born on 24/4/1916 in Clinton, OK, United States
died on 5/8/1998
Eldon Shamblin (April 24, 1916 - August 5, 1998) was an American guitarist and arranger, particularly important to the development of Western swing music as one of the first electric guitarists in a popular dance band.
Born in Clinton, Oklahoma, Shamblin learned guitar at a young age and learned to read music at his sister's piano. He became interested in Jazz when he heard Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. In time he purchased transcriptions of Eddie's solos and learned them when he became interested in arranging, a skill he later proved to be in demand for as the Big Band era swept the nation. As a teenager he migrated from Weatherford, OK to Oklahoma City where he played some of the roughest dives and nightclubs and landed a daily 15 minute radio show where he sang and accompanied himself on his guitar. Eventually he wound up playing in hotel bands there in OK City with jazz musicians playing selections that were soon to become classics. His local fame spread and he soon was known as the other great guitarist in Oklahoma, the first being a young Charlie Christian who was playing in venues down in the Deep Deuce area of 2nd St and also with groups that had programs on some of the same radio stations as Eldon. Charlie played in a lot of the nightclubs on the 'other' side of town where few white people ventured. Likewise Blacks seldom were seen in the 'white' section. In the Deep Deuce area the color lines were often completely forgotten as in mixed races Jam sessions at Salathiel's Barn where Charlie was known to have played with steel guitarist Noel Boggs and pianist Clarence Cagle, both of whom figured into the Western Swing music of Bob Wills and other bands of the genre. Ironically, some of these artists played in clubs which were across the alley from one another, often well within earshot of the back door. Music being a bond between races it's said that Eldon & Charlie possibly heard one another either on the air or across the alleys.
In 1934 The Alabama Boys an early western swing band led by non-musician Dave Edwards came through Oklahoma City. When they heard him on the radio they recruited Eldon to join them as their new singer and guitarist. Eldon left with them en route to Tulsa where they headquartered having landed radio spots on KVOO and eventual jobs at various dancehalls there. He stayed with the Alabama Boys for about three years. He later had his own radio show and eventually joined another group playing hotels performing classical songs in the swing band tradition. By then Bob Wills had already began calling him. Bob was persuasive but Eldon was reluctant at first until Wills made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Bob sold him on the security of a future he could bank on. He joined Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys in November 1937.
A self-taught guitarist, he quickly became the band's musical arranger as he had learned to read charts by studying big band arrangements. Shamblin's trademark electric guitar style and musical knowledge was key to the success of Wills' Western swing. His guitar featured prominently on the band's 1946 hit "Ida Red", which was later rewritten by Chuck Berry as "Maybellene". Then, on "Take Me Back To Tulsa" in 1940, he invented a two-beat rhythm arrangement which became his trademark sound.
Over the years Shamblin's rhythm style incorporated many dynamics including a Big Band style much the same as Freddie Greene from the Count Basie Orchestra. Based on much of what he learned from studying Eddie Lang's recorded work and transcribed solos Eldon was an a very creative innovator in his chord voicings moving beyond what Lang had brought to the fore along with other Lang influenced guitarists including Dick McDonough, Karl Kress and George Van Eps. Shamblin ranks right up there with the finest of these but is lesser known for his contributions because of his western swing affiliation which was looked down upon by many in the Jazz world because of western themes and dress, albeit the music was swing and utilized much of Jazz and other styles in the music produced by bands such as Bob Wills who was the most eclectic and swingingest of all WS bands. Over the years he hired many great musicians who had been in the known Jazz world and several who cut their teeth in his Playboys band who went to on Jazz careers.
Shamblin's lead guitar work was such that in April 1941 Metronome magazine called him the most creative and inventive guitarist since the discovery of Charlie Christian and the best white guitarist with the greatest flow of fresh ideas like Charlie played. They acknowledged Eldon as an emulator of Christian's style and made the distinction that he was an innovator and not an imitator of Charlie's style. Thirty years later a Rolling Stone editor wrote a piece on him called "Eldon Shamblin - the Greatest Rhythm Guitarist in the World" hailing Eldon for his creativity, solidity and echoing Metronome magazine's much earlier assessment. Similarly, Down Beat acknowledged Eldon's legendary status as a major contributor to the world of guitar noting he was Jazz oriented and a Swing musician albeit working in Western Swing and Country bands, particularly Merle Haggard who was on the cover - a first for the publication, granting a Country artist the coveted cover issue.
Over the years Eldon's lead guitar solo outings took on a life of their own evolving and moving along with the times. His acoustic single string lead guitar work in the 30's smacked of Lang and Django Reinhardt influences, while his occasional brief chord solos speak to an immense knowledge of harmony and the fretboard on a par with George Van Eps. By the 40's his style was reminiscent of early Bebop with the occasional chord flourish added to good effect. Bob Wills only told Eldon what to play on two occasions, the first being during recording Ida Red when he instructed him to put a lot of runs in his rhythm chords (because the bass player was very perfunctory) and after WWII he told Bob to "gouge your licks like ol' Junior" speaking of Junior Barnard who was in and out of the band and had a very bluesy style that was low down and dirty. Bob asked Eldon to bend the strings and turn up the volume. The result was Eldon venturing into what can now be considered proto-rockabilly with his somewhat "less than Junior" attack, playing more reserved by executing his licks with more harmonic structure and more intricacy in his very forward thinking solos. In the 40's Junior heralded what was to become rock guitar in the 60's with his proto-grunge distortion and sustain while Eldon held the reins and visited the soon to come Rockabilly era in California, Oklahoma and Texas a full decade before it launched in Memphis.
At any rate Rockabilly and Rock and Roll owe a debt to Bob Wills and his great guitarists of the 30's, 40's and 50's. Guitarist Jimmy Wyble who was a Texas Playboy from late 1943 until Spring 1945 waxed some of the finest guitars solos on record in any genre with Bob Wills on hits like Roly Poly and Texas Playboy Rag. His licks can be traced directly to almost note for note rip offs on Gene Vincent's recordings from his great sessions with guitarist Cliff Gallup. He also heavily influenced Hank Garland in Nashville and Jimmy Bryant on the coast in CA. Wyble went on to play Jazz with Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Red Norvo and made solo Jazz albums as well as several Jazz guitar teaching resources. His Bebop style was closer to Christian's yet forward thinking and very distinct from Eldon's or any other western swing player. Eldon's lead stands out as something organic in that it was constantly growing in new directions, while Junior and Wyble were in their own respective Blues and Bebop Jazz bags.
During his tenure with Wills, Eldon played his 1936 Gibson Super 400 which he had bought from Wills upon joining, paying monthly payments. At Wills request he also purchased a Gibson ES-150 electric guitar and matching EH-150 amplifier in 1938. Eldon and Playboys steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe began experimenting with what would become their trademark Twin Guitar idiom right away in the motel rooms when they traveled just to amuse themselves in their off duty hours. One day a couple years later at a rehearsal Bob Wills heard what they were doing and asked them to work up a solo arrangement for a fiddle tune he was going to record called Bob Wills Special. That day one of Western Swing's most endearing guitar excursions came about and was quickly added to the arrangement of the song, where it remains to this day. A few days later Wills asked them to write a special instrumental that would feature them as primary artists. They quickly came up with not one but two tunes, Twin Guitar Special which Wills recorded along with his own Special fiddle tune in 1940. The other tune Eldon and Leon came up with was called Twin Guitar Boogie which Wills never recorded because Wills thought the tune was too 'out there' so he passed. The tune still made the set lists at dances and got airplay on KVOO as rare transcribed radio broadcasts from Cain's Ballroom attest. McAuliffe recorded this song on one of his Capitol albums from the 60's under the name Bouncing Bobby (a nickname for fiddler Bobby Bruce). In December 1973 Wills made his last recording in Dallas with an all-star cast of past Playboys including Eldon & Leon who played Twin Guitar Special but it was renamed Twin Guitar Boogie with the two of them listed as composers. The 'twin guitar' idiom inspired a whole generation of guitarists over the years including Dickie Betts of the Allman Brothers band who has attributed his twin lead work with the late Duane Allman and more notably the uncredited Les Dudek who played on the Brothers and Sisters album with their hit song Rambling Man and Jessica both of which feature great twin leads owing much to what Eldon & Leon invented.
Shamblin logged over 300 recorded sides with Bob Wills from 1938 until 1954. He also was in a few Hollywood films with Bob Wills most notably Take Me Back to Oklahoma with Tex Ritter etc. and Go West, Young Lady featuring Penny Singleton and the up and coming Glenn Ford. Wills music can be heard to great advantage in both of these films as well as Eldon's guitar.
Shamblin was drafted into the Army in 1942, where he served for four years as a Captain in Patton's 3rd Army in the European Theater of War and was there at the Battle of the Bulge. After his discharge he rejoined the Texas Playboys in September 1946 (after a brief stint with Leon McAuliffe's Western Swing Band in Tulsa), rejoining Wills in Fresno, CA where the Playboys were headquartered, staying with them until 1956. In 1957 Eldon joined Hoyle Nix and the West Texas Cowboys band in Big Spring, Texas where they played at the Stampede Ballroom. After two years on the Nix band Eldon returned to Tulsa where he managed a convenience store and went to night school earning a CPA license. He quickly decided the CPA business was not for him and began teaching guitar at the Guitar House music store there in Tulsa. He expanded his work to becoming a first rate piano tuner and electronic organ serviceman who was much in demand.
He returned to music in 1970 when he was called upon to help organize a tribute to Wills and played on Merle Haggard's album A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills). Shamblin later joined Haggard's award winning Stranger's band, the Strangers in 1973. He toured with Hag on a fairly irregular basis, with most of his participation being in the Oklahoma & Texas area as well as Hag's usual seasonal 2 week stands every year at Harrah's in Reno, NV. Eldon played sessions with Hag in Hollywood at Capitol Records and studios in Nashville, TN. During his off time he worked in Tulsa playing locally with various acts playing everything from Jazz to Swing, Country music to western swing. Most notably was his presence at the Caravan Ballroom playing in a band led by Shirl Cummins a local drummer who owned a first class music store there in Tulsa called The Guitar House where Eldon taught music and guitar and also worked tuning guitars and servicing keyboard instruments. Shamblin had his own piano tuning and electronic organ servicing business that afforded him a decent living because he was so in demand. At one point he had nearly every church in town as one his accounts. Word has it that not only was he the best in town, he was the least expensive and most reliable.
In 1983 Eldon left Haggard because he was tired of the touring which had become more frequent and the extended stays away from home and his business. He returned to Tulsa and joined a late version of the Texas Playboys in 1983 led by Leon McAuliffe who fronted the Original Texas Playboys band which had been reassembled in 1971 for the 1st occasion of Bob Wills Days celebration held every year since the last weekend of April in Turkey, Texas near the area where Wills grew up. The Original Playboys recorded several albums for the now defunct Delta Records (as well as 2 pre-Eldon outings for Capitol Records featuring Bob Kiser on guitar) which also re-released an album that had been recorded locally called Eldon Shamblin - Guitar Genius. Eldon recorded with other artists including an album by Joe Venuti with Jethro Burns and Curly Chalker - 'S Wonderful 4 Giants of Swing as well as solo outings by fellow Texas Playboys & Stranger's allumnus Tiny Moore, Tiny Moore Music and Back To Back with Jethro Burns accompanied by two Jazz greats Ray Brown and Shelly Manne, as well as guest recording spots with Asleep at the Wheel, George Strait, Willie Nelson, Johnny Gimble and a host of others. Shamblin is noted for playing one of the first Fender Stratocaster electric guitars ever made which was a demonstrator model given to him personally by Leo Fender in March 1954. That same month Eldon used the guitar with the Texas Playboys in what became the final Bob Wills recording session for MGM Records. Eldon used this guitar and a borrowed Gibson Switchmaster loaned to him by Billy Strange took the guitar on the road with Bob Wills up through California on a month and half long tour of the great Northwest. The guitar is notable in that Eric Clapton called Eldon at his home in Tulsa and offered him $10,000 for it in the early 80's. It is in a collector's hands but has fetched even larger sums in the scant half dozen owners it has had since Eldon sold it in the early 90's.
By 1996 Shamblin was in ill health and retired from music except for a few of rare special appearances. He died in a nursing home in Sapulpa, OK on August 5, 1998. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 (along with Bob Wills and a select group of about a dozen the most active and productive of his Texas Playboys) and was also inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2006.
- Price, Jazz Guitar and Western Swing, p.81: "Eldon Shamblin was a session player for CBS and a regular in standard jazz and swing bands before he joined Bob Wills."
- Carr, Western Swing Guitar Style, p. 3: "Many of these recordings feature the great Eldon Shamblin, Bob Wills' longtime guitarist and the undisputed master of this style [rhythm guitar]."
- Carr, Joe. Western Swing Guitar Style. Mel Bay Publications, 1997. ISBN 0-7866-0759-9
- Price, Michael H. "Jazz Guitar and Western Swing," in The Guitar in Jazz: An Anthology, ed. James Sallis. University of Nebraska Press, 1996 (pp. 8188). ISBN 0-8032-4250-6
- [Eldon Shamblin at All Music Guide Eldon Shamblin at Allmusic]
- Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame—TEldon Shamblin.
- The Greatest Texas Playboy by Buddy McPeters June 2005
- Eldon's Guitar