Buddy Merrill

Buddy Merrill

Buddy Merrill, guitarist, steel-guitarist, composer, arranger, recording artist, and occasional vocalist, died December 5. He was 85.

A seasoned musician by age 18, Merrill became a member of Lawrence Welk’s orchestra, featured on Welk’s weekly ABC-TV program from 1955 until ’74. Welk’s program targeted older adults, yet Merrill’s playing inspired countless babyboomers to take up the guitar.

A native of Torrey, Utah, Leslie Merrill Behunin, Jr. was the son of country singer/guitarist Les Merrill. At six, he converted an acoustic guitar into a steel guitar and began teaching himself. By age 11, he’d upgraded to a single-neck Gibson lap steel after joining his dad’s band, the Fremont River Rangers, which played Utah venues and on Salt Lake City’s KDYL-TV. He later upgraded to a doubleneck.

Merrill’s earliest steel-guitar heroes included Noel Boggs and Jerry Byrd. Hearing records by Chet Atkins and Les Paul’s multi-tracked masterpieces fueled his interest in electric guitar. When the family moved to L.A. in 1950, he discovered Speedy West’s explosive pedal-steel stylings.

The Welk connection began in ’54, when the accordion-playing bandleader, nationally renowned for his danceable “champagne music,” hosted a local TV show each Saturday night from the Santa Monica Ballroom.

Merrill’s mother entered a disc recording of his playing in Welk’s “All American” music contest. He won, sat in with Welk and the band and in 1955, then became their youngest member.

In a 2011 interview for NAMM’s Oral History Program, Merrill said he’d “stepped into a big bunch of luck” when ABC launched “The Lawrence Welk Show” nationally on July 2, 1955. Playing a Strat, he was prominent as a sideman and showcased on the pop hit “Mister Sandman.”

Welk, who initially saw country music as a niche, emphasized Merrill playing pop tunes on guitar and Hawaiian songs on steel. Slightly more open to Western swing, he permitted Buddy to perform “Steel Guitar Rag,” Noel Boggs’ “Steelin’ Home” and “South.”

Welk also was no rock fan, but he grudgingly acknowledged its growing influence on a 1956 episode presenting Merrill playing a subdued “Blue Suede Shoes” on a Strat, blending fluid flatpicking and Atkins-style fingerpicking. At Welk’s behest, Merrill recorded a vocal single of rockabilly singer Warren Smith’s “Rock ’N Roll Ruby” that same year.

Welk’s show became a Saturday night institution for older audiences, yet Merrill’s prominence had an unexpected impact; he and James Burton (with Rick Nelson on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”) were the only young electric guitarists featured regularly on network TV.

Merrill’s fluent picking captivated countless younger viewers watching Welk with their parents. Pickup designer/manufacturer Seymour Duncan was among them.

“I couldn’t wait to see the show each week,” he said. “Buddy had a natural gift for playing guitar. He was a clean-sounding player.”

Though early seasons were broadcast in black and white, the young Duncan immediately noted the gear used by Merrill, who was a Fender endorser.

“I loved his blond Strat and the two-tone sunburst,” he added. “He played early anodized-guard Jazzmasters and some Strats with black pickguards.”

Duly impressed, Duncan, who played a Silvertone Jupiter guitar and amp, sold a rare coin to buy his first Strat in ’63.

When Merrill left for the Army in ’59, Welk filled the gap with Hollywood studio veteran Neil LeVang (VG, December ’09), who remained after Buddy’s 1961 return. Welk highlighted them as soloists and as a team; once, LeVang played a Bass VI as Merrill, picking a Jaguar, twanged away on a Duane Eddy-inspired “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”

As country’s popularity grew in the ’60s, Welk added more to the lineup. Merrill and LeVang would tackle “Panhandle Rag” or “New San Antonio Rose” instrumentally. On a later broadcast, Merrill, strumming an L-5, sang Little Jimmy Dickens’ “A-Sleepin’ at the Foot of the Bed” as LeVang added wah licks on an Epi Sheraton.

When his Fender endorsement ended in the ’60s, Merrill endorsed Emmons pedal steels and Micro-Frets guitars, and played their Huntington model, an instrument he later gifted to Deke Dickerson.

During his years with Welk and beyond, Merrill recorded numerous instrumental guitar and steel albums for Accent Records and other labels, many incorporating the multi-tracking he’d always loved. Today, collectors of “Space-Age Pop” instrumentals treasure some of this work.

Anxious to pursue solo projects, Merrill left Welk in ’74 and settled into composing and recording guitar instrumentals for use as background music. He briefly re-joined Welk for the bandleader’s final programs before he retired in ’82.

Welk’s show, which continues to thrive in syndication, has long been satirized for its hackneyed presentations and bland music. But it’s beyond dispute that Buddy Merrill left an enduring impact on American guitar, in ways Welk probably never envisioned.

This article originally appeared in VG’s April 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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