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Sunday, February 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Alvino Rey, 95, led band as guitar whiz

By Dennis McLellan
Los Angeles Times

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Bandleader Alvino Rey, 95, a guitar virtuoso whose big band-era orchestra is best known for its No. 1 hit "Deep in the Heart of Texas" and a string of novelty tunes, has died.

Mr. Rey, who also was influential in the development of early electric guitars and the pedal steel guitar, died Tuesday of complications of pneumonia and congestive heart failure at a rehabilitation center in Draper, Utah, said his son, Jon. His father had lived in nearby Sandy since 1979.

The Alvino Rey Orchestra, formed in New York in 1939, featured the Four King Sisters, including Luise, whom he had married in 1937.

In 1942, the orchestra scored its biggest hit with "Deep in the Heart of Texas." Mr. Rey's band also had a half-dozen other Top 10 hits in the 1940s, including the novelty tunes "Strip Polka" (1942), "Cement Mixer (Put-Ti Put-Ti)" (1946) and "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover" (1948).

On those, he used his trademark style of pedal steel guitar-playing that mimicked a human voice singing the lyrics.

"In terms of popularity, that's definitely his niche — doing novelty sounds," Dan Del Fiorentino, curator of the Museum of Making Music, said Friday.

Born Alvin McBurney in Oakland, Calif., in 1908, Mr. Rey moved to Cleveland with his family in his early teens and began playing the banjo. By 16, he had formed his own band. By 20, he was in New York playing banjo for the Phil Spitalny Orchestra.

He loved to tinker. In 1927, Del Fiorentino said, "Rey took the needle mechanism from his mother's Victrola and put it in his banjo to increase the volume. In 1934, the Gibson Guitar Co. hired Rey to help work on its guitar pickup based on that same idea."

Guitar historian Lynn Wheelwright told the Deseret News in Salt Lake City in 1999 that Mr. Rey "is really the unsung hero of innovating the electric guitar."

But, Wheelwright said, Mr. Rey's contribution to the development of the pedal steel guitar was even more significant.

Mr. Rey started tinkering with Hawaiian, or "lap," steel guitars, which were popular with big bands, by adding a pedal or two to the instrument to get shifts in the tuning. That, he said, led to research-and-development work with Gibson that evolved into the pedal steel guitar that is widely used in country music.

"Gibson sent Alvino the first pedal steel guitar the company built," said Wheelwright.

In 1929, Mr. Rey had cashed in on a Latin music craze by changing his name to Alvino Rey: Alvino is the Spanish version of Alvin and Rey is Spanish for "king."

Mr. Rey is survived by his sons Jon and Robert, and daughter Liza Butler.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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