Q: Did Ray Butts, who lived in Cairo much of his life, invent rockabilly music?
J.W., of Belleville
A: Invent? No. By the 1950s, the popular rockabilly sound had been slowly coming together for 30 years, a gradual fusion of Western swing, boogie woogie, country, jump blues, hillbilly and a new craze called rock ’n’ roll.
But in the pantheon of musical gods, this one-time small-town appliance repairman is still worshiped by many for developing the sacred device that brought live rockabilly to the masses.
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“If rockabilly has its version of the Holy Grail — a physical object surrounded with mystery and intrigue — it is the EchoSonic amplifier, made by the Ray Butts Music Company of Cairo, Illinois,” wrote Deke Dickerson in the book “Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ’Round the World.”
Butts had built it initially for a local guitar player, but quickly realized he was onto something big. Almost overnight, he found his EchoSonic was in demand by the likes of Carl Perkins and the king of them all, Elvis Presley. And that would set him off on a career of tinkering with recording equipment and sound engineering for such giants as Chet Atkins and Sun Records’ Sam Phillips.
Pretty heady stuff for a boy born in Ethel, Miss., (population 466) who had moved to Cairo with his father as a toddler. There in Southern Illinois he began to develop what would become his two great passions: electronics (he built his first crystal radio in 1928 when he was 8) and music.
By the time he was in his 20s, he had moved to the Chicago suburb of Calumet City, where he made a living playing accordion in local clubs. His first big break came when his band joined a traveling tent show billed as “The Hillbilly Jamboree featuring the Colorado Cowhands.” The tour took them through the Southern coastal states before winding up in Nashville, Tenn., where they performed on WSM’s “Morning Show.” Eventually, he would return to Chicago, where he would resume playing clubs from 8 to 5 in the morning.
But when his dad suffered a heart attack, dreams of a musical career ended as he returned to Cairo to repair washers and radios in a local appliance store. Eventually, he opened Ray Butts Music, where his wife, Ann, ran the store while he fiddled around with musical instruments and amplification in the back.
It was 1952 when a local picker named Bill Gwaltney spurred Butts to create a “sound-on-sound” effect with a live guitar. Until then, the so-called “slapback echo” effect was becoming ever more popular by such stars as Les Paul, but it could only be done in the studio. Butts figured musicians wanted to re-create that sound on stage, so, taking a Gibson 15-watt amplifier and an old-fashioned wire recorder, he devised his first amp that produced a tape echo. The results were disappointing, so Butts substituted a new plastic recording tape developed by 3M.
Bingo. When Butts had the nerve to go to Nashville and call Chet Atkins out of the blue in 1954, Atkins immediately gave Butts $395 and a $100 Fender combo for the new-and-improved EchoSonic, which Atkins showed off the next night at the Grand Ole Opy. Atkins reportedly went on to use it in many of his most popular recordings, including “Mister Sandman.”
Word quickly spread. When Elvis Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore heard Atkins on the radio, Moore had to have one, too, which he used on most of Elvis’ late Sun and early RCA recordings, starting with “Mystery Train” in 1955. And when Butts found that his amp didn’t have the power for large arenas, he made a set of 50-watt satellite amps and cabinets “to enable Moore’s lithe rockabilly riffs to be heard on a stage in front of thousands of screaming Elvis fans,” according to “The Ray Butts EchoSonic” by Dave Hunter.
The mixing of Moore’s Gibson Super 400 with the EchoSonic became the must-have combo in music circles. As such giants as Carl Perkins started using it, other manufacturers began turning out their own versions, including the Echoplex, for which Butts, who finally patented his technology in 1957, received a “nominal fee” from the manufacturer. Now, those lucky enough to own one of these museum pieces speak of them in hushed tones. (A recent offering eBay wanted $11,500.)
“There I was standing with (Scotty) in his studio nestled in the Tennessee hills above Nashville, and the man himself was showing how he cared for and maintained the delicate tape echo mechanism,” wrote Dickerson, who bought Moore’s EchoSonic. “I felt like I was in the presence of Benjamin Franklin, showing me how to use a quill pen. It was hard to breathe.
“When I got the amp home, I just looked at it for about a week. Finally I worked up enough nerve to dig out a Gibson guitar and plug it in. The 55-year-old box of wood and wires spoke back to me as I played ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’
“There it was. There was the unmistakable and unforgettable tone. It was magic, conjured out of Mississippi mud and Cadillacs and Southern preachers and wild men slapping upright basses and the smell of female and other things so intangible and yet instantly recognizable.
“I had found the Holy Grail.”
Butts, who had given the world one of its most distinctive musical sounds of the 20th century, died in 2003 at age 83 in Nashville.
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