March 8, 2004 by

Alvino Rey


Categories: Musicians

arey.jpgAlvin Henry McBurney, the bandleader and steel guitar virtuoso, died on Feb. 24 from complications of pneumonia and congestive heart failure. He was 95.
McBurney learned the banjo and formed his first band when he was 16 years old. By the time he was 20, he was playing for the Phil Spitalny Orchestra in New York. To cash in on the Latin music craze, he changed his name to Alvino Rey, and became a famous swing-band leader in his own right.
His interest in the workings of guitars led to several unique alterations. In 1927, Rey took the needle mechanism from his mother’s Victrola and added it to his banjo, an adaptation that increased its volume. The Gibson Guitar Co. hired him in 1934 to conduct similar experiments with their instruments. Rey also modified a Hawaiian steel guitar by adding a pedal or two to get shifts in tuning. That variation led to the design of the modern, pedal steel guitar commonly used in country music circles.
The Alvino Rey Orchestra formed in 1939, and was accompanied by the vocal talents of the King Sisters. One of the King Sisters, Luise, married Rey; she died in 1997. The orchestra scored a string of minor successes with novelty tunes like “Strip Polka” and “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.” But the 1942 song, “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” became the orchestra’s biggest hit.
In the late 1950s, Rey recorded albums for Warner Bros. under the pseudonym “Ira Ironstrings.” From 1965 to 1970, he and the King Sisters produced the variety TV program, “The King Family Show.” Rey was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1978.

17 Responses to Alvino Rey

  1. James Argiro

    I was a pianist and arranger in Alvino’s band off and on from 1969 to 1985, when I played the last engagement with him and the King Sisters at President Reagan’s Inaugural.
    I joined the King Family in 1969 as Pianist/Conductor and contributed arrangements for the Sisters, the Cousins and a few of their last TV shows with Alvino and the family.
    Al was always the source of some laughter because of his dry humor and his abbrleviated conversational style. He was an avid fisherman and would think nothing of traveling to far off places like the Bering Straight to fish. We used to swap fishing stories.
    He will be missed.

  2. dan mcglynn

    I had the pleasure of playing with Alvino Rey when I worked for The King Family back in the early 70s. Alvino had a very sharp sense of humor, was an accomplished musician and was one of the nicest people anyone could ever work with. He will be missed greatly by all who were lucky to know him.
    Dan McGlynn
    Omaha, Ne
    (Drummer who is proud to have performed with Kent & Marilyn and The King Family!)

  3. Richard Emery

    My memory of Luise King an Alvino Rey go back to 1964 when they were appearianag with the rest of the King Family at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. It was my great pleasure to drive the two of them to the local ABC TV station to record some promotional spots. Great pair they
    were. Eating pancakes with them that morning is
    an event I’ll always treasure. I was assistant
    director of public relations for the Fair.
    Richard Emery

  4. Jack Peterson

    I remember watching the “King Family Show” as a kid, and being fascinated with how Al could make the steel guitar “talk”! He was truely gifted.

  5. Marvin Stone

    I suffered a stroke on February 19, so I just learned of Alvino’s death, which saddens me. My family has been privileged to see Alvino and the King Family at several concerts and shows. I spoke with Luise at length one evening when they were appearing at Disneyland. Rest in peace, Alvino, now that you have rejoined your beautiful Luise.

  6. David Thrower

    My prayers and condolences to the family of Alvino Rey – he was truly a great legend of his time and a fabulous musician. I am a record collector and have enjoyed listening to Alvino Rey’s recordings for many years. May the Lord grant him a restful peace as he moves into eternity. Amen.

  7. Bob Hughes

    Heard a lot of Alvino Rey when I was taking steel
    guitar lessons in the 30’s.I loved his playing then as I do now. Later became good friends of
    Joaquin Murphey in the 50’s. So I have heard just
    about the best of all steel players. Incl Buddy
    Emmons and manny others, but Alvino will allways
    have that special place in my heart.
    Bob Hughes

  8. David Miller

    Alvino Rey was a most accommodating interviewee when I contacted him for my weekly program on NPR, “Swingin’ Down the Lane.” About five years ago I finally met him, when he was honored at the Big Band Academy of America. He had brought his guitar, and as I stopped by his table to introduce myself, I saw that he had music for “Cumana” on the floor in front of him. Was he going to play that number? I asked. He said he was, and I told him that one of the composers of the song was present that day. No, he said, that can’t be right. Whereupon I brought over Roc Hillman (also a guitarist, with Jimmy Dorsey and Kay Kyser), who confirmed that he and Barclay Allen had written “Cumana.” Later, when Alvino performed the song on stage, he gave due recognition to Roc as composer. I was proud to have introduced two nonagenarians to each other — two guitarists who would never have met if I hadn’t seen that sheet music on the floor.

  9. Synthetrix

    My first exposure to seeing steel guitar played was watching Alvino Rey on the King Family specials back in the late 60s. This man could really make his instrument “talk”. He is missed.

  10. Frank Nelson

    I joined Alvino’s postwar band in Dec.’45 playing trumpet and arranging. 10 brass (6 trumpets/4 trombones) Lots of Billy May arrangements. 7 vocalists! A great band but too expensive. Alvino was great to work for with his puckish sense of humor. He brought a unicycle on the road and rode it! It was a wonderful experience for me knowing him.

  11. James Cole

    One of my fondest memories while vacationing in
    Hawaii was the meeting of Luise King and Alvino
    Rey.I spoke about Alvino Rey’s “talking”guiter,
    and asked Luise is that the same person.I did not
    realize that she was a member of the King Sister’s
    and that Alvino was her husband.She graciosly
    introduced me and my wife Golda to Alvino and we
    spoke of New York and the music.They presented us
    with an autogragh copy of “The Book of Mormon”and
    that was the high lite of our vacation.
    James and Golda Cole

  12. Michael Egan

    As a trombonist, I did many road tours and gigs with Alvino in the ’70’s and early ’80’s. A finer person and musician you will not find. Truly “classy”, yet down to earth, he was so sincere and kind to this journeyman ‘bone player I could never catch up with “pay it forward”. I’ve played with many big bands, but fondest memories will always be the time on the road with Alvino and Louise. One of the biggest shocks of my road career was in my home town of Columbus, Ohio. My father drove over to Zanesville to see the band do a concert gig with Johnny Desmond, Connie Haines and the Ink Spots. I, naturally, went home to spend the night as the band was to have the next night off then play in the Ohio Theater the following evening. I awoke early the next morning expecting to hang out with my dad and mom on my off day, as I hadn’t seen them in several years since moving to LA. I walked into the kitchen, and upon seeing my mom asked where Dad was, to which she replied, “You just missed him, he Alvino and Louise are driving to Pennsylvania for the day”! I guess I wasn’t the only one in my family to find that the big star, Alvino Rey, was just a regular good guy.

  13. Curtis White

    I met Alvino and Luise in the early ’70’s through my father, Forrest White, who had been vice president of the Fender guitar company from the mid-50’s through the mid-60’s. It was the first of several meetings. At that time, I was contemplating a career as an arranger, and Alvino gave me a lot of encouragement, always asking my Dad how I was doing every time they spoke. I heard Alvino mention that he had lost his arrangement of “Rose Room” and wished he still had it. As soon as I got home, I copied it note-for-note from his 1940 recording onto a score, wrote out the individual parts, and presented it to him while he was appearing at Disneyland a couple of weeks later. (I was too young and green to realize that I could get into trouble with the Union for such audacity!) He played it at Knott’s Berry Farm a month or two after that, I and was elated that it sounded to me very much like the record. He told Dad that he didn’t have to change one note.

  14. frank m benton jr

    I met Mr Mr Rey in the hall of radio station KWBC when I was 14. He signed a 78 for me and I was thrilled. Today I program a number of stations in North Texas and I play lots of his recordings…especially the ones he did for standard transcriptions. To me, he is the best of the big bands!!!! I did get to chat with him by telephone several times before his death. What a nice man!
    I always wished I could have met one of the King Sisters.

  15. Pete Lindup

    This may seem a long time after-the-event to post a tribute, but, only recently I discovered that Alvino Rey (what a great guitarist and musician) was also the man behind the oddly named “Ira Ironstrings”. I had always assumed that it was Lou Busch (Joe “Fingers” Carr)adopting another assumed name! The humour and superb musicianship in the Ironstrings albums is always a joy to hear. Why oh why oh why have they all not been made available on CD re-issues?The arrangements are amongst the wittiest ever played. Great fun.

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