Pete Drake was one of the busiest Music Men in “Music City” in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. His duties as a business executive, record producer and musician meant he was constantly on the go. Pete was the president of the Pete Drake Music Group which consisted of the Window Music Publishing Company, Tomake Music Publishing, Petewood Music and the record label First Generation Records. He was also in high demand for recording sessions. When he wasn’t playing steel guitar for another producer, he could be found in his own studio “Pete’s Place” at 809 18th Avenue South producing artists for his First Generation Record label.
Pete was born Roddis Franklin Drake in Augusta, Georgia, on October 8, 1932 to Nora Blevins Drake and John Drake. His dad, Brother Johnny, was a Pentecostal preacher and his mother Nora was a housewife. His brothers, Bill and Jack Drake, sang mostly in churches in the Atlanta area and were known as The Drake Brothers. Jack Drake left Atlanta and moved to Nashville to play upright bass for Ernest Tubb as a Texas Troubadour, a position he kept for 24 years. Bill followed soon afterwards but grew tired of the road and decided to move to California where he played guitar in clubs and became a DJ.
During Pete’s visits to Nashville at the age of 18, he was fascinated by the steel guitar sounds of Jerry Byrd. He returned to Atlanta and built his own steel guitar, and later bought a used single neck for $38 in the local pawn shop and began to teach himself to play. By the age of 19, he was working as a bread truck driver, a grocery store manager and learning to play the guitar in his spare time. Further inspiration came a few years later from hearing Webb Pierce’s 1953 recording of “Slowly,” on which steel guitarist Bud Issacs achieved note bending effects with a pedal-activated, pitch-altering mechanism on his guitar. Fashioning his own pedal guitar, Pete became of one Atlanta’s first pedal steel guitarists. A year later, he started playing professionally with his own band, “The Sons of the South” in the 1950s. Pete and his band were featured on WLWA in Atlanta and WTJH in East Point, Georgia. Drake’s melodic steel guitar playing made him one of Atlanta’s top young instrumentalists. The Sons of the South included future country music superstars Jerry Reed, Doug Kershaw, Roger Miller, Joe South, Jack Greene and sometimes Dick Van Dyke.
Click here to view photos of a young Pete Drake.
Pete moved to Nashville in 1959, leaving the family in Atlanta until he got established. After almost starving for more than a year, he got a job playing on the road with Audrey Williams, Wilma Lee, Stoney Cooper and Marty Robbins. After a 31 day tour with Marty and sleeping in a bed only a couple of nights, he decided it was time to stay in Nashville and try to become session musician.
Like so many of those who achieved success in Music City, Pete Drake’s career in Nashville began at the Grand Ole Opry, America’s greatest Country Music institution. He accompanied a wide range of artists on the Opry while establishing himself as one of the leading steel guitarists in all genres of the music business.
The turning point came when singer Roy Drusky heard him one night playing at the Opry, and was so impressed with the individuality of his style that he invited Pete to record his next session with him. The result was Roy Drusky’s 1960 hit “Anymore.” Another chart hit, George Hamilton IV’s ” Loveliness All Around Me/Before This Day Ends” soon followed, and Pete’s career as a Nashville session player was in high gear. In the late 1960’s Pete described the pace as “15 sessions per week, usually three a day.”
Click here to view photos of Pete Drake as a session musician.
In 1962, he partnered with Tommy Hill, Jerry Shook, Ralph Davis and Jack Drake, and for a short time Ralph Emery to form Window Music Publishing and Tomake Music to take care of his downtime between sessions. In 1962, there were only a few publishing companies on Music Row and new writers coming to town needed a writing home. The first writers he signed were Ed Bruce and Bill and Dottie West. Window Music became successful in the first year when “Is This Me,” recorded by Jim Reeves and written by Bill and Dottie West, became their first number one record.
Pete and his staff built one of the most successful independent publishing companies in Nashville. At one point during the 1960s, Window Music accomplished getting a song a day recorded. He helped develop the writing careers of David Allan Coe, Frank Dycus, Rory Bourke, Linda Hargrove, Jeff Tweel, Sonny Throckmorton, Susan Longacre, Larry Kingston, Pam Rose, Mary Ann Kennedy, Buzz Rabin, Rick Beresford, Lathan Hudson, Michael Clark and countless others.
Click here to view photos of Pete Drake as a publisher.
In 1961 and 1962, Pete recorded several albums for Don Pierce’s Starday Records that were produced by Tommy Hill.
In 1963, Shelby Singleton and Jerry Kennedy signed Pete to a recording contract with Smash Records, a division of Mercury Records. He recorded several albums, including his hit record “Forever,” which earned him the nickname of “King of the Talking Steel Guitar” due to his unique way of vocalizing along with the strings of the steel guitar. He also released the solo album “Steel Away” of pop/gospel standards for Word Records. In addition, he worked on the Dick Clark Caravan Show, appearing on national television shows. He also appeared in the movie filmed in Nashville, “Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar”.
In 1964, he was voted “Instrumentalist of the Year” by Cash Box magazine and “Fastest Climbing Instrumentalists’ by Record World and “Instrumentalist of the Year” by the Country Music Association. In 1970, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame’s “Walkway of Stars.” In 1987, he was awarded the Nashville Entertainment Association’s “Master Award” and inducted into the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. Pete was also inducted into the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990 and Musicians Hall of Fame in 2007. He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2010.
Click here to view photos of Pete Drake as an artist.
Pete used the trademark mellow tone of his steel guitar to strengthen recording sessions with other country artists such as Marty Robbins, Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash, The Louvin Brothers, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Reba McEntire and Charley Pride.
People who wouldn’t recognize Pete by name know his distinctive musical steel guitar sounds from such recordings as Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,” George Jones “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Kenny Rogers” Lucille,” Lynn Anderson’s” (I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden” and countless others. In fact, at one point, he was featured on 59 of the 75 songs on Billboard’s Top Country Hits.
Pete’s involvement with Elvis Presley began in May 1966, when he played on Presley’s “How Great Thou Art” album, and appeared on the soundtracks of Presley’s films “Double Trouble,” “Clambake,” “Speedway,” “Spinout” and “Easy Come, Easy Go.”
When rock artists began to record in Nashville, Pete Drake was the natural choice as steel guitarist. He pioneered the use of the steel guitar in rock and pop, performing on recordings by Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Perry Como. He played on Bob Dylan’s albums “John Wesley Harding,” “Nashville Skyline” and “Self Portrait.”
Charlie Daniels gave Pete’s number to George Harrison. Pete went to England to play on the “All Things Music Pass” album. Later George Harrison remixed and re-recorded some of the songs on this album, but left Pete’s steel parts on all the new versions.
During the sessions with George Harrison, he met Peter Frampton. Peter was so intrigued by the sounds of the Talking Steel Guitar that Pete actually gave Frampton his “Talking Music Actuator” as a gift.
Click here to view photos of Pete Drake as a session musician.
While working with George at the Abbey Road studio, he met Ringo Starr, who was a huge country music fan. Ringo wanted to record a country album, and in a few weeks Pete produced “Beaucoups of Blues” for Ringo using Nashville musicians.
Pete produced Melba Montgomery’s hit “No Charge” at his own Pete’s Place Studio “B” on Music Row, as well as multiple hits with international artist Slim Whitman.
Pete guided BJ Thomas’ country and gospel career to the top with number one records, a Dove Award and Grammy Award in 1981 for the “Amazing Grace” album.
He loved producing all genres of talent from Tommy James, Otis Williams, Leon Russell, The Four Freshmen and Bobby Vinton to Boxcar Willie and Stars of the Grand Ole Opry. In 1983, he traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa with his chosen group of Nashville musicians to produce the Top 10 South African country artist. The album was backordered “Gold” before it was completed.
Click here to view photos of Pete Drake as a producer.
Even as Drake’s career grew to encompass production, publishing and a highly successful studio, his heart still remained with the Grand Ole Opry members.
When Ernest Tubb left MCA Records after a thirty-five year affiliation, Drake jumped at the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream to produce Tubb. After Tubb was turned down by all the major labels in Nashville, Pete and Rose Trimble (his longtime assistant and business partner) launched their own record label, First Generation Records and on March 21, 1977, Drake signed Ernest Tubb.
The pairing of artist and producer gave birth to the classic album “Ernest Tubb: The Legend and the Legacy.” Drake recorded 20 of Tubb’s greatest hits. As a special surprise, while the Texas Troubadour was on the road, Drake invited Willie Nelson to sing and play on the album. Willie brought along Waylon Jennings and Johnny Paycheck who also lent their talents to the album. Soon Charlie Daniel, Conway Twitty, Marty Robbins, Loretta Lynn, Charlie Rich, Vern Gosdin, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and many other artists and musicians were invited to join in, resulting in one of the greatest musical tributes ever recorded. The “Legend and Legacy” was presented to Ernest Tubb for his sixty-fifth birthday party at the Exit Inn.
The success First Generation enjoyed with Ernest Tubb led to the expansion of the label’s roster. Pete produced “The Stars of the Grand Ole Opry Series.” This series featured Justin Tubb, Billy Walker, Jan Howard, Stonewall Jackson, Ray Pillow, Vic Willis Trio, Jean Shepard, The Wilburn Brothers, Charlie Louvin, Lonzo & Oscar, Ferlin Husky, George Hamilton IV and Cal Smith. They re-recorded some of their giant hits as well as new material. He expanded the roster again to add instrumentalists and recorded a project of his own with an eponymously-titled album that included steel guitar interpretations of The Beatles and Bob Dylan tunes.
Developing emphysema after 40 years of smoking, Pete’s health started declining in 1985. The Drakes built a recording studio in their home in Brentwood, Tennessee where Pete continued to work every day until he lost his long battle on July 29, 1988 at the age of 56.
Pete Drake will always be recognized as one of the truly innovative geniuses of the Nashville Sound, an A-team studio musician and a lover of all genres of music.
Click here to view photos of Pete Drake as a record executive.