Grandfather of Rock
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
He pioneered electric sounds decades before the music mainstream, and his progeny include the arena-rock brothers of Arcade Fire, whose new album drops Tuesday.
By Anne Miller
The hottest ticket in music-obsessed New York this month was for a low-slung Brooklyn warehouse at the intersection of hipster cool and city poor, where arena darlings Arcade Fire traded light shows for disco balls and costumes before a relatively tiny crowd of 1,200 or so fans for two nights.
The band’s latests album, Reflektor, drops Tuesday. It is one of the most anticipated of the year (just ask industry bible Pitchfork). But lead singer Win Butler and his brother, Will, aren’t the only rock stars in the family. They’re picking up the gauntlet thrown down by their grandparents, Alvino Rey and Luise King.
Never heard of Rey and King? Find a nonagenarian music fan. They might know. Rey was something of a musical prodigy who moved from his native Ohio to New York City as a teenager to work as a hired musical hand. He played with the popular Horace Heidt’s Musical Knights, joining national tours. He eventually hooked up with one of the King Sisters, an all-girl group from Utah that started singing in 1931 and made more than 150 records over a three-decade span. In the 1960s the family had an ABC TV variety show that spun off holiday specials and enveloped a family reunion of a cast. Win and Will’s mom, Liza Rey Butler, appeared on the show.
The fame dwarfs what music aficionados say was Rey’s true contribution: the electric guitar. Rey was known as a tinkerer who never left home without a tool kit. His early devotion to the pedal steel guitar, or lap steel, spurred him to find a way to amplify that sound. Because such guitars are played lying flat, their sound projects upward, not outward toward an audience like a guitar that’s held across the body. In 1930 Rey devised a way to electrify his instrument, so it could be heard amid the orchestra. His is believed to be the first electric guitar. In 1935 Gibson Guitar hired him to help invent an electrical guitar pickup. The prototype is housed in the Experience Music Project in Seattle.
And then there’s the talk box. Decades before Peter Frampton became synonymous with the talk box for songs like “Show Me the Way,” Rey and his wife experimented with a “talking guitar” in 1939. King “spoke” backstage through a mic held against her throat, making the on-stage guitar “talk.”
Arcade Fire released the Alvino Rey Orchestra’s version of the song “My Buddy” as a B-side on the single “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” from the band’s first album, Funeral — which was partly inspired by Rey. He died in 2004, just months before his grandsons’ first commercial album — and success.