Legendary Country Guitar Player Bobby Black Goes Hawaiian

The show should illustrate the links between the steel guitar’s island roots and the country milieu in which it later became famous.

Like many fellow citizens on the mainland, Bobby Black fell in love with the steel guitar listening to Hawaii Calls, an island-centric radio variety show that broadcast from Waikiki’s Moana Hotel for four decades starting in 1935. Not yet 10 years old, Black heard Eddie Bush’s lithe steel work with Harry Owens and His Royal Hawaiians “and I knew I wanted to learn how to do that — whatever that was.”

Hawaiian music never paid the 85-year-old steel guitar legend’s bills, but it’s remained a labor of love for him all these years, a passion he returns to Saturday at Berkeley’s Back Room in “Hawaiian Paradise.” Produced by fellow Hawaiian music aficionado Peter Garellick, who splits his time between Berkeley and Honolulu, the multi-act show opens with a set by the bassist’s Bay Area Hawaiian band Haopinaka. The second half features Black playing hapa-haole standards with Garellick and his bandmates in the alt-country band Crying Time — guitarist Myles Boisen, fiddler Tony Marcus, and vocalist Jill Rogers — and an array of guest vocalists including Maurice Tani, Sheilani Alix, and Kathy Sparling.

“The whole idea of the show is a throwback to Hawaii Calls,” Garellick says. “From 1930s to the ’70s, this weekly Hawaiian variety radio show broadcast live in most markets of the mainland where you’d have singers, ukulele players, hula dancers, and slack key guitarists. That was most Americans’ exposure to Hawaiian music. I wanted to recreate something like that with Bobby Black as the starring attraction playing the hapa-haole songs he loves, the Hawaiian songs in English.”

It’s hard to exaggerate the central role that Black has played in country music, Western swing, and country rock over the past seven decades. He and his younger brother, the late guitarist Larry Black, grew up in the San Fernando Valley when Southern California boasted a twangy array of Western bands led by country stars like Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant, Joaquin Murphey, and Noel Boggs.

The family relocated to the South Bay in the late 1940s and the teenage brothers quickly became a popular duo act, performing regularly on radio and television. Early on, Larry was the standout, turning down offers from Hank Williams and Patsy Cline to hit the road because his mom insisted he finish high school first. That didn’t stop the brothers from rubbing shoulders with country music luminaries, as their band played several San Quentin Prison New Year’s Day shows alongside Johnny Cash, Rowan and Martin, and other stars rounded up by the Man In Black.

With a plum gig leading the house band at San Jose’s Tracy Gardens, a leading South Bay honkytonk, Black first encountered a soldier named George Jones. Stationed at Moffett Field, he stopped by regularly in uniform to sit in and sing. Black met up again with “the singing marine” in 1953 when he moved to Beaumont as a member of Blackie Crawford and his Western Cherokees, playing on a series of recordings for a new label called Starday (including Arlie Duff’s enduring and oft-recorded hit “Y’all Come” and the sessions that launched George Jones’ sensational career).

The Black Brothers recorded together throughout the 1950s and 60s, both leading their own combos and on hundreds of sessions led by other artists. They also kept busy running their own studio in San Carlos, which is where Bobby first encountered the pioneering country rock band Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. Guitarist George Frayn (aka Commander Cody) had become a fan of Black’s by hearing him play in the house band of the San Jose bar Cowtown, and he became determined to recruit the pedal steel master into the Airmen’s ranks.

Black eventually agreed, showing up to their first gig together at a Nashville DJ convention decked out in his standard Cowtown stage garb, wearing a French vest and high collar shirt. His bandmates looked like hobos on holiday. “The band could play all kinds of stuff,” Black recalls. “We got a review the next day that said a bunch of scruffy looking guys hired a Nashville steel player to play with them. After that I just dressed down, but they still called me Mr. Clean.”

He ended up introducing a new generation to the gliding cadences of the pedal steel, touring and recording with the Airmen, as well as Asleep At The Wheel, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Doug Sahm. Despite its ubiquity at the Grand Ol’ Opry, the instrument continued to elicit curious stares from audiences. With two or three necks positioned horizontally in a box-like console, the pedal steel is played with a metal slide (hence the “steel”). It’s a 20th century invention that evolved out of the lap steel guitar, which first found a role in Hawaiian music.

Black savors the opportunity to take it back to its roots, citing John W. Troutman’s 2016 book Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music about the instrument’s sad fate in the home of its birth. The lap steel guitar was first conceived in the late 19th century by Hawaiian guitarist Joseph Kekuku, whom Black described as having had a great name for an inventor. “It became so popular through the 1930s, played mostly by Hawaiians, but it’s been phased out and slack key has become the dominant instrument,” He said.

Over the years, Black has performed with many of Hawaiian music’s leading artists, including Cyril Pahinui, Genoa Keawe, Dennis Kamakahi, Richard Ho’opi’i, Benny Kalama, and George Kahumoku. Locally, he’s been most visible in recent years with Crying Time, the alt-country band that’s featured Black on a series of George Jones tribute concerts and the recent release King George. For those gigs he plays pedal steel, but for Saturday’s date he’s playing lap steel, a rare opportunity to hear him on a much more unfettered instrument.

“It’s a really different sound than his country playing on pedal steel, where you press on certain pedals and you get a certain sound,” Garellick says. “I think lap steel brings out his individuality more. Bobby’s just got a beautiful touch for Hawaiian music.”

Dec. 14, 8 p.m., $20, The Back Room, 1984 Bonita Ave., Berkeley, 510-654-3808, BackRoomMusic.com


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