Lifenotes: Musician and Audio Innovator Bill West Passes

Bill West

Bill West

Steel guitarist, songwriter and audio innovator Bill West died on Thursday, Sept. 19, at age 80.

Born William Morris West Jr., he was raised in Nashville. After graduating from Hume-Fogg High School, he enrolled at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville to pursue an electrical engineering degree. By then, he was already proficient on pedal steel guitar.

While in Cookeville, he met aspiring country singer-songwriter Dorothy Marie Marsh. They married in 1952, and he worked in her band throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

As Dottie West (1932-1991), she became a big hit singer and a Grand Ole Opry star. She and Bill co-wrote her Grammy Award winning “Here Comes My Baby” (1964). The Wests also co-wrote her hits “Would You Hold It Against Me” (1966), “Mommy, Can I Still Call Him Daddy” (1966) and “What’s Come Over My Baby” (1967), as well as the 1963 Jim Reeves hit “Is This Me.”

Always an experimenter who could reportedly build and fix just about anything, Bill West developed a “talkbox” device. It sent processed vocal sounds through an electric-guitar amplifier. The effect was first heard on fellow steel guitarist Pete Drake’s 1964 hit “Forever.”

Rock artist Joe Walsh was a friend of the Wests. Bill West gave Walsh a prototype of the talkbox and Walsh used it on such hits as 1976’s “Rocky Mountain High.” He later also used it on some songs when he was a member of The Eagles, notably on “Those Shoes” on the million-selling 1979 LP The Long One.

A similar effect can be heard on several hits by Peter Frampton, including 1976’s “Show Me the Way.”

Several of the Wests’ children entered the music business. Daughter Shelly West became a country hit maker of the 1980s and a CMA Award winner as the duet partner of David Frizzell.

Son Kerry West is an audio engineer, both in Music Row studios and at concerts. He tours with stars such as Ronnie Milsap, and has also produced a number of song demos that resulted in big hits.

Son Mo West (1953-2010) was a guitarist and songwriter in the American rock band Thunder. Produced by Kyle Lehning, the group recorded albums for Atlantic Records in the early 1980s.

Bill and Dottie West divorced in 1974. In the 1980s, he continued to perfect his steel guitar sounds. He also performed in the Opryland USA theme park’s long-running stage show “Country Music USA.” He has been retired for several years.

Bill West is survived by his wife Brenda McClure West, by sons Kerry, Dale and Walter, by daughter Shelly West Hood, by six grandchildren and by three great-grandchildren.

A celebration of his life will be at noon today (Monday, Sept. 23) at the chapel of Spring Hill Funeral Home. Internment will follow in Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens. The family will receive friends from 10 a.m. until the time of the service. Memorial contributions may be made to Alive Hospice.


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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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