Last week, JazzWax reader Uwe Zänisch in Berlin sent along a note about guitarist Kenneth "Thumbs" Carllile (1931-1987), a country picker with a superb technique. Rather than spoil the story, let me have Uwe pick it up:
"Some days ago I was at YouTube and found a very interesting clip featuring an unusual guitarist in a Batman T-shirt. He held his guitar in an odd position and played it like a lap steel. With his right thumb he created a nice mellow sound, and his technical ability astonished me. The video came from an early morning TV show in 1966. The man at the table is Roger Miller, singer of King of the Road.
"There is another clip from this show with a great rendition of Yakety Axe played by the house band at 6:22. I still didn't know the name of the guitar player. Then at 10:14, the guitarist was interviewed and his name was revealed: Thumbs Carllile.
"Beside this, he worked as a member of the Bill Wimberley band. With the band, he had a solo spot here where he simulates the playing styles of his guitar colleagues. I also learned that Mr. Carllile played with Roger Miller's [pictured] band from 1964 to 1972 and made LPs as a leader.
"In the 80’s he was diagnosed with cancer, which fortunately went into remission. His live recordings from 1987 show a man with unbelievably fast hands on the strings, sometimes too fast for the listener's ear. Tragically, that the same year Thumbs Carllile died of heart disease.
"When I discovered this astonishing musician I wondered why he was so little known today. So I reached out to his widow, Virginia Boyle Carllile, who graciously responded. Mrs. Carllile has permitted you to reprint her note to me below.
"Thank you so much for your interest in Thumbs. I hadn't seen the video you sent, so it was like a present for me. I wish you could have seen him in person. He was just incredible, and the best thing was he really had no idea how good he was (or if he did, he never let it show).
"I met him in Germany at the Palm Gardens in Frankfort. They had a service club there. Thumbs was in the Army and had been transferred to Special Services after mashing one of his thumbs in gun repair. I was in the Air Force.
"On Saturday nights, they had a show called USARS Grand Ole Opry. He had been on it for some time. I was stationed in Wiesbaden, and Zeb Allen had a band and had asked me to appear with them. That's the night I met Thumbs. I was the first girl that was ever on that show, and of course the GIs gave me a big welcome.
"While waiting to go on, I was told by one of the guys in the green room that Thumbs had said, 'I'm gonna marry that girl.' And he did. And I'm so happy he did. Again, I want you to know how much I appreciated you sending me the links to the video clips. Thumbs was very special and I miss him a lot."
JazzWax samples: To hear clips of Thumbs Carllile, go here.
JazzWax clip: Here's a 12-year-old Brenda Lee (yes, "Little Miss Dynamite") in 1956 with Thumbs Carllile backing her on guitar...