January 6, 2007 – “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow was born on August 20th 1934 in South Bend, Indiana. He became intrigued by the steel guitar, particularly the Hawaiian stylings of Jerry Byrd, and he took up the instrument when he was 17. He worked repairing roads, but he would play in club bands at night. One band decided that everyone should have nicknames and, for Kleinow, “Sneaky” stuck.
In 1960, he moved to Los Angeles and wrote jingles, and worked as a special effects artist and stop motion animator for movies and television, including the Gumby and Davey and Goliath series. He did special effects for the film The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) and the cult TV show The Outer Limits.
His first date as a session musician was on the Ventures‘ “Blue Star” in 1965. He played in clubs around Los Angeles and sat in with Bakersfield Sound-oriented combos and early country-rock aggregations playing the pedal steel guitar. This is where he became acquainted with Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons of The Byrds, helping the group to replicate their newly country-oriented sound onstage with banjoist Doug Dillard and, early in 1968, Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons told him of their plans to relaunch the rock band the Byrds in a country music setting. Kleinow played a few exploratory shows with them, but the Byrds’ leader, Roger McGuinn, would not agree to a permanent position for a pedal steel guitarist and the band, at best a shaky alliance, fell apart. McGuinn found new members, while Hillman and Parsons formed a new band to encompass country, rock, gospel and soul, the Flying Burrito Brothers. McGuinn said subsequently: “They wanted to fire me and get Sneaky Pete in my place.”
In essence, they did this by getting the Flying Burrito Brothers together. After leaving the Byrds, in 1968, Parsons and Hillman invited Pete to join their new band, the Flying Burrito Brothers. He left behind his career in visual effects and spent the next thirteen years as a professional musician. He became an in demand session player for an eclectic range of artists. Parsons encouraged the band to wear outlandish rhinestone suits from Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors and the cover of their first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969), is iconic. The band is shown with some very attractive girls, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Male fans looked at the cover and wanted to be there.
The Flying Burrito Brothers opened for the Rolling Stones at Altamont in December 1969 and can be seen in the concert film Gimme Shelter. Keith Richards asked Kleinow to add a steel guitar to their recording of “Wild Horses”; and Parsons obtained permission for the Flying Burrito Brothers to record the song as well. Kleinow played on two more albums by the group, Burrito De Luxe (1970) and The Flying Burrito Brothers (1971).
He did session work with Joe Cocker (Joe Cocker, 1969) and Delaney and Bonnie (To Bonnie from Delaney, 1970) and was to work on Little Feat albums including Sailin’ Shoes (1972); he also added steel guitar to records by Frank Zappa (Waka/Jawaka, 1972), the Bee Gees (Life in a Tin Can, 1973), John Lennon (Mind Games, 1973) and Fleetwood Mac (Heroes are Hard to Find, 1974).
In 1972 Sneaky teamed up with Laramy Smith in the super group ARIZONA. He also added steel guitar to records by Frank Zappa, the Bee Gees, John Lennon, Linda Ronstadt and Fleetwood Mac.
In 1974 Pete was part of a new band, Cold Steel, and then a reconstituted Flying Burrito Brothers. His first solo album, Sneaky Pete, was released in 1978 and The Legend and the Legacy followed in 1994. He had also returned to special effects and created the dinosaurs for the comic film Caveman (1981), starring Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach.
In 1983, his work on the television miniseries The Winds of War was recognized with an Emmy Award for Special Visual Effects.Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Pete created special effects for movies such as The Empire Strikes Back, Gremlins, The Right Stuff, The Terminator, and Terminator 2, while continuing to work sporadically as a professional musician.
In 2000, Kleinow formed a group called Burrito Deluxe with ex the Band multi instrumentalist Garth Hudson, the name of a 1970 Flying Burrito Brothers album. The group recorded three albums, Georgia Peach, The Whole Enchilada and 2007’s Disciples Of The Truth, which feature his last studio recordings. Pete’s last performance was at a 2005 Gram Parsons tribute concert in Waycross, Georgia, the home town of Gram Parsons.
He died of complications of Alzheimer’s at age 72 on January 6, 2007 in Petaluma, California.
Only a handful of steel guitarists have made their influence felt beyond country music and Sneaky Pete Kleinow was among the ranking one’s of them. He is noted for his work with the Flying Burrito Brothers but scores of country-rock records featured his playing. More often than not, the steel guitar is used for melancholy, reflective songs, but Kleinow saw its possibilities as a rock instrument and would ensure that it was strongly amplified. As a result, he was described as “the Jimi Hendrix of the steel guitar”.