Dreams can come true. They may not always pan out to be the full dream one had, but what matters most is the opportunity to try. In 1963, my Father, Jimmy Kelly, a pop singer in Scotland, emigrated to America, bringing me and my mother to Nashville, Tennessee, with the goal of becoming a country music artist. In 1965 he finally signed a recording and publishing contract, and got the chance to cut a few demo records and release a few singles. He never made the big time, but his dream came true, thanks to Pete Drake.
From humble beginnings in Augusta in 1932, Roddis Franklin “Pete” Drake lived a dream life, cut tragically short in 1988 by emphysema at age 56. During his fruitful career, Drake was involved in the recording of hundreds of classic country songs as either a steel guitar player or producer.
But his work wasn’t confined to country music. When rock artists wanted some twang Drake became known as the go-to guy. How many country artists have names like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Bob Dylan on their résumés? His modified invention of Alvino Ray’s talking guitar box, which became known as the “talking music actuator” was seen initially as a novelty, but became a staple of rock music in the hands of Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh and many others. Drake’s impact on the music business is still felt today, and his legacy is pervasive.
Drake’s musical roots are in Augusta, where his brothers Jack and Bill performed as the Drake Brothers. Drake played for several years in Atlanta bars with his band “The Sons Of The South,” which included future stars Roger Miller, Jerry Reed, Joe South, Jack Greene and Doug Kershaw. Drake’s band was featured on a locally produced TV show for a while. Encouraged to relocate to Nashville by Miller, Drake’s timing was a bit off as he arrived soon after country music was making one of it’s periodic paradigm shifts into more pop-oriented sounds, and the twang of the steel guitar was falling out of favor. But Drake soldiered on, and found enough studio and touring work with artists such as Don Gibson and Webb Pierce to keep himself employed.
The right player for the charts
As Drake’s reputation blossomed and the road gigs grew tiresome, studio work as a player and producer became a full time occupation, and he eventually formed his own recording and publishing companies. Pianist and longtime studio musician Hargus “Pig” Robbins fondly recalls working with Drake. “We started in Nashville around the same time—the late ’50s,” says Robbins. “He was always carrying on, and we got along good. He just seemed to know where to lay it in, where to put a good lick and how to play it. I would say he wasn’t flashy but his talent lay in knowing when not to play.”
Robbins played piano on several of Drake’s own records, including the hit ‘I’m Just A Guitar (Everybody Picks On Me)’ featuring Drake’s voice box. “That song was kind of a novelty,” Robbins adds. “The voice box was a unique thing he used to his advantage on several albums, and he had a hit with the song ‘Forever’ using that voice box.”
Robbins, along with other Drake contemporaries and fans, felt he had a unique way of playing that made his participation in studio sessions so desirable. Many have more than a few distinct memories. Robbins reminisces, “One of my favorite moments was his descending line in Roy Drusky’s ‘Another.’ His little licks fit so well, and became a big part of the record.”
Macon native Steve Hinson, a Nashville based steel guitar player currently working with Randy Travis, has a deep appreciation for the work of Pete Drake, and also credits Drake with helping him get established in the music industry. “I was invited to come to Nashville, met Pete, got to visit his house and hung out in his studio,” recalls Hinson. “He would kid around and pick on you, was funny, and had an excellent sense of humor. He gave me odd jobs to help me out. He was one of the most ‘commercial’ steel players that ever lived. Pete knew how to make music that people would like, and doing what serves the song and the singer. The steel intro on Gary Stewart’s ‘She’s Acting Single (I’m Drinking Doubles)’ is sheer genius.”
Beyond country music
Hinson also notes that Drake’s crossover work was incredibly important. “He worked with a lot of ‘pop’ acts—Dylan, Harrison, Ringo… and it’s because of him that you hear steel guitar in so many songs. Everything is cyclical, and the steel is big with pop acts these days.”
Atlanta-based steel guitarist Mark Van Allen, who has worked with many major artists over the years, sees Drake’s influence in a bit of a different light. “Pete had mixed respect from the players, some loved him, some not so much… mostly for the simplicity of his style. But he produced so many great songs and was a part of so many classic tunes. I often wonder how many guys started playing steel from hearing ‘Nashville Skyline.’”
Former Newnan resident and steel guitar enthusiast Alex McCollough has a deep respect for Drake’s legacy. “I think that his primary influence was as a steel player rather than as a producer. For a while, if it wasn’t Lloyd Green on the radio, it was Pete. And so many great songs—‘Lock Stock and Teardrops’ ‘Stand By Your Man,’ ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today,’ and so many more. For me as a steel player, it was so much easier to grasp Pete’s steel parts than it was those of Buddy Emmons or Lloyd Green. Pete’s parts are rarely flashy, they just really fit whatever song they’re ‘seasoning’. I think that it’s appropriate that he ended up on ‘All Things Must Pass’… he’s the George Harrison of steel guitar players.” McCollough currently plays steel with the Wrights, Jon Byrd, Jim Lauderdale and numerous other artists while working at Yes Master studio in Nashville.
Clearly, the impact of Pete Drake’s impressive contributions to country music reaches far, and continues through the work of others. He touched many lives in many positive ways, and he finally gets his due recognition with his induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2010. This time, it’s “Forever.”