At the sold-out arenas where the indie rockers of Arcade Fire perform, the specter of Alvino Rey lurks.
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Handwritten postcards flash across a movie-size projection screen while band members and brothers Win and Will Butler sing from their first album, Funeral. The notes were written by Alvino Rey, the Butlers’ grandfather, who exchanged them with fellow ham radio operators. Nearby, Music Man amps project the band’s sound, amps developed in part by guitar innovator Leo Fender, who often sent his good friend Rey amps and guitars to test. And audible to everyone who’s ever listened to Arcade Fire—or the Clash, or Elvis, or any musician who’s ever played an electric instrument – are the wiring and electric pickups. Rey created those too.
He may not be a household name today, but at the height of the swing band era Rey’s genre-busting fretwork in electric music’s nascent years helped set the stage for modern rock. According to family members, he sometimes considered himself more of a frustrated electrical engineer than a musician – and combining those two passions helped him usher in a new music era.
“For millions of radio listeners, the first time they heard the sound of an electric guitar, it was played by Alvino,” said Walter Carter, a former Gibson guitar company historian. Rey, born Alvin McBurney in 1908 in Oakland, California, exhibited his dual passions early. “Dad was the first one on his block to have a radio, and he built it himself,” said his daughter, Liza Rey Butler.
By 1927, his family lived in Cleveland and he played banjo with Ev Jones’ Orchestra. By the early 1930s, Rey had joined Horace Heidt’s Musical Knights in San Francisco, performing on nationally broadcast radio and touring the country.
Meanwhile, in 1937, Rey married Luise King, one of the harmonizing King Sisters, and the couple soon formed their own orchestra. They were the first to record a chart-topping version of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” (The grandson parallels continue – Win Butler also married a singer, Régine Chassagne, a member of Arcade Fire who composes and performs with her husband.)
Toward the end of World War II, Rey enlisted in the Navy. After the war, he tried to re-form his band, but it never hit the same heights.
In 1964, an anniversary television show with the King Family lead to a regular variety show that also featured the younger generation, including his three children. Rey performed at Disneyland for decades, and the King Family played at Ronald Reagan’s second presidential inauguration in 1985 (Arcade Fire played at President Barack Obama’s inaugural celebration 24 years later).
But he never left behind the electronics.
“You should have heard him on stage with a regular guitar—holy god,” said Lynn Wheelwright, Rey’s guitar technician and friend. “Alvino opened every show with a guitar solo, he closed every show with a guitar solo, and he had a guitar solo in every song. He found a way to use the instrument in such a way that people would buy them and use them.” At first, Rey plugged his guitar directly into the radio station’s transponder, Wheelwright said. But if the sound he wanted wasn’t readily available through his instruments, he tweaked the wires himself.