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Remembering rock and roll guitarist Duane Eddy

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUANE EDDY'S "REBEL-'ROUSER")

GROSS: One of the most influential guitarists in early rock 'n' roll, Duane Eddy, died last week. He was 86. He was one of the first instrumentalists to become a rock 'n' roll star. His New York Times obituary describes him as having, quote, "played a major role in establishing electric guitar as the predominant musical instrument in rock 'n' roll." His hits included "Ramrod" and "Forty Miles Of Bad Road." His first top 10 hit was this one, "Rebel-'Rouser."

(SOUNDBITE OF DUANE EDDY'S "REBEL-'ROUSER")

GROSS: I spoke with Duane Eddy in 1988. His hits from the '50s and '60s had been reissued on CD, and he'd just released his first new album in a decade. When he was a teenager in Phoenix, Ariz., Duane Eddy was playing country music at local clubs. But in 1955, when Elvis Presley's music hit Phoenix, it was easy to switch over to rock 'n' roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DUANE EDDY: I always said most rock 'n' roll is country music with drums. And you had a drummer and maybe a saxophone player, too, in those days, and you were doing rock 'n' roll.

GROSS: I read somewhere that some of your early records were cut in a studio that didn't have an echo chamber so that you faked one.

EDDY: Well, no. I actually didn't fake it. What we did was we went out and bought a big, several-thousand-gallon water tank and put a speaker in one end and a mic in the other, and that was our echo. And I used to set outside the studio, and we'd have to go out and chase the birds off of it in the morning, which was great fun. And if a fire engine came by while we were in the middle of a take, that was it for that take, I mean, because it'd reverberate around the through the tank.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUANE EDDY'S "REBEL-'ROUSER")

GROSS: You had hit records of the themes from "Peter Gunn" and from Paladin. Was it your idea to record those?

EDDY: Not "Peter Gunn." That was the sax player's, Steve Douglas. He came in one day and wanted to do it in an album. We were in the midst of our second album, and he had this idea. He'd worked it out on sax, said he could do it. And I wasn't all that anxious to do it. There wasn't much for me to do at the time. But I did work out an ending and - I mean, an intro and the middle part and everything. So we did it for the album. And then Australia released it as a single, and it went to No. 3 there. So Great Britain decided to release it as a single a few months later and a very big hit with the dance crowd these days. And they contacted me, and I fell in love with the idea. I thought it was great because The Art of Noise has their own sound. I know it's very strange and unusual to some ears, but it is very distinctive. And I figured it might work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ART OF NOISE'S "PETER GUNN")

GROSS: Why did you retire from music? And when did you first retire from music?

EDDY: Well, when my record stopped selling, I sort of retired. It was mandatory retirement, although in 1970, I tried a record called "Freight Train" with Jimmy Bowen producing. And it had gotten the top 10 of the easy listening charts, which kind of seems strange to me. From a short space of a few years, I'd gone from being rock 'n' roll and hard rock and all that to easy listening. But things had changed so much in the intervening years that that's what it was determined as being.

GROSS: Your new album is your first album in America in a long time. A couple of the songs on the new album are in a minor key and have this mysterious sound to them that really almost reminds me of certain TV themes, Westerns or spy shows. And I wonder if you feel that way, too.

EDDY: Yeah, I think most everything on the album could fit as a theme for some TV show or movie. We called one song Jeff Lynn wrote - called it "Theme For Something Really Important" because couldn't come up with a title. We thought of all these grand titles and thought it was a bit too pompous-sounding. So we just decided to - instead of title it, to describe it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUANE EDDY'S "THEME FOR SOMETHING REALLY IMPORTANT")

GROSS: You must have, over the years, heard many guitarists who obviously patterned their sound on yours. And I wonder what you think about when you hear that.

EDDY: I'm really knocked out when I hear that. That got me through a lot of lean years when I thought everybody had forgotten about me. And things weren't going very well and all that sort of thing that happens to people, and it happened to me. And then all of a sudden, I turn on the radio and hear somebody doing my sound. And I thought, hey. Great. This is wonderful - hadn't been forgotten. And so it was a great source of happiness to me.

GROSS: Well, I wish you the best with your new album, and I thank you very much for talking with us.

EDDY: Well, thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Duane Eddy was recorded in 1988. He died last week. He was 86. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review Colm Toibin's new novel "Long Island," a sequel to his best-selling novel "Brooklyn." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJANGO REINHARDT'S "I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.