Monday, December 7, 2009

Song of the Week: "Stratosphere Boogie", Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant


Today the giant imaginary finger that floats high in the sky and gently descends on our computer to pick the Flip-Side Song of the Week, has landed ever so deftly on a Capitol Records number from 1954. The song is from country guitarist and session-man whiz, Jimmy Bryant and his willing cohort, pedal steel player, Speedy West.

The two head spinning musicians worked together like two conjoined twins in a freak show carnival. These two cats were doing something so incredibly different from everyone else, that it is a wonder the two of them coexisted at the same time. While they are both "country musicians", a quick listen to our SoTW, Stratosphere Boogie, will tell you that they were traveling far from the traditional country idiom.

Jimmy Bryant was born in rural Georgia where he used to play fiddle as a kid. He served in the Army in the European theatre during WWII until he was injured and sent back to Washington DC to convalesce. He brought back with him a bunch of shrapnel and a few gypsy jazz records by Django Reinhardt. He took up guitar and a year later, in 1946, moved to LA to become a session guitarist. Yep, one year on guitar and he became a session musician blending his native country music with the gypsy jazz of Reinhardt and the be-bop jazz so popular in Washington DC (Duke Ellington being a native). Speedy West was born and raised in Missouri while being spoon fed a steady diet of hillbilly music. Like Bryant, he moved to LA in 1946 to make his mark as a session man. Both men met while playing on the same night in neighboring clubs and peeking in on each other to check out the competition. They would also start to run into each other when two local would-be guitar makers started seeking out the young and innovative West and Bryant to demo their newest equipment. Those two luthiers to-be were Paul Bigsby and Leo Fender. When Speedy turned a few heads on a 1950 session backing Tennessee Ernie Ford while using his new Bigsby triple neck pedal steel, Speedy cashed in on his new-found reputation to suggest that future sessions include Jimmy Bryant, who was one of the first, if not the only guitarist playing a new Fender Broadcaster (later renamed the Telecaster). And so it was, the two did sessions backing singers like Ford and Kay Starr as well as recording their own instrumental albums as Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant.

Today's SoTW is one of those. It is a Bryant composition entitled Stratosphere Boogie. And as the name implies (and I have already hinted at), the song soars far beyond any country restraints. It features West and Bryant sharing a single microphone placed in between their instruments and riffing back and forth with spacey pedal steel riffs and mind blowing jazzy guitar runs. The unique recordings of the two would go on to influence a new generation of guitarists such as Danny Gatton and Bill Kirchen who would blend Jazz and country into a fusion they would wryly call Jazzabilly.

As a bonus, I'm linking here a video of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant backing up Tennessee Ernie Ford on Kissing Bug Boogie. I own this song on a 78rpm record and I must say the first time I played it on my old Victrola I did an about face when I got to the Bryant and then West leads. They sounded so modern and so ahead of their time that I couldn't believe it was coming out of a 70 year old Victrola. Watch the video and I think you'll agree, the whiz session men were clearly destined to be conjoined in a different stratosphere.


Enjoy your week and keep flippin' like a flag on a pole.

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