An old movie is flickering across a television screen late at night. Mickey Rooney is cuddling up to Judy Garland, a banjo on his knee. He strums the opening to "Swanee," hitting a few fancy licks. Certainly that can't be Rooney playing the banjo. Who is it, really? None other than Eddie Peabody, one of the few on this instrument who can make a serious claim to being the most famous banjo player of all time. No, that would be Earl Scruggs, some listeners who like to wallow in bluegrass might object. Or Bela Fleck, younger banjo fans would argue. It is surely true that the fingerpicking style of five-string bluegrass banjo playing has taken hold as the dominant approach to this instrument, the sound involved in every breakout mainstream hit using banjo, especially film soundtracks such as Bonnie and Clyde or Deliverance. But there was a time when the plectrum tenor or four-string banjo style was hitting big on the music scene, and Peabody was considered the king of this particular style as well as one of the main developers of so many banjo techniques and styles associated with the plectrum. (That's a pick that the player holds between his fingers, as opposed to the bluegrass method of playing with fingerpicks tightly wrapped around one's fingers, or the old Appalachian style of playing with bare fingers, knuckles, etc.) Peabody's career stretched over two world wars. He developed much of his stagecraft during the heyday of vaudeville, and was able to keep working with his banjo during the economically severe days of the Depression. A musical instrument was first thrust into his hands by his mother, who noticed the rowdy little boy would keep quiet if he was allowed to fiddle with the strings of a mandolin. He began playing professionally upon his release from the Navy at the end of World War I. At this time he was quite the multi-instrumentalist, playing up to 30 different stringed instruments in his stage show, but always noticing that when he played the banjo the audience would tend to go wild. No fool he, Peabody kept fattening up the banjo's share of the proceedings until all he was carrying around was the banjo case. Showmanship was a big part of the act as well as musicality. One of his early triumphs was basically stealing the show from one of the era's biggest stars, Rudy Vallee at a packed-out show in San Francisco. Peabody entered the stage by sliding down a giant prop of a banjo neck, wearing an eye-boggling blazer, and pants large enough for a medium-sized giraffe. During this period his act became more and more extravagant, and he had plenty of opportunities to fiddle with it (or more accurately pick at it) because bookings were coming in 52 weeks of the year. He not only was playing all the top vaudeville houses, the banjoist was doing command performances for the likes of the Duke of Windsor, King Gustav of Sweden, King George of England, and Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. Instrument inventing was a hobby during the odd spare hour. A forgotten curiosity that Peabody came up with was the banjoline, which was kind of a combination of a banjo and a lap steel or Hawaiian guitar. The neck of this instrument was fashioned after a banjo. There was also a unique sound design involving the doubling of the third and fourth strings, one set in unison and the other an octave apart, while the first and second strings were not doubled. The instrument was available briefly from both the Rickenbacker and Fender guitar kingdoms. Peabody is often credited with inventing the idea of playing the banjo with a soft pick instead of the fingers, however it is hard to imagine other players not having tried something like this from time to time. Musicians playing instruments in the banjo family on other continents such as Africa and Asia definitely have made use of different types of plectrums throughout history. Peabody's use of a pick to play the fiddle was definitely unusual, however, and country fiddlers that use this gimmick tend to credit the idea to Peabody. His playing itself made it onto many radio and television broadcasts as well as films, starting with some of the very first sound pictures in 1926. The medium was a natural for exploiting routines he had established in his stage act. In the 1937 movie Hula Heaven, Peabody performs the chestnut "I'm an Old Cowhand" with a line of hula girls passing off different instruments to him. He begins the song on harp guitar, then switches to both mandolin and the eentsy mandola before winding up the number on banjo. He began recording for the Dot label in 1924 and made a series of sides including two albums exclusively featuring the banjoline. Some of the best-sellers were Eddie Peabody Plays and When You're Smiling. Although he recorded literally hundreds of songs, some of his favorite numbers include "Hello Sandy," "Whoopee," and "Here Comes Charlie." His concert appearances took him all over the world and he frequently performed for servicemen at military bases. There are several different memoirs written by soldiers stationed overseas in World War II that describe just such Peabody performances. He was known for his dedication to the banjo and for taking time out of his schedule to visit banjo students at music academies. Part of this might have been a mercenary interest on his part, because yet another of his tricks was to play a couple of numbers on several different banjos during the course of a show, then sell the instruments offstage for a fat profit at the end of the night to pickers eager to own an instrument that "Eddie Peabody had played." He collapsed onstage at a nightclub in Kentucky in November of 1970, and died of a stroke only eight hours later. Banjoist Lowell Schreyer published a biography, The Eddie Peabody Story. Peabody himself would no doubt enjoy the fact that one of the most enduring legends about him is a famous blooper that came out of the mouth of a radio announcer one evening in the '30s: "Ladies and gentlemen...Now Eddie Playbody will pee for you."
Share this page