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Herb Remington

South Bend native pays tribute to Western Swing legend

From the South Bend Tribune

By Eric B. Hurtt

Tribune Correspondent

Herb Remington

South Bend native Herb Remington, steel guitarist for the Western Swing band the Texas Playboys from 1946 to 1950, remembers Bob Wills, the leader of the group, as a "wise old boy" who was worthy of his legendary status in country music.

"He knew how to run a band, and he knew how to treat musicians," Remington said. "He knew how to put something together to sell records. We had to be versatile."

Wills, a Texas fiddler like his father and grandfathers, formed the Texas Playboys in 1933 in Waco, Texas, and eventually moved the band to California.

Wills and his Western Swing compatriots cast a long shadow, and this weekend the Chicago Country Music Festival pays tribute to this legend. Remington and other former members of the Texas Playboys - now called the Playboys II - are part of this tribute, performing alongside other bands such as Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys and the Hot Club of Cowtown.

Remington, who graduated from Riley High School in 1944, began playing the Hawaiian steel guitar in his early teens.

"I was already playing some standard guitar, and my mother bought me lessons at the Honolulu (Conservatory of Music) on South Michigan," he said. "My teacher was Oscar Moser, who had come over from Goshen. He lives in Texas now - we're still close friends. Back then, he must have been all of 20, but to a 14-year-old, that seemed like a grown man."

While still in high school, Remington was part of the Honolulu Serenaders, a four-piece band playing "a little bit of everything." The group played weekend gigs in South Bend and Mishawaka at venues like the Green Star Cafe, the State Line Bar and Grill and the Royal Cafe. He earned $12.50 each for three nights a week. Remington's playing caught the attention of Mishawaka native Buddy Emmons, a steel guitarist who would later play with country music notables Ray Price and George Jones. Emmons' father would bring his young son to hear Remington play.

"Buddy wanted to be a prizefighter back then, but he wound up turning into one of the greatest (steel players)," Remington said.

After high school graduation, Remington headed west.

"When I went out to Los Angeles in 1944, I went out to join a Hawaiian band, but there weren't any openings," he said. "My intent was to go to Hawaii and stay there."

Remington played with various Western Swing bands before he was drafted into the Army He packed a single neck steel and a small amplifier in his barracks bag and headed for Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where he was stationed until 1946. There, he put together a group to play officers' and service clubs, adapting popular swing and hit parade material to the steel guitar.

After his military discharge, Remington returned to Los Angeles. At that time, Wills and his Texas Playboys were in high demand, and Wills had taken up the practice of forming spinoff bands to handle extra dates.

Wills was auditioning steel guitarists for a spinoff known as the Rhythm Busters, led by his younger brother, Luke. Remington auditioned for the Rhythm Busters, but Wills hired him for the Texas Playboys. Remington played that night at the Santa Monica Ballroom on Santa Monica Pier.

Remington's first gig was one of the now-legendary battles of the bands that pitted Wills against Spade Cooley's Western Swing orchestra.

"Cooley's band was on the east side, or to the right of us. We set up on the left side of the stage; it was a huge stage," Remington remembers. "That's when they had the coast-to-coast broadcast, and that was my first night. That's when I dropped my steel bar (used to fret a steel guitar) on the crowd.

"San Antonio Rose" was Bob's theme song, and we hit that first to start the show. The bar scooted out of my hand and hit the floor in front of the bandstand and rolled around all those hundreds of people, and they retrieved it, but it was too late. (Former Texas Playboy) Noel Boggs happened to be standing at his guitar with Spade's band on the opposite side of the ballroom. Of course everything was miked, and he grabbed it and took it and never missed a note. I thought `Well, this is my first and last,' but Bob said, `We'll give the kid another chance."'

The next day Remington left with the Texas Playboys on a three month tour. Wills put Remington on a weekly salary of $125. This was an incredibly busy time for the Texas Playboys, and they were on tour constantly, with radio shows and recording sessions in addition to nightly performances.

Remington left the Texas Playboys in 1950, working briefly with T Texas Tyler and Hank Penny (Remington and Penny cut the instrumental "Remington Ride") before moving to Houston with his wife, Melba.

Since 1978, Remington has been a retailer of steel guitars and builds his own line of steel and pedal steel guitars. He still plays with regularity in the Houston area and plays a few shows a month with the Playboys II.

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