“Sneaky” Pete Kleinow, a steel guitar virtuoso who helped create the genre of country rock by introducing rock audiences to one of country music’s cornerstone instruments while performing with the Flying Burrito Brothers, has died of complications brought on by Alzheimer’s disease. He was 72.
Kleinow died Saturday at a nursing facility in Petaluma, Calif., where he had been living since last year, his daughter Anita Kleinow said in a statement. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about 18 months ago, she said, and it “hit him hard and fast.”
Country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons spotted Kleinow playing with a country band in a small North Hollywood club in 1968, and when Parsons and fellow Byrds member Chris Hillman decided to leave that group and form a band of their own that could wed country emotion with rock attitude, they wanted Kleinow to be part of it.
From his springboard in the Flying Burrito Brothers, Kleinow went on to become one of the most respected and sought-after steel guitarists in the music business, playing in hundreds of sessions over the next 30 years for such acts as the Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, Ringo Starr, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt.
In addition to his musical efforts, Kleinow maintained a parallel career in film animation and special effects that began when he moved to California in 1963 and found work doing stop-motion animation for Art Clokey’s “Gumby” cartoons.
While playing Southern California clubs at night, Kleinow continued his day job in film and TV special effects, a job that extended into the 1990s. He contributed special effects to such movies as “The Empire Strikes Back,” “The Terminator,” “Terminator 2" and “Gremlins” and more recently to music videos, commercials and video games.
Musically, Kleinow brought a colorist’s mind-set to whatever he played, crafting sounds that started with his instrument’s usual country sighing and weeping and extended to screaming fuzz-drenched solos and full-blown orchestral-sounding accompaniment.
“I’ve been accused of having an unorthodox approach to the steel guitar,” he wrote in the liner notes for his 1979 solo album, “Sneaky Pete.” “But that’s because whenever I do a session, I’m not thinking ‘steel guitar'; I’m thinking ‘What kind of sound will fit here?’ ”
Kleinow’s versatility allowed him to blend comfortably not only with folk and country-leaning singers and songwriters such as Ronstadt, Browne, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, but also with a wide range of other musicians, including Stevie Wonder (he played on “Songs in the Key of Life” and “Fulfillingness’ First Finale”), Billy Joel and Carly Simon.
“He was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever played music with,” Hillman said Tuesday. “His approach to his instrument was unlike any other steel player I’d ever known or worked with, because he would draw on such diverse musical areas.”
Hillman said that “in the early Burritos, we didn’t really have a lead guitar player,” which meant most of the solos fell to Kleinow. “Pete had his steel set up like some Rube Goldberg machine. There was a big black box mounted on top ... with a big toggle switch that would let him go into a fuzz tone. He would take a steel [solo] break, then hit the switch, and all of a sudden it would sound like a Telecaster” electric guitar.
Peter Kleinow was born Aug. 20, 1934, in South Bend, Ind., and grew up with eclectic tastes in music that ran from Claude Debussy to Spike Jones.
“My very first ear-opener was an old 78-rpm record I found in Mom’s collection. It was Bing Crosby singing ‘Sweet Leilani’ and ‘Blue Hawaii,’ ” Kleinow wrote in 1978. “There was a steel guitar on it that made my eyes misty, and I couldn’t stop playing that record.”
In addition to his daughter Anita, he is survived by his wife of 54 years, Ernestine; another daughter, Tammy; and sons Martin, Aaron and Cosmo. Plans are being made for a memorial service later this month.