The extraordinary musical talent of Buddy Merrill has made him one of the most influential arranger/composer musicians of his generation.
He has helped to make electric and acoustical guitars a desirable commodity to anyone with musical aspirations. People have marveled at his effective use of multiple guitar overdubs to create complex instrumental guitar tapestries that painted pictures in their minds. Millions worldwide have listened to and loved the music of Buddy Merrill for over four decades.
His story is a slice of Americana. He was born Leslie Merrill Behunin Jr. on July 16, 1936 in Torrey, Utah. His family began calling him Buddy at an early age and the nickname stayed with him. The oldest of four children, he grew up surrounded by music. His father played guitar and sang, and nearly all of his relatives played musical instruments, but nothing else so intrigued him as a child than the steel guitar. Long before he was big enough to hold one on his own, he would strum away on his father’s guitar by placing it on his lap. When he was eight years old, he got his first guitar, which he played like a lap steel. In 1947, he was given a new six-string lap steel guitar and a small amplifier. Once in awhile, he would pick up his little acoustic guitar, but his first love was the steel. At the age of eleven, Buddy and his father made television history when they appeared live on the local television station KDYL in Salt Lake City as country artists. At that time, Buddy was already playing steel guitar in his father’s band – The Fremont River Rangers. A year later, Buddy was given his first electric six-string guitar and his interest in the instrument increased through junior high school.In 1951, musician and orchestra leader Lawrence Welk began hosting a dance every Friday night at the Aragon Ballroom in Santa Monica, California. After many years, and several radio programs across the country, Welk had developed a large and faithful following. The Friday night dance was broadcast live over local TV station, KTLA. Welk and his orchestra also hosted additional off-camera dances every week at the Aragon. At that time, his dances and music were geared to the “older” crowd. In the summer of 1952, Buddy and his family moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena. He was already a proficient guitar player when he started tenth grade and his ability at the steel guitar was even greater. When his father was not able to practice with him, Buddy discovered that he could use the family’s small reel- to-reel tape recorder instead. He could record himself playing rhythm guitar to a song. When he played back the tape, he could practice the lead or any other part, by playing along with it. He soon realized that this was essentially the same technique that Les Paul had been using in recording studios since 1948. During Buddy’s last year of high school (1954-1955), Lawrence Welk sponsored the All-American Music Competition Talent Contest. The winner would receive a new Webcor two-speed tape recorder, a $500 U.S. Savings Bond, and a guest spot at the Aragon Ballroom. A neighbor of Buddy’s family strongly encouraged him to submit one of his home recordings. Buddy was indifferent but his mother submitted two recordings for him – “Mr. Sandman” and “In A Little Spanish Town”. When Buddy found out the recordings had been sent in, he felt that there was no chance he would win. He felt that the recordings were “flawed”, and that the wow and flutter of these primitive recordings would not impress Lawrence Welk. A few weeks later, Buddy learned that he had won Welk’s talent contest. Lawrence Welk himself telephoned his congratulations and invited Buddy and his parents to come to the orchestra’s next rehearsal at the Aragon Ballroom. After Buddy’s guest spot on the show, the fan mail and teenage interest was so phenomenal, that Buddy was offered a full-time position with the band. By this time, ABC had picked up the Lawrence Welk Show and the show went coast to coast on July 2, 1955. Following his graduation in 1955, Buddy started working with the orchestra full-time.
In the summer of 1959, he received his draft notice from the Army. Welk assured him that he could have his job back when he finished his service duty. After basic training, Buddy went to West Point where he spent the remainder of his service time playing guitar and arranging music for the two Academy dance bands. When he returned from the Army in February 1962 Buddy returned to the Lawrence Welk Band. In 1963, Buddy bought a home in Baldwin Hills, a satellite community of Los Angeles, that was close to the ABC studios as well as the Hollywood Palladium, where Welk had moved in 1961, following his orchestra’s long run at the Aragon. At his home, Buddy set-up a one room recording studio using two tape machines, different guitars, and tape-generated effects to perfect the “sound on sound” recording technique. With the introduction of Scotch low noise tape, the quality of Buddy’s recordings was much improved, and he began to build a vast and impressive personal library of recordings. In November of 1963, at his father’s bidding, Buddy began making copies of his library so that his family could listen to all of his music. Then, on December 14th, 1963, the Baldwin Hills Dam failed and in one afternoon Buddy lost his house and all of his life’s music along with the equipment he used to create it. The only tapes of his early music that survived where the limited copies he had made for his dad. With insurance money and a financial settlement from the City of Los Angeles, he built another home at the same location. He designed a special room for his home studio and bought two new Ampex 300 tape machines. Now, his home recordings would greatly benefit from the studio quality machines.
Over the next several months, Buddy created nearly two dozen master-quality home recordings stylishly arranged in layers of sound and texture. In 1974, after 19 years, Buddy resigned from the Lawrence Welk Orchestra to devote all of his time recording new music.
In 1976, Buddy received an Academy of Country Music nomination for Best Rhythm Guitar Performance. His last collection of new material was “Classics in Rhythm” in 1983. Buddy continued to play in clubs as a solo artist and with other musicians across the country until 1988 when he retired from the road. Buddy decided to release his work on compact disc.
That effort resulted in the release of “World of Guitars” in 1994, a compilation of several earlier albums.
In 1998 “Guitars Express” was released, which consisted of all original music never before released on vinyl.
Another compilation CD was released in 2001 titled “Classic Guitars”.
In 2003, a box containing reel-to-reel tapes of his earlier music was “rediscovered”. These tapes were the copies Buddy had made for his father in 1963 before the flood. Much of this early music has been restored and has been released on CD, titled “Buddy Merrill-The Early Sound”. This music was recorded between 1954-1964, and is his early experimental work of sound on sound recording.
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