Only a handful of steel guitarists have made their influence felt beyond country music and Sneaky Pete Kleinow was one of them. He is noted for his work with the Flying Burrito Brothers but scores of country-rock records featured his playing. More often than not, the steel guitar is used for melancholy, reflective songs, but Kleinow saw its possibilities as a rock instrument and would ensure that it was strongly amplified. As a result, he was described as “the Jimi Hendrix of the steel guitar”.
Kleinow was born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1934. He became intrigued by the steel guitar, particularly the Hawaiian stylings of Jerry Byrd, and he took up the instrument when he was 17. He worked repairing roads, but he would play in club bands of a night. One band decided that everyone should have nicknames and, for Kleinow, “Sneaky” stuck.
In 1960, he moved to Los Angeles and wrote jingles, as well as developing special effects for the film The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) and the cult TV show The Outer Limits.
His first date as a session musician was on the Ventures’ “Blue Star” in 1965. He played in clubs around Los Angeles and, early in 1968, Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons told him of their plans to relaunch the rock band the Byrds in a country music setting. Kleinow played a few exploratory shows with them, but the Byrds’ leader, Roger McGuinn, would not agree to a permanent position for a pedal steel guitarist and the band, at best a shaky alliance, fell apart. McGuinn found new members, while Hillman and Parsons formed a new band to encompass country, rock, gospel and soul, the Flying Burrito Brothers. McGuinn said subsequently:
They wanted to fire me and get Sneaky Pete in my place. In essence, they did this by getting the Flying Burrito Brothers together.
Parsons encouraged the band to wear outlandish rhinestone suits from Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors and the cover of their first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969), is iconic. The band is shown with some very attractive girls, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Male fans looked at the cover and wanted to be there.
The Flying Burrito Brothers opened for the Rolling Stones at Altamont in December 1969 and can be seen in the concert film Gimme Shelter. Keith Richards asked Kleinow to add a steel guitar to their recording of “Wild Horses”; and Parsons obtained permission for the Flying Burrito Brothers to record the song as well. Kleinow played on two more albums by the group, Burrito De Luxe (1970) and The Flying Burrito Brothers (1971).
He had done session work with Joe Cocker (Joe Cocker, 1969) and Delaney and Bonnie (To Bonnie from Delaney, 1970) and was to work on Little Feat albums including Sailin’ Shoes (1972); he also added steel guitar to records by Frank Zappa (Waka/Jawaka, 1972), the Bee Gees (Life in a Tin Can, 1973), John Lennon (Mind Games, 1973) and Fleetwood Mac (Heroes are Hard to Find, 1974).
In 1974 Kleinow was part of a new band, Cold Steel, and then a reconstituted Flying Burrito Brothers, but this was a dispiriting affair. His first solo album, Sneaky Pete, was released in 1978 and The Legend and the Legacy followed in 1994. He returned to special effects and created the dinosaurs for the comic film Caveman (1981), starring Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach. He worked on The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Right Stuff (1982), Terminator (1984) and Under Siege (1992). He won an Emmy award in 1983 for his special effects on the television miniseries The Winds of War.
In recent years, he had joined Garth Hudson of the Band in Burrito Deluxe, who released Georgia Peach (2002) and The Whole Enchilada (2004).
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