Grammys, science combine for Arcade Fire win

I love it when science and popular culture come together.

The story of how radio was discovered is complicated and involves many players. But, in essence, it was discovered in the late 1890s. The vacuum tube, born in 1906, set the stage for major advancements and the first known transmission of amplitude modulation, or AM radio, occurred in that year.

Alvin McBurney was born in 1908 and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He showed early signs of mechanical aptitude and built his first radio in 1916 when he was just 8 years old. He was one of the youngest people ever to receive a ham radio license, W6UK. McBurney was very interested in electronics and his early plan was to become an electrical engineer.

But on his 10th birthday, he received a banjo as a gift. Two years later he began learning the guitar. The early 1900s was an age of big bands and orchestras, but the banjo and guitar lacked the volume to be heard in those settings.

So, at the age of 16, McBurney used his growing electronic ability to build an amplifier for his banjo. He later adapted it to his guitar as well. Because he was young, however, he did not apply for a patent until much later, so he is not generally recognized as the inventor of the electric guitar.

In 1927, McBurney landed a job playing banjo with a Cleveland band and later playing amplified guitar in an orchestra in New York. He moved to California and played in several bands and studied guitar performance under numerous tutors. In 1929, there was a popular craze for Latin music, so McBurney changed his name to Alvino Rey. Under this name, he went on to become one of the highest-paid sidemen in music of the 1930s and ‘40s.

In addition to inventing the amplified guitar, he developed the pedal steel guitar and the prototype pickup for the first Gibson electric guitar, the Gibson ES-150. Just before the war, he began to use a special microphone developed for military pilots, the carbon throat mic. He had his wife stand behind a curtain and sing along with the guitar lines to modulate his guitar sounds.

This was probably the first talk-box experiment and was dubbed the “singing guitar.” During the second World War, Rey went into the Navy and used his electronic knowledge to develop radar systems.

Rey met Luise, his wife, when they performed in the same band for several years. Luise sang with her sisters, Maxine and Alyce, and they were known as the King Sisters. The King Sisters and Alvino Rey were a group for many years in various venues and had numerous hit records. They had a television show for five years, in the ‘50s. They also had two children: Robert Karleton Rey, born in 1946, and Liza Luise Rey, born in 1947.

Liza Rey later married and had two sons, the grandsons of Alvino Rey and Luise King. Her two boys, Win and William Butler, are members of the Montreal-based alternative rock band Arcade Fire. So, 105 years after their grandfather’s birth, and just seven years after his death, the rock band won a Grammy for Album of the Year playing electric instruments pioneered by their own grandfather.

When I read in The Daily Sentinel the Monday after the Grammys that some group called Arcade Fire won Album of the Year, I thought their name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place where I had heard of Arcade Fire before. Then I remembered that there had been an article in the November 2010 issue of QST, the amateur radio magazine, about how Arcade Fire used their grandfather’s call sign and other ham radio imagery in their stage shows, in honor of him.

I love it when science and popular culture come together.

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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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