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Alvino Rey
Birth name Alvin McBurney
Born July 1, 1908(1908-07-01)
United States Oakland, California
Died February 2, 2004 (aged 95)
United States Salt Lake City, Utah
Genres Swing, Jazz, Exotica.
Occupations Bandleader, Musical director, guitarist
Years active 1927-1994
Notable instruments
Banjo, Pedal steel guitar

Alvin McBurney (July 1, 1907 – February 2, 2004), known by his stage name Alvino Rey, was an American swing era musician and pioneer, often credited as the father of the pedal steel guitar. He was mainly associated with orchestral, big band and swing music, and towards the end of his career, jazz and exotica.


Early life

Alvin McBurney was born in Oakland, California, but moved to Cleveland, Ohio at age ten. His interest in music grew when he received a banjo as a birthday gift. He practiced amplifying acoustic instruments as a teenager, starting with this first banjo. His career began in 1927, when he played banjo with Ev Jones. He signed to Phil Spitalny that same year, playing electric guitar in Phil Spitalny's Orchestra. During this time he also studied guitar with vaudeville performer Roy Smeck.

Professional musical career


Horace Heidt

Alvino played in other bands, including alongside such names as Russ Morgan and Freddie Martin. While playing with Phil Spitalny's orchestra in New York, he changed his name to Alvino Rey in late 1929, to coincide with the Latin music craze in the city. From January 1932 to early 1939 Alvino played steel and Spanish guitar and in Horace Heidt's musical group, Horace Heidt And His Musical Knights, which also included the King Sisters. Here he pioneered the instrument, as well as becoming known for his unique sound. Rey met his wife, Luise King, during his time with the band and they were married in 1937.

Pioneer of electrified instruments

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 (commonly known as the Hendrix museum).

In 1939, Rey used a carbon throat microphone to modulate his electric guitar sound. The mike, developed for military pilots, was placed on Rey's wife Luise standing behind a curtain singing along with the guitar lines. The novel combination was called "Singing Guitar", but was not developed further. The innovation was the first known talk box experiment.[1]

Musical Knights disbanding

When in 1938 the band landed a spot at the Baltimore Hotel in New York, Heidt was bitter and 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 immediately resigned, followed by Alvino, and then saxophonist Frank DeVol.


Rey formed his own group with the Sisters (as lead singers) and Frank DeVol, heading for Los Angeles. The band was Mutual Broadcasting's houseband 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. 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 ban by the Musicians' Union of 1943 put an end to their recordings.

Navy service, new orchestra and disbanding

The ban led to financial hardship for the band, who all took jobs at a local war-plant - the Lockheed aircraft factory in Burbank. Rey himself worked as a mechanic. During this time the group disbanded. In 1944, Rey joined the United States Navy, and led a service band. After his discharge in late 1945, he formed a new orchestra, which signed with soon Capitol Records and immediately produced a hit - a cover of Slim Gaillard's "Cement Mixer". Despite this, the band broke up circa 1950, and Rey went on to lead smaller bands, sometimes with his brother-in-law, Buddy Cole. This continued through the 1950s, mostly in Southern California.

King Sisters reunion

In the late 1950s, Rey served as musical director for the King Sisters. In 1965, ABC aired a special featuring the King family, which grew into a series (called The King Family Show) spanning the 1965-66 and 1969 television seasons. Rey was musical director for the show. Although chronological details are sketchy, it is generally believed that it was after the ABC show that Rey worked on exotica projects with such artists as Esquivel, George Cates, and the Surfmen.

Late career and retirement

In the early 1990s, Rey moved with his wife Luise to Salt Lake City, Utah. Here he formed a jazz quartet which played local clubs. Luise would sometimes sit in. The couple finally retired in 1994.

Personal life

Some sources say Rey became a Mormon about the time of his marriage to Luisa in 1937.[2][3] However it appears that he was not actually baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until 1969.[4] Other sources may reflect Rey identifying at some level with Mormons previously, or are inaccurate altogether concerning this issue.

Rey's daughter, Liza Butler, is the mother of Win and William Butler, members of Canadian indie rock group Arcade Fire. The band released a live 1940 broadcast recording of Rey's song My Buddy, which appears as a b-side on their singles "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" and "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)."

Rey died from pneumonia and congestive heart failure in 2004, aged 96. This was 7 years after his wife's death in 1997.

Rey was an amateur radio operator, holding the call W6UK.


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ Jerry Douglas
  3. ^ The Steel Guitar Forum :: View topic - ALVINO REY: An article of interest
  4. ^ Big Band Library: Alvino Rey "Wizard of the Steel Pedal Guitar"

General information sources:

External links


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