An old movie is flickering across a television screen late at night. Mickey Rooney is cuddling up to Judy Garland, a banjo on his knee. He strums the opening to "Swanee," hitting a few fancy licks. Certainly that can't be Rooney playing the banjo. Who is it, really? None other than Eddie Peabody, one of the few on this instrument who can make a serious claim to being the most famous banjo player of all time. No, that would be Earl Scruggs, some listeners who like to wallow in bluegrass might object. Or Bela Fleck, younger banjo fans would argue. It is surely true that the fingerpicking style of five-string bluegrass banjo playing has taken hold as the dominant approach to this instrument, the sound involved in every breakout mainstream hit using banjo, especially film soundtracks such as Bonnie and Clyde or Deliverance. But there was a time when the plectrum tenor or four-string banjo style was hitting big on the music scene, and Peabody was considered the king of this particular style as well as one of the main developers of so many banjo techniques and styles associated with the plectrum. (That's a pick that the player holds between his fingers, as opposed to the bluegrass method of playing with fingerpicks tightly wrapped around one's fingers, or the old Appalachian style of playing with bare fingers, knuckles, etc.)
Peabody's career stretched over two world wars. He developed much of his stagecraft during the heyday of vaudeville, and was able to keep working with his banjo during the economically severe days of the Depression. A musical instrument was first thrust into his hands by his mother, who noticed the rowdy little boy would keep quiet if he was allowed to fiddle with the strings of a mandolin. He began playing professionally upon his release from the Navy at the end of World War I. At this time he was quite the multi-instrumentalist, playing up to 30 different stringed instruments in his stage show, but always noticing that when he played the banjo the audience would tend to go wild. No fool he, Peabody kept fattening up the banjo's share of the proceedings until all he was carrying around was the banjo case. Showmanship was a big part of the act as well as musicality. One of his early triumphs was basically stealing the show from one of the era's biggest stars, Rudy Vallee at a packed-out show in San Francisco. Peabody entered the stage by sliding down a giant prop of a banjo neck, wearing an eye-boggling blazer, and pants large enough for a medium-sized giraffe. During this period his act became more and more extravagant, and he had plenty of opportunities to fiddle with it (or more accurately pick at it) because bookings were coming in 52 weeks of the year. He not only was playing all the top vaudeville houses, the banjoist was doing command performances for the likes of the Duke of Windsor, King Gustav of Sweden, King George of England, and Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. Instrument inventing was a hobby during the odd spare hour.
A forgotten curiosity that Peabody came up with was the banjoline, which was kind of a combination of a banjo and a lap steel or Hawaiian guitar. The neck of this instrument was fashioned after a banjo. There was also a unique sound design involving the doubling of the third and fourth strings, one set in unison and the other an octave apart, while the first and second strings were not doubled. The instrument was available briefly from both the Rickenbacker and Fender guitar kingdoms. Peabody is often credited with inventing the idea of playing the banjo with a soft pick instead of the fingers, however it is hard to imagine other players not having tried something like this from time to time. Musicians playing instruments in the banjo family on other continents such as Africa and Asia definitely have made use of different types of plectrums throughout history. Peabody's use of a pick to play the fiddle was definitely unusual, however, and country fiddlers that use this gimmick tend to credit the idea to Peabody. His playing itself made it onto many radio and television broadcasts as well as films, starting with some of the very first sound pictures in 1926. The medium was a natural for exploiting routines he had established in his stage act. In the 1937 movie Hula Heaven, Peabody performs the chestnut "I'm an Old Cowhand" with a line of hula girls passing off different instruments to him. He begins the song on harp guitar, then switches to both mandolin and the eentsy mandola before winding up the number on banjo. He began recording for the Dot label in 1924 and made a series of sides including two albums exclusively featuring the banjoline. Some of the best-sellers were Eddie Peabody Plays and When You're Smiling. Although he recorded literally hundreds of songs, some of his favorite numbers include "Hello Sandy," "Whoopee," and "Here Comes Charlie." His concert appearances took him all over the world and he frequently performed for servicemen at military bases. There are several different memoirs written by soldiers stationed overseas in World War II that describe just such Peabody performances.
He was known for his dedication to the banjo and for taking time out of his schedule to visit banjo students at music academies. Part of this might have been a mercenary interest on his part, because yet another of his tricks was to play a couple of numbers on several different banjos during the course of a show, then sell the instruments offstage for a fat profit at the end of the night to pickers eager to own an instrument that "Eddie Peabody had played." He collapsed onstage at a nightclub in Kentucky in November of 1970, and died of a stroke only eight hours later. Banjoist Lowell Schreyer published a biography, The Eddie Peabody Story. Peabody himself would no doubt enjoy the fact that one of the most enduring legends about him is a famous blooper that came out of the mouth of a radio announcer one evening in the '30s: "Ladies and gentlemen...Now Eddie Playbody will pee for you."
Written by Eugene Chadbourne
Eddie Peabody, the "King of the banjo", was not only a superb banjoist but also a great showman who really defined how plectrum banjo could be played "chord melody" style. He reached national fame in America during the mid 1920's by recording for many companies and offered them a cheap way of producing a record by playing melody, initially alone with a singer and later with piano accompaniment and singing himself . Eddie started to develop his unique solo technique as early as 1920, soon after he left the U.S. Navy submarine service. Although known as a solo artist, he also toured with his pal banjo playing Jimmy Maisel and during the mid 1920's conducted and performed with his own band. Popular songs of the day were very good for the banjo repertoire, "Ain't she sweet?", "Ice cream, you scream!", "Bye, bye blackbird", etc, are all standards now in the American song book.
Eddie was among the very first artists in 1927 to record with the "new" medium of film with sound, known as "talkies", and he made several movie shorts, initially for Vitaphone, for general cinema distribution including "Banjomania", "Syncopating Sensation", "Banjoland", "Eddie Peabody's College Chums" (with Hal Kemp's Collegians Orchestra) "Strum Fun" and "Peabody's Banjo School". The effect of this new form of entertainment was dramatic and Eddie's popularity rapidly spread from coast to coast. His appearances on radio programmes over WJZ in New York and subsequently the NBC network took his performances to every home with a radio coast to coast and he performed nightly at the famous singer Rudy Vallee's nightclub, the "Villa Vallee" whilst in the city.
He visited England from 1929 until 1931 and again from 1937 until 1939, making several recordings whilst there for the Columbia and Decca companies. During his trips to England he helped to promote the banjo by visiting BMG clubs (Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar clubs) which were very active in the years up to the Second World War. He consequently toured across Europe before returning to the USA shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1941, when the U.S.A entered the war, Eddie became a morale / entertainments officer for the U.S. Navy. He already held the rank of commander and he was subsequently engaged to play shows in conflict areas to bring the servicemen "a touch of home".
When the war was finished, Eddie went about restarting his concert career. Most of the Vaudeville halls had closed down and musical tastes had changed dramatically. However, in 1948, "I'm looking over a four leafed clover", a hit from the 1920's, was resurrected by the Art Mooney Orchestra and it became a runaway hit, creating interest in both nostalgic music and the banjo. DOT records capitalised on this by signing Eddie and he made over half a dozen albums for them up until the early 1960's even producing albums of how to play the banjo. He kept employed for the rest of his life by taking his act into the many cabaret / supper clubs that were popular at the time. Eddie actively promoted the banjo and remained in the entertainment business all of his life and it must be remembered that in the days before Earl Scruggs and bluegrass music, the banjo was synonymous with Eddie Peabody. His very last concert was in 1970 at a supper club called "The Lookout House", where he suffered a stroke during his act. He passed away the next morning in hospital, leaving a musical legacy that plectrum banjo players still cherish today.
Prepared by Sean Moyses. See www.SeanMoyses.net
Original recordings restored by Sean Moyses. Recording details researched from the book "The Banjo On Record" by Lotz and Heier. Further recommended reading "Man with the banjo" by George Robert and "The Eddie Peabody Story", by Lowell H. Schreyer.