Virtuoso Steel Guitarist . . . And Faux Latino – Alvino Rey

Latin jazz has been one of my listening pleasures for years, but it was popular long before I came along. By the time I was into my teens and beginning to appreciate it, Latin music had been well-established in the US for decades. Bandleaders such as Pérez Prado, Xavier Cugat, and others had been familiar performers for years, as was Cugat’s protégé Desi Arnaz, a pretty decent musician before he became better known as the husband of a famous redhead.

I was surprised though, to recently discover that one of the familiar names from the early Latin jazz era was actually an ersatz Latino. Alvino Rey was a popular bandleader for many years and also a pioneer in the development of the pedal steel guitar, but he was actually born Alvin McBurney in Oakland, California.

Alvin – er, Alvino – chose his new name in the early days of his career, when Latin music was growing very popular on the jazz scene. It’s unknown whether that helped him land his first big job as a guitarist in Horace Heidt’s band, but it turned out to be an important move. The new job provided an introduction to his future wife, Luise, who was a member of the band’s popular singing group, the King Sisters.

Alvino also became one of the band’s stars but eventually left to form his own group — along with the King Sisters, of course. Calling himself King Of The Guitar, Alvino made his band a successful and vibrant group, and although he’d kept his Latino name the band played all kinds of swing music.

Some of their best-sellers included “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” “Cement Mixer,” and “Rockin’ Chair,” which also featured the King Sisters. Of course, Alvino didn’t completely abandon his adopted persona, and there was a definite Latin beat on many tunes, such as a favorite of mine, “Speak Low.”

Through the years the band kept developing and was also a training ground for many future stars, including such familiar names as Ray Conniff, Johnny Mandel, Zoot Sims, Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and Frank DeVol. The band’s success continued into the War years until a musician’s strike upset the apple cart. For a while, Alvino was out of music and even enlisted in the Navy, but after the war he picked up where he’d left off by forming a new band.

At the same time, he kept up his own steel guitar virtuosity and as time passed and the big swing bands disappeared, found himself playing in smaller groups. He also expanded his work in sessions with other jazz musicians and was a valued presence on many recordings. Additionally he took on some consulting work for the Gibson guitar company.

In the 1960’s his wife Luise’s family singing group, the King Sisters, starred in their own TV variety show and Alvino became a integral part of that program’s long run of success, which also led to several good-selling record albums. It was just one of many musical activities for the energetic performer.

In later years, he even performed regularly at Disneyland and was musically active into his 80’s. He died in 2004 at age 93. A long and memorable life in the world of jazz and popular music for Alvin McBurney/Alvino Rey.

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