in your lower register…” I play a lot of 2 string things. I love the last 5 strings on my E13 tuning. I’m not one of those steel players who play with the first 4 strings and never utilize the bass strings.

MN: I think we have a lot in common! I’m really into playing chords and rhythm stuff on the steel guitar and focusing on the lower register.

FK: Yeah, I focused on playing in the lower register. My tuning is actually E13 tuning, but there are at least 4 different E13 set ups.

MN: What are the notes in yours?

FK: The first string is E, C#, B, G#, F#, D, G# and E.

MN: So you don’t use the B in the lower register…

FK: No, and by doing that a lot of times I can start off…I’m hooked up and I’m sitting by my steel—would there be any problem of me showing you what it sounds like?

MN: Oh, it would be fantastic!

FK: OK, I’m gonna be in the key of G and I’ll just walk a G with 2 notes, an Ami7 with 3 notes and Bmi7 with 3 notes and then I’ll go back down. [Frankie plays a walk up through the cycle back to I–tab to follow]
Could you hear that?

MN: Yes, I did. It sounds similar to the way I like to approach it—you have the 10th interval between the low G and the B and then you played Ami7, Bmi7, Cmi7, Bmi7, Bbdim, Ami7, Ab7. Excellent.
Rhythmically do you like a Red Garland comping rhythm or anything like that?

FK: Yes I do. The way I got to comping was I had a piano, guitar, bass, drums and me. When I didn’t have the piano player, I started playing the piano part behind the lead guitar player. I’ll play you a few bars of that if you’d like….

MN: Sure….

FK: I stay in the same key—I like the lower keys and I’m not one to play up above the 17th fret. It hurts my ears [laughs]. It’s a matter of personal taste….

MN: And it’s a little hard to navigate up there, too.

FK: Yes, it is. [Frankie plays a 12 bar blues using rhythms similar to a pianist’s left hand][tab to follow]

MN: That’s really wonderful. I talk about this stuff so much because of all the things I hear players talking about, I don’t hear people talk that much about play rhythm steel guitar. I don’t mean backup steel where we play high stuff behind a singer, I’m talking about becoming part of the rhythm section. I’ve written some articles about it on my blog. [For a related article, click here]

FK: No kidding! I’m happy to hear that there’s somebody else out there that feels the way I do about it. That’s great.

MN: A lot of guys don’t realize how simple it is to change just one note, for instance, in the C6 tuning making the lower C a C#–sure, you lose the root down below, but you gain so much. In thinking chordally, it’s a no-brainer.

FK: The reason I’ve stuck with this E13 the way I have it, I can get a straight chord: a 6th, a 7th, a 9th, a 3 string diminished and I can get a 3 string augmented with a reverse slant. Then, when I need it I can throw in a 2 note b5 (tritone). It’s what you get used to.

Frankie Kay playing Blue Monk [For a related article, click here]

MN: You play a double-neck Stringmaster, right? What other tuning do you use?

FK: Yeah, I have a double-neck, but I’ve had 4 necks, 3 necks and then I came down to a double. At one time I had a combo with a guitar player who had a double neck with bass on one and lead guitar. And so on my triple neck I had 3 tunings: the E13, probably an A6 or C6 and then I had bass strings that I bought and I doubled on bass when he was playing lead guitar.

A year ago I went to Joaquin Murphey’s tuning on my second neck and it was C6 with an A9 on the last 4 strings.

MN: So you had the B two octaves higher for string 8?

FK: Yeah, that’s it, but it didn’t please me; it was too shrill. So I dropped it down to a Bb6 with a G9 on the last 4 strings. It sounds good, but I’m really not at home on it. I’ve had it on for a year and I’m still learning. It’s an experimental neck and I just play with it for fun.

From l to r: A friend, Frankie, Russ Wever, Bill Dye (standing), Lee Jeffriess

MN: Where did you hear about that tuning?

FK: I think I heard about it from Bill Dye, a friend of Lee Jeffriess who lives in Kansas City. He’s an experimenting son-of-a-gun. He’s a very fine jazz guitar player/blues guitar player; he’d love to play steel for a living, but he has to play with blues and jazz bands on lead guitar to make any bread. But I got that tuning from him, ‘cause he’s wilder than anything. [laughs]

MN: That’s what they say was Joaquin’s tuning. I can hear a few different tunings that he used in different periods. One of my favorites is the one he used on Spade Cooley’s “Dance-A-Rama”. It was a 10” record with maybe 6 or 8 songs on it. His playing is out of this world on that one—he started to play more chords. He really ripped up the single note stuff, too, but he played more chords and added some more altered sounds. He played with a C6 (high G), but he raised the low C to C# and the low A to A#. That recording signifies a big change in his playing.

FK: Yeah, he was growing up, musically. Oh boy, I knew there was a lot more to steel when I heard him playing. [laughs] As a teenager, I heard him playing on the west coast.

MN: Well, one of the common threads between most of the great players is that they got hip to jazz. I think once those colors are available to you as a painter, you can’t paint a painting without them. As soon as you hear those chord qualities, you become drawn to it. Curly Chalker had those sensibilities, too.

FK: He was astounding. I heard him so much growing up and then he worked with me a time or two, although I had to use him on bass because I was playing steel. He didn’t give a damn! He wanted to work, he was hungry.

He was a nice guy. You had to take Curly like he was—he was a genius, but he wasn’t too loving. Tommy Morrell’s lead guitar player said, “He’s a wonderful musician and all that, but you wouldn’t want him for a house pet.” [laughs]

MN: Yes, I’ve heard similar things about both those guys. Neither one of them suffered any fools gladly. But like you said, there was a lot going on upstairs.

Curly, as most people know, didn’t have too many kind words for other players, but apparently he did for you….

FK: I can’t believe that he ever said that, because I knew him pretty well. I liked him, but he never had a kind word for me. [laughs]

MN: I’m sure that your kindness went a long way with him.

FK: First time I met Curly I was 19 and he was playing the straight steel then. He developed into a pedal steel player in his 20s, late 20s.

MN: Did he have all that harmonic sense together back then?

FK: Oh yeah, he was a helluva straight steeler. Tommy Morrell said that he was the best non-pedal steel player in the world.

Curly Chalker, left, on bass, Frankie, center on non-pedal steel, Phil Spurbeck, right, pedal steel.

MN: You told me Tommy Morrell was your idol….

FK: He’s my idol, 100%.

MN: When you listen to Tommy, at times it feels like he’s opening up so many other layers of his playing—he was a deep player….

FK: One of the things I really like about Tommy Morrell is that he didn’t play a thousand notes per second; he played what I could hear and understand. Some of these guys that are rally hot Nahsville players, they just play [emulates machine gun sound]. I can’t get anything out of it.

MN: I can go either way with that, as long as I feel that, whatever the person is playing, it’s part of what they are trying to say and not just gratuitous.

FK: I admire them and wish I could do that, but my mind won’t pick up on a lot of what they’re trying to throw out at me. [laughs]

MN: Did you start playing guitar first?

FK: I started playing steel, but I wish I would have started on guitar, to tell you the truth. If I started on guitar, though, I may have never gone to steel—that’s a possibility.

I had a guitar studio for 40 years and I taught regular guitar. Anyway, I played a job one night with a jazz snob over in Kansas City, MO and he was a saxophone player. He said, “Which guitar you gonna play tonight: the steel or the real?” [laughs] That pissed me off—I never hired him again.

I started playing steel when I was 10 years of age. 60 steel guitar lessons, you get a free wooden guitar. I was the dunce of the class—really, I didn’t take to it too readily. But my Dad was persistent and he enrolled me in private lessons. When I was about 13, I started my own group and I had old guys playing with me.

MN: This is right around WWII. Were you playing any Hawaiian music?

FK: Yeah, I played some Hawaiian stuff, some Cowboy stuff. I was lucky—one of my teachers taught all of those good swing tunes, Sweet Sue, All Of Me—the good old tunes.

MN: Were able to tune a lot of that Hawaiian stuff in on the radio?

FK: Oh yeah, and Alvino Rey, I liked him. He was playing the homemade pedal steel and I loved it. Boy, he was a chord artist. And he had a helluva big band. I liked him and then I gravitated into the west coast players and all that.

MN: How old were you when you moved to Nashville?

FK: Let’s see, I was about 19 when I started playing 6 nights a week. I was working at an insurance agency when I got out of high school. I didn’t want to get a job, but my Mom took me around for interviews and all that. I was an office boy at the insurance agency and I was also playing 6 nights a week making $90/wk as the leader of a 4 piece band in a nightclub. I had to have a special permit because of my age.

After that I got a job on the radio as a staff musician. So, when I was about 20, the disc jockey and program director—Cowboy Copas’ booking agent was his cousin. He wrote a letter and recommended me—I wanted to go to Nashville. I got there and I spent about 9 months and went to the poor house by way of Nashville, because they didn’t pay the guys anything and I was making a couple hundred bucks a week in Kansas City working 3 jobs. We didn’t make any money–$75/wk down there. I gave Copas a month’s notice because he was really a nice man and a wonderful boss. I said, “I’ve got to get back to Kansas City and make some money!” He said “I understand.” He worked me the whole month! [laughs]

One of my good buddies in Nashville was Hank Garland. He kind of moved toward the jazz direction, too. He used to be lead guitar player for Cowboy Copas before I got there. Copas always had a good, hot band.

MN: Who was your favorite steel player then?

FK: Leon McAuliffe was my idol at that time. Besides Leon’s steel playing, he had a helluva good band, the Cimarron Boys. I loved his orchestrations and everything. He was a really early steel guitar player playing hot stuff.

MN: He was a very exciting player, doing it before Speedy and those guys came along. I think he gets overlooked a little bit in that regard.

FK: I think he did, too. Boy, those people in Tulsa, OK—when Leon would go on the road, I had a Western Swing band at the Riverside Rancho in Riverside, which is a suburb of Kansas City, and he would call me before his road date and I’d go to Tulsa and play for him while he was on the road. If you had a steel guitar in the band in Tulsa, you were set. And I played all of Leon’s stuff, I aped him and loved all of his songs. He had a wonderful place called the Cimarron Ballroom. It was an old opera theater and they transformed it into a Western swing ballroom. Those people in Oklahoma and Texas really know how to dance.

MN: It seems you really have taken good care of yourself—you have a great memory….

FK: No, I didn’t, I was just like all the other wild asses around. I’ve got good genes apparently. I’m 81 and I’ve been married to the same wife for 59 years.

MN: You don’t hear about 60th anniversaries too often….

FK: Not very much, especially when one member is a full-time musician. [laughs]

MN: She must have an element of saintliness in her.

FK: Well, that and she is powerful, let’s put it that way! She knew I was in the music business when I met her and she tolerated it.

MN: Do you like to improvise when you play?

FK: I’m an improvising son-of-a-gun, but when you get away from the melody, you might as well pack up and go home. I like to start off with the melody, like Morrell did, but I’m not satisfied, I like to improvise all the time.

MN: Do you have a certain approach to improvising?

FK: I think I play off of the chord changes more than I do the melody. I really don’t like to play the same ad lib every time; I like to expound and play beyond. I like to play something different.

MN: Well, Jazz is music of the moment, you know—it’s spontaneous composition. Do you find it hard to find other players coming from the same place?

FK: It cramps my style when I’m playing a 3 chord blues and I start to wander off and throw the other guys. That’s pretty bad. My favorite player on earth is the bass man. If I’ve got a good bass man, I don’t need anybody else. How about you?

MN: Yeah, I’d have to agree. I think you can have a steel guitar trio—bass, drums and steel—and it would work great. One of my personal dream situations would be to play steel in an organ trio, just steel, drums and organ player—someone who played the bass pedals.

FK: Oh, yeah, that would be great. B3 organ? I never even thought about that.

MN: Frank, I really appreciate every moment that you spent talking with me. It’s quite an honor.

FK: Well, I’ve enjoyed talking to you—you talk the lingo I understand, as the song goes.

Special thanks to Lee Jeffriess, Russ Wever and Nancy Kuebelbeck.