Speedy West - Biography
Speedy West was a virtuosic pedal steel guitarist who, in addition to playing solo, often teamed with guitarist Jimmy Bryant. He also performed in Tennessee Ernie Ford’s band and worked frequently as a producer. Between 1950 and 1955, he played on over 6,000 recordings with a total of 177 different artists.
Speedy West was born Wesley Webb West on January 25, 1924 in Springfield, Missouri to parents Finley G. and Sue Arthur West. His father was a linotype operator at a gospel music publishing company who also played guitar and sang gospel. On the suggestion of their neighbors the Clines, West bought his son a Hawaiian guitar so that he could accompany the three Cline boys, who played steel guitar, banjo, and guitar. After Wesley’s talent grew, his father sold his own guitar so that he could upgrade his son from the $12 Hawaiian guitar to a much more expensive National steel-bodied resonator. In the ninth grade, Wesley won a talent contest. Afterward, he joined a jam session sponsored by KWTO AM at which hillbilly musician Slim Wilson introduced young Wesley as “Speedy” West. The name stuck.
In 1941, after Speedy turned 17, he married Opal Mae. After America entered into World War II, West supported the family and the war effort by working in a machine gun factory in St. Louis. By night, he frequently performed with Cleat Jones. Beginning in 1942, the Wests also operated a 200 acre tomato and dairy farm outside Strafford on land owned by West’s father. In 1943, Opal Mae gave birth to a son, Donnie. After the end of the war, the Wests continued farming, but Speedy began to play regularly on both KWTO and wherever else he could. After witnessing Eddy Arnold’s steel guitarist, Little Roy Wiggins, West decided to pursue music as a career. On June 13th, the Wests headed for Los Angeles in their 1936 Lincoln Zephyr with $150 and all they could fit in the back.
Once settled in Los Angeles, West first found work as a dry cleaner. At night, he and his new band, The Missouri Wranglers, played the VFW Hall in South Gate, as well as other venues like The Four Aces. West became aware of several local guitar talents, including Noel Boggs (who played with Hank Penny, Bob Wills, and Spade Cooley) and Joaquin Murphy (also from Spade Cooley’s band, as well as Tex Williams’ band), whose playing influenced him greatly. In 1947, when Murphy left Williams’ band, West auditioned to fill his spot but didn’t get the gig. The at a performance at Murphy’s Club in the Skid Row area of Downtown L.A. the following year, Jimmy Bryant was suitably impressed. As a result, he invited West to catch him down the street at The Fargo Club. West was likewise impressed but the two wouldn’t record together for several years.
West bought a Fender's Professional Model amp from Leo Fender’s Fullerton store and a new pedal steel with four foot pedals from Paul Bigsby of Downey. After continuing to hone his craft, West was hired by Spade Cooley in the spring of 1948. Over the five months that he remained in the band, West regularly appeared with Cooley’s 23-piece western swing band in appearances on KTLA’s Hoffman Hayride television show. His tenure ended when the unstable Cooley (who later went to prison for stomping his wife to death) fired him during a tirade. Though subsequently asked to return, West understandably declined. West next joined The Shamrock Cowboys who frequently played at Riverside Rancho, a popular western swing venue in Los Feliz. During this period, he was introduced to Capitol’s famous A&R man, Cliffie Stone.
Beginning in early 1949, West began working fulltime as a session musician. His first recording session was on Eddie Kirk’s recording of “Candy Kisses,” a light hillbilly number (that Hank Williams described as “stupid”) featuring West’s slight, restrained pedal steel flourishes. Over the next six years, West played as a session musician on thousands of recordings by artists including Frankie Laine, Gene O’Quin, Merrill Moore, Cliffie Stone, Molly Bee and Bucky Tibbs, Sheb Wooley, Johnny Horton, Wade Ray, Johnny Bond, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Doye O'Dell, Gene Autry, Sons of the Pioneers, and over a hundred others. However, the commercial and creative constraints of studio work led West to pursue side projects, beginning with Hank Penny’s band in 1949. Before the year ended, West left Penny’s band when Stone hired him for his daily radio program, Dinner Bell Round-Up, in addition to his Saturday dances at the Legion Stadium in nearby El Monte. In December, West made the transition to TV when Hometown Jamboree began airing live from El Monte on KLAC every Saturday. After the broadcast, the band played for another hour followed by a radio broadcast on KXLA. At bandmate Merle Travis’s suggestion, West had a nameplate attached to his instrument in order to raise his profile. West’s popularity was given an even greater boost when he appeared on Tennessee Ernie Ford and Kay Starr’s songs “I’ll Never Be Free” and “Nobody’s Business but My Own” in 1950. Both singles were country and pop successes and led to appearances around the U.S. At the same time, West continued to appear in B-movie Westerns, Hometown Jamboree, Dinah Shore’s Chevrolet Show, The Bob Crosby Show, Ozark Jubilee, and others. In 1951, West and Jimmy Bryant began releasing a series of collaborations for Capitol that allowed them to unleash their creative energy. These songs include “Bryant’s Bounce,” “Jammin’ with Jimmy,” “Serenade to a Frog,” “Stratosphere Boogie,” and “This Ain’t the Blues,” most of which later appeared on Bryant’s Country Cabin Jazz (1960 Capitol). In 1954 they released their first full-length album, Two Guitars Country Style (1954 Capitol).
West’s next partner was Bobby Bare whom he met after Bare rode the rails and hitchhiked to Los Angeles to present West with some of his songs at KXLA. West let Bare stay with him but suggested Bare sing the songs himself. The two recorded demos in Bakersfield and West’s efforts got Bare signed to Capitol, where he recorded four songs with West’s band backing him. In 1957, West sold his Bigsby and bought a Fender 1000 pedal steel. The following year he cut his solo debut, the instrumental album West of Hawaii (1958 Capitol). After Hometown Jamboree was cancelled in 1959, West, Billy Strange, Merrill Moore, and The Black Sisters joined forces as Billy and the Kids and began playing Las Vegas, Reno, and Lake Tahoe. The following year, West met a then-unknown Loretta Lynn and assembled Roy Lanham, Harold Hensley, Roy Harte, and Billy Liebert to record “Honky Tonk Girl” with her.
With opportunities for country musicians drying up in Los Angeles, West moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1960 to work as a manager of the Fender warehouse. He continued to play, albeit less often, and some of his performances were on behalf of the Fender company. West recorded two diverse, pyrotechnic albums under his own name, Steel Guitar (Capitol) in 1960 and Guitar Spectacular (Capitol) in 1962. Guitar Spectacular was recorded with Lanham, Strange, Billy Liebert, and Earl Palmer, however the success of the album was hindered by a pressing error that resulted in side one being pressed on both sides. Record stores demanded their money back. Guitar Spectacular proved to be West’s final album. In 1963, at the invitation of bush musicians The LeGarde Twins, West traveled to Australia for a 44-day tour in which he appeared at various events, and on TV and radio. In 1964, he divorced Opal Mae and married his second wife, Mary. In 1967, he traveled to Japan to play shows for Fender.
West suffered a stroke in 1981, which left his right side paralyzed. After undergoing surgery a few years later, partial movement was restored although he was still in considerable pain. He never played again. He died at the age of 79 on November 15, 2003 at his home in Broken Bow, Oklahoma.