Q&A with pedal steel legend Bobby Black, one of the last members of the first generation of players to introduce it to American music

"Music is a sort of a universal language, and it appeals to everybody. It's not complicated and but it's not repetitious either. It doesn't get boring…"

Bobby Black: Swinging Steel Blues!

Best-known for gracing the pedal steel chair in Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, Asleep at the Wheel, and the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Bobby Black is one of the greats at his chosen instrument and one of the last members of the first generation of players to introduce it to American music. And he is definitely the only member of that club who spent most of his life in Northern California, San Mateo to be specific. Compiled by Myles Boisen, a music veteran and studio professional who played a lot of shows with Bobby, "Seventy Years of Swinging Steel" from Little Village (2021) is a wonderful compendium that displays Bobby’s artistry in the best possible way. Bobby was born in Arizona, but by the age of eight he lived in Burbank, where he heard Harry Owens and the Royal Hawaiians, one of whom was steel player Eddie Bush. One side-effect of WWII was mass migration, including Southern and Oklahoman/Texan country music fans. The father of “Western Swing,” Bob Wills, settled there. So did Spade Cooley, whose pedal steel player, Earl “Joaquin” Murphey, was a particular favorite of Bobby’s. When he was thirteen, the family moved to San Mateo. Already a piano player, the following year he got his first guitar, a lap steel. His first lessons were frustrating, and then he got lucky. He heard a song by Jerry Byrd, “Steelin’ the Blues.” Bobby wrote him a fan letter, and got a quick reply teaching him Byrd’s C6 tuning.

(Bobby Black at Freight and Salvage / Photo by Aaron Rubin)

Armed with that information, he taught himself to play by ear. His slightly younger brother Larry picked up the guitar and as a team they landed their first pro gig with the Double H Boys, a band with a weekly radio show.  Later at the ripe age of 17, he and his brother then joined Shorty Joe and the Red Rock Canyon Cowboys, who had a regular gig at Tracy Gardens in San Jose. He’d never forget the place, since in 1952 he got to meet Hank Williams there. Bobby joined Blackie Crawford and his Western Cherokees, moved to Beaumont Texas, and ended up taking part in some of the first recordings for Starday, an early and important country label.  Lots of bands followed as he and his brother scratched for a living, at one point in the sixties even donning green Beatles wigs to play rock and roll.  Finally, in 1970 he met Bill Kirchen, the lead guitarist for Commander Cody, at a San Jose venue called Cowtown. The Airmen were a decade younger and a whole lot rowdier, but they loved the country-rock music they played, and he joined up.

Interview by Michael Limnios 

Special Thanks: Bobby Black, Dennis McNally & Kevin Johnson

How has the American roots music influenced you're views of the the world and the journeys you've taken.

Bobby: The journeys I've taken. Okay. I've taken quite a few. You know I'm an old coot and I have been playing for over 70 years, really it’s been more like 73 but that's I guess just a long time. Through the years I've had the wonderful chances to see so many things and places that I used to dream about because of playing music and never thought that it would happen until I broke into the rock world with Commander Cody, because I've been playing for quite a few years before that.

I had been around the country, played all over the states prior to that, but I hadn't been outside the country until Commander Cody came along and we did world tours. They weren't really all over the world, but we did Europe a few times. You know, played almost every country. And I did the far east with another band. It's all due to just being a musician, playing music and you know that I felt so privileged to be able to do this stuff, to see places. Usually it was nighttime gigs, so I would spend whatever time I had off from playing to see the sights and take in as much as I could. I didn't sit around in a hotel at all.  And by doing so I had quite a few adventures that went along with the playing part of it. I got to see Egypt of all things—I didn't play there, but it was a great side trip. 

"What’s really fun to do is when I play gigs somewhere where the people hadn't expected music. Say, set up in a shopping mall. I've been every place you can think of you know, truck stop, used car lots. And so, where people are there to be shopping and they're not there to listen to a concert, sometimes people are uncomfortable with that. Sometimes they walk by and pretend like you're not there you know, they don’t want to hear you, which is amazing to me. But there will always be someone who comes up and says who are you guys and who are you and what is this thing." (Photo: Bobby and Larry Black, 1955)

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? Do you have a sound in music philosophy and what touched you?

Bobby: Well, if you're talking about sound—from the time I was a child back in the early 40s through all that time, just about all you heard on the radio, this is way before television, but before that it was just radio and so the radio was always going. My mother was always listening at home. So, I heard mostly what they used to call the hit parade, what they call pop music, and it was big band stuff. All that sort of thing and I heard that almost every day, so it became very familiar to my ear. I didn't study it, I just heard it somehow. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was computing in my brain. You know, the human brain is an amazing thing. I stored up stuff I played much later without even thinking twice, the sounds, the melodies, all that sort of thing.

So I first heard the steel guitar on an Hawaiian song ‑‑ every once in a while you’d hear Hawaiian music and almost invariably they had a steel guitar play on the Hawaiian music and when I heard that something really amazing happened because I never heard anything like it before. It had a strange, different sound  I could recognize a guitar.  And all the horns, but the steel guitar? It's like nothing else. It really doesn't sound like anything else in the world. It just does something to you, and it does something to lots of people when they hear the steel guitar. It's just something about it and I heard that, and I was fascinated, and I thought I want to be able to make that sound. I was eventually able to play by ear. I couldn't tell you much about the basics of formal music and all. I know a lot about it now, of course, but I didn't at this time, but I've been playing music all these years and it's an education. And an adventure for sure.

What do you think is a key to a music life well lived, because you have lived it really well?

Bobby: Yeah, that's a good question. My life in music has taken me to see all kinds of facets of life. Not all players get a chance to travel as much as I have because I played with quite a few bands. I got a chance to meet so many people of all walks of life because of traveling around the world and stuff like that for decades and decades. And then even at home every night it's like the people I meet and get to know I kind of weed them out and choose the people I most admire so I've run into many people that I respect very much and it's a lesson in itself just to know people like that and try to follow in their footsteps and that sort of thing. I think it's an education you know. It's a real education.

"I like diversity. From the get‑go when I was a child I was exposed to my parents' music, unlike so many families that I've talked to before. They usually don't like the kids’ music and vice-versa. I've always liked to listen to music if it was being done well. You can take any kind of music and do it good or you can do it bad, you can ruin it by playing it bad." (Bobby Black, Myles Boisen & Tony Marcus / Photo by Aaron Rubin)

What's been the highlights of your life and career so far? The highlights, your favorite memories. Also, just to be funny, the low lights. Can you remember the worst dump you ever played?

Bobby: It wasn't a low life type of thing, but it was one of the worst gigs I've ever experienced to be honest. I experienced riots at times, but this one particular time this is amazing because we were in the middle of one. We (Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen) were booked into the Spectrum, which is located in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. And so I thought it was cool, you know, a great place, although I thought it was strange that we were to open for of all people Alice Cooper. Shows then usually consisted of three different groups.  We were the first out of the chute in that particular line up. The second band was the Chambers Brothers. And Alice Cooper. So, when we get there in the afternoon, we set up our stuff and get ready for the show that evening. It was actually an afternoon show. They had the stage set up with all the stuff that Alice Cooper was going to use, you know, props and whatnot, one was the gallows.  He’d hang himself at one point, so it had a full-scale gallows. So, we got kind of a hint of what we had in store, but we didn’t really know.

Come showtime we were even saying who the hell booked us into this thing. Do they know what they're doing or what because it seems strange to us and other people too as well. But we thought it's a gig, it’ll be interesting to see. They opened the doors, and this huge crowd of people just came running in and filled up the place. The Spectrum is quite a large place, it had the balcony, and then the second balcony up above it. Huge. And they came in and filled the place up and they all looked like Alice Cooper. The girls and boys both, you couldn't tell the girls from the boys and vice versa and it was frightening actually to see.  I made a bee-line of course for the back room because I was the last one off the stage. And went backstage and I hear all this commotion above and it was close to starting time, so we go back out and already they're starting to boo as we set up. We just do our show, we start in and we’re playing our boogie woogie stuff and we’re rocking out and the whole time the crowd kept getting more and more upset and pissed off and so pretty soon stuff started coming at us from the balcony.

I got hit square in the left ear with a roll of toilet paper and it hurt. It really hurt and at that moment I said I don't care who is throwing what or what is going on, I'm out of here. I just got up and ran off the stage and the other guys looked at me and they followed.

And there was just a shower of stuff coming down you know cups and cans and whatnot. Toilet paper and stuff like that at least it wasn't really hard stuff at the moment. But so, we got off and they cheered. And the promoter, he was freaking out. And The Chambers Brothers, their eyes are getting big. And he sent them out, well, I think for a moment, I think everybody out there were just looking at these black guys and they were cool and dressed cool, but then they started playing and it didn't get any better and it got worse, and the bottles started to come.  And I mean like bottles. They could kill you from the second balcony, and it got really serious and so they didn't last a half a song as I recall. They had to run for cover. Literally. Ran for cover and so the promoter was freaking out too he was saying oh, my God and I said this is what you call the city of brotherly love, right? 

"The journeys I've taken. Okay. I've taken quite a few. You know I'm an old coot and I have been playing for over 70 years, really it’s been more like 73 but that's I guess just a long time. Through the years I've had the wonderful chances to see so many things and places that I used to dream about because of playing music and never thought that it would happen until I broke into the rock world with Commander Cody, because I've been playing for quite a few years before that." (Photo: Bob Wills, Bobby Black, Merle Travis)

So, let's contrast that. Tell me about, you know, your most wonderful gig? Do you have one in particular?

Bobby: Sometimes you feel so privileged to be in a certain place, and I’m lucky enough to say I played in Carnegie Hall you know, three times. It was before the crowd came in and Andy Stein (fiddle player for Commander Cody) said why don't you—I heard about the acoustics in this place too—so he said let’s try it out.  It was before the crowd came in and I went up to the very furthest I could go way up there in the balcony in the back you know, and he stood by the stage, and we talked and I'm not kidding you, I was talking maybe like I am right now. And we could hear each other like it was almost better in there than you could anywhere else. So that was an amazing experience, and we were just very fortunate to be able to do that.

What do you miss most about nowadays about the music of the past? And what are your hopes and dreams for the future of music?

I like diversity. From the get‑go when I was a child I was exposed to my parents' music, unlike so many families that I've talked to before. They usually don't like the kids’ music and vice-versa. I've always liked to listen to music if it was being done well. You can take any kind of music and do it good or you can do it bad, you can ruin it by playing it bad. But if I can hear music that's played by people that really know how to do it well and do it very entertaining or whatever beautifully or whatever you name it, I like it and I listen to it, so I've been able to be exposed to all kinds of music, classical and country, you know, jazz. And swing, the big band stuff, and all different kinds of things. I think that rock and roll thing, when that came along, you know there was a kind of hand over and it was kind of controversial. And I got a chance to play lots of rock, all kinds of rock, and Top 40, and I liked it, although I don't particularly like heavy metal, that kind of thing. But I’ve seen that rock and roll has lasted longer than any kind of music that I can think of and it looks like it's here to stay. And as long as it doesn't get too crazy and unmusical, I’m all for it. 

What lesson have you learned from 70 years of playing swinging steel?

Bobby: Music is a sort of a universal language, and it appeals to everybody. It's not complicated and but it's not repetitious either. It doesn't get boring…

"My life in music has taken me to see all kinds of facets of life. Not all players get a chance to travel as much as I have because I played with quite a few bands. I got a chance to meet so many people of all walks of life because of traveling around the world and stuff like that for decades and decades." (Photo: Bobby and Larry Black, 1968)

How do you want to affect people? 

Bobby: What’s really fun to do is when I play gigs somewhere where the people hadn't expected music. Say, set up in a shopping mall. I've been every place you can think of you know, truck stop, used car lots. And so, where people are there to be shopping and they're not there to listen to a concert, sometimes people are uncomfortable with that. Sometimes they walk by and pretend like you're not there you know, they don’t want to hear you, which is amazing to me. But there will always be someone who comes up and says who are you guys and who are you and what is this thing. You know that happens by my estimate more than anything. Even to this day people do not recognize a steel guitar and it's just amazing to me. It's always been that way and it's even more so today. And then they'll say you sound so great. I love it. It makes my day.

Bobby Black - Home

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