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Alvino Rey, 95; bandleader, pioneer of pedal steel guitar

Bandleader Alvino Rey, a guitar virtuoso whose big band-era orchestra is best known for its No. 1 hit "Deep in the Heart of Texas" and a string of novelty tunes, has died. He was 95.

Mr. Rey, who was also influential in the development of early electric guitars and the pedal steel guitar, died Tuesday of complications of pneumonia and congestive heart failure at a rehabilitation center in Draper, Utah, said his son, Jon. His father had lived in nearby Sandy since 1979.

Mr. Rey was already a well-known featured sideman with Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights when he launched the Alvino Rey Orchestra in New York in 1939. Mr. Rey's band featured the Four King Sisters, including Luise, whom he had married in 1937.

In 1942, the Alvino Rey Orchestra scored its biggest hit with "Deep in the Heart of Texas." Mr. Rey's band also had a half-dozen other top-10 hits in the 1940s, including the novelty tunes "Strip Polka" (1942), "Cement Mixer (Put-Ti Put-Ti)" (1946) and "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover" (1948).

On those, Mr. Rey used his trademark style of pedal steel guitar-playing that mimicked a human voice singing the lyrics.

"In terms of popularity, that's definitely his niche -- doing novelty sounds," Dan Del Fiorentino, curator of the Museum of Making Music, said yesterday.

But Del Fiorentino, who interviewed Mr. Rey in 2001 for the museum's oral history program, said Mr. Rey also was "a master at the classical guitar and banjo. And that's the thing I think he was most proud of and should be. He was just spectacular."

Donna King Conkling, who along with sisters Luise, Yvonne, and Alyce sang with Mr. Rey's orchestra until it broke up during World War II, called Mr. Rey "a real virtuoso."

"He could play six-part chords and all kinds of effects that no other steel guitar player ever did," she said yesterday. "He would play the `William Tell Overture' or some rousing kind of number on his guitar and there was always a standing ovation.

Born Alvin McBurney in Oakland, Calif., in 1908, Mr. Rey moved to Cleveland with his family in his early teens and began playing the banjo. By 16, he had formed his own band. By 20, he was in New York playing banjo for the Phil Spitalny Orchestra. For Mr. Rey, however, electronics competed with his love of music. He built his first radio at the age of 8 and became one of the youngest licensed ham operators in the country.

He loved to tinker. As early as 1927, Del Fiorentino said, "Rey took the needle mechanism from his mother's Victrola and put it in his banjo to increase the volume. In 1934, the Gibson Guitar Co. hired Mr. Rey to help work on its guitar pickup based on that same idea."

Guitar historian Lynn Wheelwright told the Deseret News in Salt Lake City in 1999 that Mr. Rey "is really the unsung hero of innovating the electric guitar."

"He was either the first or one of the first musicians to play electric guitar on the radio," he said. "Alvino owned the second production model electric guitar ever built and he started using it immediately."

But, Wheelwright said, Mr. Rey's contribution to the development of the pedal steel guitar was even more significant.

Mr. Rey started tinkering with Hawaiian, or "lap," steel guitars, which were popular with big bands, by adding a pedal or two to the instrument to get shifts in the tuning. That, he said, led to research and development work with Gibson that evolved into the pedal steel guitar that is widely used in country music.

"Gibson sent Alvino the first pedal steel guitar the company built," said Wheelwright.

In 1929, Mr. Rey had cashed in on a Latin music craze by changing his name to Alvino Rey -- Alvino being the Spanish version of Alvin and Rey being Spanish for "king."

Mr. Rey's sister-in-law, Conkling, said Mr. Rey "was a kind, wonderful, good-hearted man" who was "the coziest man alive." There was nothing he liked better, she said, than to be in the kitchen "stirring a big pot of food and gossiping like a little old lady."

A 1942 "Metronome Magazine All-Star Band" poll named Mr. Rey the nation's top guitar player. But in 1943, he broke up his band and joined the Navy.

Returning to civilian life after teaching at a naval electronics school and briefly conducting an armed forces band, Mr. Rey re-formed his orchestra.

For several seasons beginning in 1965, Mr. Rey and his orchestra were featured on "The King Family Show," an ABC-TV musical variety show that featured 36 King family members. In 1978, Mr. Rey became the first inductee of the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in St. Louis, Mo., where he is enshrined as "the father of the pedal steel guitar."

Luise Rey died in 1997.

Mr. Rey leaves two, sons Jon and Robert; a daughter, Liza Butler; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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