Alvino Rey

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Alvino Rey
Alvino Rey Billboard 2.jpg
Background information
Birth name Alvin McBurney
Born (1908-07-01)July 1, 1908
Oakland, California, U.S.
Died February 2, 2004(2004-02-02) (aged 95)
Salt Lake City, Utah
Genres Jazz, swing
Occupation(s) Musician, musical director, inventor
Instruments Guitar
Years active 1927–1994
Associated acts The King Sisters

Alvin McBurney (July 1, 1908[1] – February 2, 2004), known by his stage name Alvino Rey, was an American swing era musician and bandleader often considered the father of the pedal steel guitar.


Early years[edit]

Alvin McBurney was born in Oakland, California, in 1908, but moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio. He showed early signs of his mechanical and musical aptitude; he built his first radio at the age of eight and, within a couple of years, became one of the youngest licensed ham radio operators in the country.[2] His interest in music grew when he received a banjo as a tenth birthday gift. He began studying guitar at the age of 12, listening to recordings by guitarists Eddie Lang and Roy Smeck, who was known as a vaudeville performer .

At age 15 he invented an electric amplifier for the guitar but neglected to have it patented. He did patent several later versions.[2] In 1927, he landed a job playing banjo with Cleveland bandleader Ev Jones. "Yes, I joined the Union when I was 16", he said. He practiced amplifying acoustic instruments as a teenager, starting with this first banjo. "I went to Lakewood High School and from there I went to New York and never did come back." he recalled.[2]

His professional career began in 1927 when he played banjo in band led by Ev Jones. During the following year, he became a member of the Phil Spitalny Orchestra. He switched from banjo to guitar, and then he changed his name to Alvino Rey to take advantage of the popularity of Latin music in New York City at the time.[3][2]

In the 1930s, he moved to San Francisco and joined Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights. He drew attention to himself and the band when started playing pedal steel guitar. The Gibson corporation asked him him to develop a pickup for the guitar. In 1937, he married Luise King of the King Sisters. He left Heidt in 1939 to start his own band and brought the King Sisters to provide vocals.[3] [4][2]

In 1938, when the Musical Knights band landed a spot at the Baltimore Hotel, Heidt was irritated that the sponsor signed them up because they were impressed by Alyce King's vocals. He took the first opportunity to fire her, when she dropped her microphone and it hit an audience member. The other Sisters resigned, followed by Rey, and then saxophonist Frank DeVol.

Pioneer of electrified instruments[edit]

In spring of 1935 Rey was hired by the Gibson Guitar Corporation to produce a prototype pickup with engineers at the Lyon & Healy company in Chicago, based on the one he developed for his own banjo. The result was used for Gibson's first electric guitar ES-150. The prototype is kept in the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle.

Starting in 1939, Rey used a carbon throat microphone to modulate his electric guitar sound. The mike, developed for military pilots, was worn by Rey's wife Luise, who stood behind a curtain and sang along with the guitar lines.[5] The novel combination was called "Singing Guitar", and later became known as the Sonovox. With early vocoders, the Sonovox was one of the first talk box experiments.[6]

In January 1939 Rey left Heidt to become musical director of KHJ, Mutual network station in Hollywood. So successful was his house band and so much comment did it excite that Rey took his key men and his singers (the Four King Sisters), packed up and went east to try making a go of it as a dance band. There followed a build-up period, climaxed with a stay at the Rustic Cabin in New Jersey.[7]

Rey formed his own group with the King Sisters (as lead singers) and Frank DeVol, heading for Los Angeles. The band was Mutual Broadcasting's house band for three years, and through the band passed such musicians as Johnny Mandel, Paul Fredricks, Skeets Herfurt, Neal Hefti, Dave Tough, Mel Lewis, Don Lamond, Andy Russell, Alfred Burt and three of Woody Herman's future "Four Brothers" sax section: Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Herbie Steward. Notable arrangers in the band included Nelson Riddle, George Handy, Billy May, Ray Conniff, and DeVol. In 1941 the group filled in for Dinah Shore at New York's Paramount Theater, which led to greater exposure.[8] Soon afterward, they became one of the most popular acts in the country, while recording top ten hits and making appearances in Hollywood films. In 1942 Rey re-organized the orchestra, expanding the brass section. Although very popular, the recording ban by the Musicians' Union later in 1942 put a temporary end to their recordings.[8]

The recording ban and the war contributed to the breakup of the band. Rey got a job as a mechanic at Lockheed. In 1944, he entered the U.S. Navy and worked on radar systems. When he was discharged the following year, he restarted the orchestra and recorded a hit a with cover version of "Cement Mixer" by Slim Gaillard. During the 1950s, he played steel guitar in small groups, often with Buddy Cole, his brother-in-law.[4] [3]

King Sisters and exotica[edit]

Beginning about 1957, Rey produced many of the George Greeley piano recordings for Warner Bros. Records.[9]

During the 1960s, he was music director for a TV show featuring the King Sisters that ran for five seasons. He played steel guitar on sessions with Jack Costanzo, George Cates, Esquivel, and the Surfmen.[4][3] These musicians were associated with the short-lived genre exotica, which combined Hawaiian and Latin music, lounge jazz, and instruments from Burma and Indonesia.[10]

Late career and retirement[edit]

In the early 1990s, Rey moved with his wife Luise to her native Utah, where, in Salt Lake City, he formed a jazz quartet which played clubs locally with Luise sometimes sitting in. The couple finally retired in 1994 and his last public appearance was the same year, but he retained his interests in music and electronics into his mid-nineties. Luise died in 1997, after 60 years of marriage with Alvino Rey.[2]

Personal life[edit]

Some sources claim Rey became a Mormon about the time of his marriage to Luise King in 1937.[11][12] However, it appears he was not actually received into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until 1969.[13]

Rey's daughter, Liza Butler, is the mother of Win and Will Butler, members of Canadian indie rock group Arcade Fire. Their debut album, Funeral, was heavily influenced by Rey's death, along with the deaths of relatives of other members of the band, during the recording period.[14] The band released a live 1940 broadcast recording of Rey's song My Buddy, which appears as a B-side on their singles "Neighborhood No. 1 (Tunnels)" and "Neighborhood No. 2 (Laika)."

In 2004, after breaking his hip and suffering complications including pneumonia and congestive heart failure, Rey, a widower, died at age 95, at a rehabilitation center in Utah.[2] He was still an amateur radio operator, holding the call W6UK.[15]


  • 1958 My Reverie (Decca)
  • 1958 Swinging Fling (Capitol)
  • 1960 Ping Pong (Capitol)
  • 1960 That Lonely Feeling (Capitol)
  • 1962 As I Remember Hawai (Dot)
  • 1996 Alvino Rey & His Orchestra (Collectors' Choice)[16]

With Esquivel

  • 1958 Four Corners of the World
  • 1958 Other Worlds Other Sounds

With Dean Martin

  • 1997 Memories Are Made of This
  • 1998 Return to Me

With others


  1. ^ Born 1908, not 1907, as per
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Popa, Christopher (2004). "Alvino Rey "Wizard of the Steel Pedal Guitar"". Big Band Library. Retrieved 2017-01-10. 
  3. ^ a b c d Ankeny, Jason. "Alvino Rey | Biography & History | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 17 February 2017. 
  4. ^ a b c Yanow, Scott (2013). The great jazz guitarists : the ultimate guide. San Francisco: Backbeat. p. 163. ISBN 978-1-61713-023-6. 
  5. ^ ProSoundWeb. Forum: Recording Engineering & Production. Thread: JUNE is "Ask Bob Heil" Month! Message: 347458. Bob Heil responds about the origin of the Talk Box; posted June 6, 2008
  6. ^ Tompkins, Dave (2010). How to Wreck a Nice Beach. Stop Smiling Books. Retrieved September 7, 2013. 
  7. ^ Billboard, April 4, 1942
  8. ^ a b Alvino Rey: Information from
  9. ^ Todd Everett, (2004), The Best of the Popular Piano Piano Concertos, (Re-release) Collectors' Choice Music, CD, Liner Notes
  10. ^ Unterberger, Richie. "Martin Denny | Biography & History | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 17 February 2017. 
  11. ^ Jerry Douglas website
  12. ^ The Steel Guitar Forum - ALVINO REY: An article of interest
  13. ^ Big Band Library: Alvino Rey, "Wizard of the Steel Pedal Guitar"
  14. ^ Moore, David (2004-09-12). "Album Reviews: Arcade Fire: Funeral". Pitchfork. Retrieved 2013-07-14. 
  15. ^ Profile of Alvino Rey,
  16. ^ "Alvino Rey | Album Discography". AllMusic. Retrieved 2 December 2016. 
  17. ^ "Alvino Rey | Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 17 February 2017. 


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