Sunday, May 1 is the date of the upcoming Medallion Ceremony at the Country Music Hall of Fame to formally recognize the Hall’s 2021 inductees. In the Modern Era category will be mother-daughter duo The Judds; Ray Charles will be inducted in the Veteran’s Era section; and in the Recording and/or Tour Musician category will be the ubiquitous session drummer Eddie Bayers, along with one of the most-recorded pedal steel guitar players of all time, Pete Drake.
Drake died at the young age of 55 in 1988, but not before he had made his mark on Music Row as not just a superb instrumentalist, but also as a producer and businessman. Drake added his signature steel style to chart-topping hits by Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and other legends, in addition to writing his own instrumentals and producing such hitmakers as B.J. Thomas, the Oak Ridge Boys, Slim Whitman and others. And he became widely known across genres for his work on Bob Dylan’s Nashville albums, playing steel on the now-classic single “Lay Lady Lay.”
“The first hit record he played on was for Roy Drusky [‘Anymore’],” said Drake’s widow, Rose, who has spent decades as the president and CEO of the Pete Drake Music Group. “He played on Roy Orbison’s stuff, he played on the Everly Brothers’ stuff.”
Rose was instrumental in the growth and operation of Drake’s business enterprises, which came to include a lot more than just playing the steel. “At one point he was doing almost all of it,” she said. “He was a steel player, he was a publisher, he was a producer and he was a studio owner.”
Drake is also credited with the first recorded use of the talkbox, an instrument effects unit that allows a musician to shape an instrument’s notes with his mouth, using a plastic tube in conjunction with a microphone. He first used it on a Roger Miller record, and really came to prominence with it on Bill Anderson’s Still album. He went on to impact the world of rock music as well when he gave one to guitarist Peter Frampton, when the two of them were in England working with Beatle George Harrison.
“Pete gave Peter the talkbox when they were working on the All Things Must Pass album with George Harrison,” Rose recalled. “Peter had actually heard the sound of the talkbox when he was a young man, and when he met Pete he was really surprised to see where that sound was coming from. He was so excited about it that Pete just gave him one.”
Drake went on to work with another Beatle, Ringo Starr, when he produced Starr’s 1970 Beaucoups of Blues album in Nashville.
Drake was the perfect session man as he understood what the role of a session player is, and that’s to support the singer and the material, and not to show off unless the producer provides the space to do that. “Pete was a musician who played for the song,” Rose said. “He always said that you have to listen to the song, that the singer is the one who leads the band. So whatever the song said, that’s what he needed to play.”
You can find out more about Pete Drake at petedrake.net, and the Hall of Fame induction at countrymusichalloffame.org/hall-of-fame/hall-of-fame-rotunda/induction-ceremony-medallion.