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Al Casey is rocking.
But the 61-year-old guitar legend isn't plugged into an old Fender tube amp. His custom Gibson L-5 guitar is nowhere in sight. No, he's idly swaying on a swing in front of Papa's Place, the preeminent--and possibly only--diner in Cordes Junction, a ghost of a trailer-park town about an hour north of Phoenix. Casey moved here in March when a friend offered him a place to stay after he'd had a falling-out with his Phoenix roommate.
Casey concedes that he misses life in the city, but he's taken to the weather in his new home. "It's 10 to 12 degrees colder here than in Phoenix," he says, tugging at his maroon jacket.
He seems surprisingly unmusicianlike. With thinning gray hair and thick spectacles, and decked out in a dark-green striped shirt, grayish pants and white sneakers, he looks vaguely like a retired social-studies teacher getting set to play a round of golf. No one would guess that this man's astounding musical virtuosity played a monumental role in the shaping of pop music in the '50s and '60s.
But then that's always been Al Casey's curse. As his ex-producer Lee Hazelwood once said, as a means of explaining why he'd pushed to make a star of Casey's friend Duane Eddy rather than Casey himself: "Duane was a lot better looking than Al, who wore glasses and was so fat at that time that I once bought him logs to put under the seat of his Ford to hold the springs up."
In short, Al Casey had a face made for radio, at a time when even radio wouldn't accept an ungainly pop star. But Casey was always more comfortable standing in the shadows of stardom anyway, lending his finely honed instrumental skills to a cornucopia of hit records. Along the way, he was one of the key players who helped turn Phoenix from a sleepy desert town into a player on the national music front.
Casey was born in Long Beach, California, in 1936 and moved to Phoenix two years later. His dad played guitar and tried to get Al started on the instrument at age 6, but his fingers were still too small, so he switched to ukulele. At 8, Casey picked up the steel guitar and got into the country-style picking that was all the rage in Phoenix at the time.
By the time he reached his late teens, he was playing five or six nights a week in local dives. "You could actually make money playing clubs back then," he says. Along the way, he crossed paths with an ambitious Coolidge radio DJ named Lee Hazelwood, who was looking to strike gold as a record producer. In 1956, Hazelwood was seeking a singer for a country-oriented tune he had written, called "The Fool." Casey not only suggested a singer, his friend Sanford Clark, but also contributed a crucial R&B guitar lick to the recording. The result was a No. 9 hit on the national pop charts, and the birth of a Phoenix scene.
After numerous other attempts at a breakthrough success--including some with Casey--Hazelwood found his dream artist in the person of Duane Eddy, a shy, matinee-idol-handsome, Chet Atkins-worshiping guitarist. Hazelwood convinced Eddy to drop the Atkins style and play melodies on the low strings of his guitar. Since there was no room for another guitarist at Eddy sessions, Casey played piano in the studio. The result of Hazelwood's efforts was the instrumental "Movin' and Groovin'," which began an unmatched string of chart successes for Eddy.
Of course, Eddy wasn't playing anything that Casey couldn't do in his sleep and with one hand tied behind his back. In fact, Casey's tastes were so eclectic and the scope of his talent so wide, this twangy instrumental phase of his career looks like a mere amusing diversion.
"Al was much more versatile than that," says John Dixon, a Phoenix music historian and co-author of a definitive Duane Eddy biography. "It was a sound that Lee Hazelwood wanted, and Al was the first guy that could do it in a style that seemed to satisfy Hazelwood. And Al did some acetates that Duane Eddy studied to get the sound."
In fact, the year before Eddy's breakthrough, Casey had recorded a twangy rocker called "Ramrod," which anticipated the Eddy style. When Eddy played the song on American Bandstand in 1958, requests flooded in for a single. Eager to get the song in record stores right away, Hazelwood--apparently over Eddy's objections--released Casey's year-old recording under the name of Duane Eddy, and it became one of the biggest hits of Eddy's career. It remains such a source of embarrassment for Eddy that he continues to dispute this account of the story, despite the unanimous agreement of all the other participants involved.
Al Casey prefers not to talk publicly about "Ramrod." He doesn't want to hurt his old friend, and, besides, he doesn't care that much about the glory. Even the brief, fertile solo career he had in the early '60s means less to him than his 18 years in Los Angeles as part of the ace studio session group known affectionately as the Wrecking Crew.