Blues histories like to loudly proclaim that Muddy Waters started guitar electrification in Chicago in the 1940s. What they normally don’t explain is that such electrification started decades before Muddy Waters ever fatefully boarded that train headed for the Windy City. Early blues players coming from impoverished Southern states could not afford guitars (they mostly used fiddles or harmonicas), but all that changed in 1888 when Sears & Roebuck started catalog sales of the instruments for an affordable price. The Sears catalog, and its cheap guitars, gave Mississippi Delta and Texas bluesmen the tools they needed to revolutionize American music. Still, these acoustic instruments had a problem: they were often drowned out by background music or the ambient sounds of the bars and jukes where the blues were being played. Thus the need for an enhanced audio system became implicit.
The first electric pickup and electric amplifier for guitars was produced in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until around 1936 when a jazz guitarist named Charlie Christian (1916-1942) began using an acoustic guitar with a pickup attached to the body, with the intention of playing guitar solos in his band. This is said to be the birth of the electric guitar. Sales of the famous Rickenbacker “frying pan” guitar had started in 1932.
However, a major difficulty for the first electric guitars with pickups attached to their bodies was an acoustic phenomenon called “feedback,” where sound amplified by an amplifier caused the instrument to resonate, creating a cacophony of sound. “A clever way of solving of this annoying issue was to remove the hollow cavity from the guitar body, making it difficult for sound to resonate. This led to the creation of the solid-body guitar, in which the body is carved from a single piece of wood,” explains an article in Yamaha.com called “The Birth of the Electric Guitar.”
Move over Muddy, the first musician to publicly record a blues song, called “Hittin’ the Bottle,” (for Decca Records) with an electric guitar came in September 1935 from a Texan named Eddie Durham (1906-87), a virtuoso trombonist and guitarist. “Of African American, Irish, Mohawk and Cherokee Indian descent, Eddie Durham was part of a musical family from San Marcos, a city so deep in the heart of Texas, he spoke mainly Spanish as a youngster. For many years, Durham knew little English. His father was a fiddler who made his violin louder by putting dried rattlesnake rattles inside it; so the urge to amplify was in young Eddie’s genes,” states Paul Merry in How Blues Evolved Volume Two.
Eddie started his career in a travelling Indian Wild West circus which supported touring acts like Mamie Smith, famous for cutting the blues breakthrough record “Crazy Blues” in 1920. Backing Smith (no relation to Bessie), Eddie and two other multi-instrumentalists played 12 instruments between them in the blues diva’s house band. “Eddie Durham’s experiments with amplification started in 1929 when he started recording with Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, probably the most influential jump blues band touring the mid-west at the time. The all-black band featured the hard-stomp beat that Kansas City was famous for, which helped develop the riffing style synonymous with later big bands.”
Sadly, Durham’s many contributions to American music have been unreported and/or overlooked by both the media and blues scholars, even though he was a great musician and musical arranger during the Great Depression. Jazz historian Phil Schaap, who knew Durham for decades, called Eddie “the most neglected musical genius of the 20th Century.” How could writers or scholars not notice or simply overlook Durham’s many achievements? Eddie was “the quantum musician most responsible for rearranging the rhythmic nucleus of jazz. He was Moten’s [original promoter of swing] trombonist-guitarist-arranger, who embossed his charts with the fluid, prairie-open, 4/4 stamp of the Southwest,” wrote Jim Gerard in an article entitled “Genius in the Shadows” in allaboutjazz.com. “He had a vision that Chicago jazz in the 1920s was relatable to that from Texas, yet different, and that was the beginning of his desire to orchestrate.”
Throughout his long career, Eddie demonstrated a musical curiosity and a blues-type inventiveness. For instance, he once experimented with a home-made vibrato arm, later called a whammy bar on more modern guitars. He told the following story to Guitar Player in an August 1979 interview: “I took a clothes hanger, bent it making a hook for my little finger. I hooked the other end on my movable bridge. I could hit a chord, and shake the hanger, and I’d get a nice effect. I don’t believe I ever used that on a recording, however.”
Perhaps Eddie’s quiet, unassuming attitude was his undoing. If he’d been more aggressive and loudmouthed he would’ve probably attracted more media and scholastic attention. But that was not his personality; Eddie never believed that you have to break a window to get attention. But remember: between 1937-38 he wrote most of the songs Count Basie later played, he arranged “In the Mood” for Glenn Miller and he formed and led several all-female orchestras, among many other musical achievements. Eddie was also a major purveyor of the boogie-woogie style associated with Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis.
Not bad for a quiet lad from deep in the heart of Texas.
Eddie Durham on guitar in “Hittin’ the Bottle”