Filed under: India
[Note: This is a re-print of a guest post that I wrote for Jonathon Ward’s amazing Excavated Shellac back in September of last year. For that post there is a song from one of Van Shipley’s earliest 78, where as here you have a song from the 70s.]
The earliest known report of anyone playing slide guitar was Gabriel Davion, a native of India who had been kidnapped by Portuguese sailors and was brought to Hawaii in 1876. Of course, Indian string instruments, like the gottuvadhyam and the vichitra veena, use a slide are known to have existed since the 11th century. But it was not until Ernest Ka’ai and his Royal Hawaiian Troubadours’ toured in 1919 that the slide guitar was introduced to India.
Most people agree that Van Shipley was the first electric guitarist in India and the first to record instrumental versions of film songs beginning sometime in the early 1950s. Van was born in the city of Lucknow in Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. When most people hear his name, they say “But that’s not an Indian name!”. Well, that’s because not everyone in India is Hindu. Shipley was Methodist.
Inspired by his mother, who played the sitar, Shipley took to music at a young age. His first instrument was the violin. He attended Saharanpur to study Indian Classical music. There, he studied under Ustad Bande Hassan Khan and his son Ustad Zinda Hassan Khan, who were both famous Khyal singers from Northern India. At the same time, he took lessons in western music from an American identified as Dr. Wizer.
Shipley then returned to Lucknow to attend college, where he became involved with All India Radio. After college, we went to the city of Pune to work for the Prabhat Film Company before moving to the center of India’s film industry, Bombay (Mumbai). It was there that he caught the attention of producer and director Raj Kapoor, who spotted him performing on stage. Kapoor enlisted Shipley to play violin on the soundtrack for Barsaat (Rain) in 1949. The following year, Shipley added his electric guitar to a dream sequence in Awaara (The Tramp), which brought him to the attention of The Gramophone Co. of India. In 1955, Shipley teamed up with accordionist Enoch Daniels, who he had met while working for the Prabhat Film Company in Pune. This musical partnership ultimately lasted for many years.
Shipley set off the steel guitar craze in India. Other steel guitar players from the 78 era include Batuk Nandy, Brij Bhushan Kabra, Kazi Aniruddha, Mohon Bhattacharya, Nalin Mazumdar, Robin Paul, S. Hazarasingh, Sujit Nath and Sunil Ganguly. But most of these guitarists only recorded Tagore songs, with only a few (Kazi Aniruddha and S. Hazarasingh) recording Filmi tunes (Sunil Ganguly and Batuk Nandy would start doing film songs in the 60s and the 70s, respectively).
One of the most distinct things that set Shipley apart was that he played an eight string guitar, which he had designed and built to give him the drone sound that was more common in Indian Classical music than in the Film songs. Almost all of the other Indian steel guitarists played a National Dual Six Console guitar. Shipley also designed his own electric violin as well, which he dubbed the ‘Gypsy Violin’ and used on many of his later records.
Shipley’s first album, The Man with The Golden Guitar, a title that stuck with him the rest of his career, was released in 1962. He would go on to release an album every year until 1982, as well as a dozen or so EPs. He also tour the world, playing shows in Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean Islands, Suriname, Guyana and the U.S., including the cities of New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Buffalo and Detroit. Besides recording, Shipley acted in a few films as well, including 1964s Cha Cha Cha.