Steelin' It is Proper's four-CD anthology devoted to the rise of the steel guitar in popular music. More than 40 different steel guitarists are heard on 100 historic recordings dating from the years 1925-1957. Rather than attempting a full multi-genre retrospective which would have to include the instrument's evolution as a prominent voice in African-American blues music, the producers confined the focus to Hawaiian steel guitarists and the Caucasian country & western swing players who in many cases drew inspiration directly from the Polynesians. This compilation was designed for casual listening, with heaps of data provided for the curious or historically inclined. Although Adam Komorowski's liner notes are copious and informative, those who wish to examine the documentary evidence may find it somewhat challenging to coordinate the chronologically calibrated discography with the selections which are laid out on a time line that jumps all over the place. Proper has assembled an enjoyable procession of recording artists that ranges from Sol Hoopii playing lap steel guitar with an old-fashioned Hawaiian trio to Billy Williamson manhandling pedal steel with Bill Haley & His Comets. Between those two extremes are packed enough toe-tapping tunes to fix up anybody's morning, afternoon, or evening.
The first disc is dedicated to the early Hawaiian masters of steel guitar and to those who adopted their style and technique. A Hawaiian named Joseph Kekuku is said to have been the first to vary the pitch of a guitar in this manner, back in 1889. For a slide he at first used a discarded steel bolt, then the blade of a knife. Kekuku brought his technique to California in 1904 and spent years teaching others how to handle guitars Hawaiian style, touring extensively on both sides of the Atlantic. This type of music became popular during the '20s through the efforts of Sol Hoopii, Andy Sannella, Frank Ferera, and King Bennie Nawahi. The attractive sounds of steel guitar mingled nicely with the broadening currents of jazz, as demonstrated with choice cuts by Sam Ku West and multi-instrumentalist Roy Smeck, as well as Bluebird duets by Robert Pauole and James Holstein, who were billed as the Genial Hawaiians. This collection also contains evidence of Kekuku's influence in Europe, for Segis Luvaun's records were cut in Berlin, David S. Kanui's in Paris, and Tau Moe's in Copenhagen. For a more extensive and thoroughly Hawaiian selection of music from this period, go directly to Proper's amazing box set With My Little Ukulele in My Hand. Steel guitarists of the late ‘30s who should have been represented on Steelin' It but aren't include Ceele Burke, who recorded with Fats Waller in December 1937, and Casey Bill Weldon, an African-American whose legacy appears to be permanently trapped between genres as his tendency to sound like a western swing player has caused him to be marginalized as a bluesman.
Disc two focuses upon four steel guitarists who helped to establish the instrument as a staple in country music and western swing. Bob Dunn, who named jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden as a primary influence, is designated as the first steel guitarist to have introduced jazz licks into this genre of music. He was also one of the first to electrically amplify his instrument; the idea took hold of him after he encountered an African-American guitarist who employed a rudimentary amplifier while performing at Coney Island. Noel Boggs, the first person to record with a Fender steel guitar, used ideas and techniques borrowed from his friend, jazz guitar virtuoso Charlie Christian. Leon McAuliffe, one of several western swing steel guitarists who studied Hawaiian guitar as a boy, is best known for his work with Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. McAuliffe is credited as the composer of "Steel Guitar Rag" even though Kentuckian Sylvester Weaver recorded the root melody as "Guitar Rag" in 1923 and again in 1927. (Weaver, incidentally, was the first African-American musician to make a blues record.) McAuliffe probably snatched the tune from a 1930 cover recording by a Caucasian duo billed as Harvey & Johnson; garnished with a bit of "On the Beach at Waikiki," it became "Steel Guitar Rag," a lucrative staple of the western swing repertoire. Oddly (and infuriatingly), Komorowski ignores all forensic evidence and quotes a flimsy statement by McAuliffe's manager to substantiate the claim that McAuliffe invented the tune out of thin air in 1936, thirteen years after Weaver made his first recording of it.
Disc two closes with a cluster of titles by Theron Eugene "Ted" Daffan, a Louisiana-born Texas bandleader and steel guitarist with a knack for the blues. The rest of this encyclopedic anthology is crammed with entertaining performances featuring quite a posse of steel guitarists in a variety of settings. Billy Briggs, heard on "Panhandle Shuffle" and the hit record "Sally's Got a Wooden Leg," maintained good working relationships with African-American musicians. Like Big Joe Williams, Briggs used a nine-string guitar. Don Helms accompanies Hank Williams during "Settin' the Woods on Fire"; Speedy West does the "Stratosphere Boogie," and Shot Jackson backs Webb Pierce on "I Need You like I Need a Hole in the Head." Coincidentally, it was Bud Isaacs who introduced the pedal steel guitar to country music on a Webb Pierce recording session in 1953. Isaacs is heard on this set backing Little Jimmy Dickens, and resurfaces alongside Chet Atkins on Terry Fell's "Wham! Bam! Hot Ziggity Zam."