Pete Drake’s performance of his hit song, “Forever,” in the film Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar is a proto-Hee-Haw flight of fancy. The assembled band members nod their heads back and forth to a hypnotic beat on a down-home, front porch set. Drake sits at a pedal steel emblazoned with his name and is dressed in a crisp suit. The scene has all the trappings of high honky-tonk decadence and country fancy. But when the verse comes around, Drake places a tube into his mouth and the sound that comes out is an ethereal voice shrouded by steel guitar. No one is singing lead on the song… instead, the tune is helmed alternately by an operatic chorus and Drakes unearthly robo-croon. The result is both hollow and futuristic—the opposite of good ‘ole, straight-shootin’ country music.
Originally from Georgia, Drake gained a reputation as a session player in the Nashville scene in the late 1950s. He later gained notoriety for collaborating with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in Nashville, producing Ringo’s country record Beaucoups of Blues, and working on All Things Must Pass with George Harrison (where a young Peter Frampton was present at the Abbey Road recording sessions and took a few worthwhile notes). But throughout the ‘60s, Drake cultivated a solo act that revolved around his “talking steel guitar.” This was no mere novelty shtick, as he always delivered his curious sound with a tight professionalism and seriousness.
Drake was an admirer of the swing-era steel wizard Alvino Rey, who had achieved a convincing “talking” effect with a military-grade “carbon throat” microphone. Drake’s “talking” effect involved funneling sound from the guitar into one’s mouth via a plastic tube and using the mouth cavity to shape notes to sound like human speech. The device didn’t require the user to actually sing, rather just make the shape of the words with the mouth The visual effect complements how the talking steel sounds: the tube-in-mouth connected to the electric guitar suggests a half man, half machine science fiction quality. The sound is beautiful, not quite human, but also not completely synthetic.
At first, Drake’s talking steel played backup in more conventional country recordings like Roger Miller’s 1963 recording, “Lock, Stock, and Teardrops.” Soon thereafter in 1964 came the solo record, Forever, which produced the hit single. Most of the album sounds like the title song. Listening today, it’s old music delivered in the future tense—similar to how things like the 1964 World’s Fair or Orwell’s 1984 didn’t provide entirely realistic projections of the then-future but rather incredible, relatable imagination.
Forever sports many classic pop tunes, including a beautiful version of “Sleepwalk.” Most of the songs feel like instrumentals even when there’s singing because of Drake’s obscured voice and the heavenly loft of his backup singers—like easy-listening with a space-age twist. “The Spook” is perhaps the most interesting track. It features an surprising melody a la Debussy or Ravel on which Drake uses his “talking steel” technique not to mimic words but to create a glassy “wobble” effect. Other standouts on Forever are the humorous “I’m Just a Guitar (Everybody Picks on Me)” and slow-burner “Red Sails in the Sunset.” words/ a spoto