Guitarist Al Casey died last weekend. This isn’t the same Al Casey who was the great jazz guitarist in Fats Waller’s band–he died last year. The Al Casey who just passed away was a different but equally notable musician. I’ll leave the bio info to others, but the gist is that Casey was one of the unsung heroes of 50s and 60s rock ‘n’ roll, and one of the most significant figures in the history of Arizona music, right up there with his pal Lee Hazlewood. A member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, his most famous riffs and figures are part of the very fabric of pop music, from his haunted playing on Sanford Clark’s “The Fool,” to the odd, inimitable twanging that opens Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” to the sweeping lines of Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” In recent years Casey inspired a new generation of musicians and fans by teaching guitar classes in his hometown of Phoenix. I knew Al Casey, a little bit; I lived and worked as a writer in Arizona for several years, and our paths crossed a few times. In 2001 I interviewed him for a lengthy piece on his longtime foil Hazlewood. The piece included a sidebar by my friend Eric Waggoner on the career-spanning Casey collection, A Man For All Sessions, released by Germany’s Bear Family label. That set provided a stunning survey of Casey’s work and talent, and paid testimony to the understated elegance of his playing.
A mutual aquaintence told me that Al had been in failing health for a while, but that he passed away quietly and peacefully in his sleep on Sunday. That seems fitting. A simple dignity and grace was typical of Casey’s musical career; he was always the quiet man in the room, the sidekick who did much of the work but received little of the credit. Whether he was working with Sanford Clark, shaping Duane Eddy’s sound, aiding Hazlewood with his studio experiments, jamming with Dean Martin’s TV band, or playing in the studio with Johnny Cash, the Monkees, the Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, the 5th Dimension, and more, Casey was the consummate sideman. Like the saying goes, chances are you’ve never heard of Al Casey, but I can almost guarantee you’ve heard Al Casey’s playing at some point in your life—whether it was on one of Eddy’s guitar rumbles, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Sinatra’s standards, or the Monkees’ early hits. Much of Casey’s solo instrumental work is available through the Sundazed and Bear Family labels, and it’s well worth checking out. The man himself–a truly gentle and generous soul–will be sorely missed.