Jack Richards, without question the Godfather of Australian pedal steel guitar, passed away age 93 during the night Thursday 6th March 2014. Born 1921 in Sydney Australia, Jack also established himself as one of Sydney’s leading guitar professionals in the 1940’s & 1950’s, a contemporary of the top players of the time, including such names as Don Andrews, George Golla and Jan Gold.
Jack purchased his first steel guitar in 1937 for $3. In 1939 he purchased a new Rickenbacker steel and amp for about $115. At this time (like many in the Richards family) Jack was employed in the newspaper business, working for the Sydney Sun initially as a copy boy straight from school, then as a press photographer, having completed an apprenticeship.
Jack had a flair for photography, but had greater ambitions in the world of music, well beyond playing lap steel. With the engineering skills of another steel guitar enthusiast, Ivan Ive, the first pedal steel guitar in Australia was built in a suburban garage in Sydney (pictured at left). The steel and amplifier were combined in a single very impressive cabinet, with the initials JR part of the speaker grille. Jack evolved a new style of playing steel within a jazz and big band context together with a (then) young sax player, David Rutlege. Jack became the first person to play pedal steel guitar in Australia at a professional gig, in 1943 at the ‘Roosevelt Club’, a club for American Officers in Sydney during WW2.
In 1944, Jack was hired as pedal steel guitarist by bandleader Leo White for his 15 piece orchestra. In 1945, the same band landed a 6 nights per week 2 year residency at the very swank ‘Princes’ restaurant, at that time literally Sydney’s top nightclub/restaurant. During the WW2 years, Sydney’s nightlife and live music scene had ramped up considerably from the previous decade. In the Leo White bands, Jack also played conventional orchestral/big band style (archtop) guitar, becoming a proficient reader on both instruments.
After the ‘Princes’ gig finished, there was a slow downturn in the live music scene after WW2, as might be expected. Jack stayed busy doing most of the studio sessions in Sydney on pedal steel, also including programmes on both ABC radio & TV. An example is the hawaiian music sessions with Sydney crooner Johnny Wade, who had his own weekly shows on the ABC. Jack also developed his arranging skills during this period. Radio & TV shows were generally broadcast “live” to air with all musicians required to read charts. Definitely no miming back in those days !
During 1947 – 1948 production of the ‘Kord King’ pedal steel guitar took place in a small factory in Cremorne (Sydney). This was arguably the first production run of a pedal steel guitar in the world. The three main partners involved in this were Jack Richards, Ray Olson and Alec Iverson – all photographers and all steel players. My apologies for any errors and omissions in this story, there may have been others who contributed to this project. This time the pedal steel was not a huge console, but rather a portable instrument with a separate amplifier unit. The amplifier was built in another factory in Cremorne, details not known. The initial production run was 100 units plus some lap steels. The boys thought they had it made – that they would conquer the world, but it was not to be. The widespread use of pedal steel guitar in country music was still a long way off. There were only a handful of guitarists with the sophistication to use Jack’s jazz approach to the steel, and interest in Hawaiian music would ultimately wane. In retrospect they were about 20 years too early.
The Cremorne factory eventually moved to Ben Boyd Road, Neutral Bay, on a corner opposite The Oaks Hotel (then the watering hole for the large tram and bus depot right next door), producing cases for jewellery and cutlery, etc. At the time, we lived close by in Grosvenor Street. I don’t think this was a happy period in Jack’s life. After the business was wound up, Jack started ‘Guitar City’ with partner Roy Royston (plus a silent partner), primarily as a teaching studio, but was developed over time as a guitar and amplifier retailer as well. This was arguably Sydney’s first ‘specialist’ guitar shop. I can remember ‘Guitar City’ at three different locations in the Sydney CBD: Railway Square, Telford House and the Gibb & Beeman Building – the latter two both prime George Street locations. I believe that the original teaching studio was in Kirribilli/North Sydney, but have no personal memory of that. The business prospered during the 60’s explosion of guitar ‘groups’, with Jack & Roy selling out to younger owners in the early 70’s.
From this time onwards until his retirement from the music business at age 65, Jack continued teaching in the Manly area of Sydney, and held down numerous club and theatre/restaurant gigs around town. Jack is survived by three sons: Ivan, Trevor and Mark, one daughter: Karen, plus eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Thank you Jack for passing on the gift of music to me !!
for more information ref the development of Aussie pedal-steel, please see the ‘history’ archive at my website: http://www.ivanrichards.com