Ask any mainstream rock historian what the meanest sounding guitar of the 1950s is and they’ll most likely answer with names like Link Wray, Chuck Berry or Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
Unfortunately, very few of them ever heard the name Willie Joe and his Unitar, much less the handful of obscure singles this madman cut during the Eisenhower Era.
Willie Joe laid down the meanest guitar tone of the Fifties. It’s time for the world to know.
The Detroit Years: Joe Willie Duncan was a blues musician from the Detroit ghettos who played a massive, amplified one-string instrument he called a Unitar. Made from a 7-foot plank of wood, it was strung with a solitary piece of wire with a playable scale length of more than 4 and a half feet and wired with a DeArmond acoustic guitar pickup.
The instrument was a version of the traditional African-American diddley bow and was played with a bottle as a slide. Duncan used a hunk of leather as a pick and flogged the string as he played it, delivering a tone that’s best described as "bitch slapping." In the late Forties, Duncan partnered with legendary bluesman Jimmy “Big Boss Man” Reed, performing on back porches, in front of stores and on Detroit’s mythical Maxwell Street.
The pair would drive around the city in Reed’s beat-up pickup truck and choose a storefront or corner to play. If there was a place to plug in, they had a stage. Let’s face it, if you stand on the sidewalk with a 7-foot musical plank, you’re guaranteed to draw a crowd. and people would swarm around the duo in amazement. Reed played guitar and sang. Willie Joe pummeled his Unitar and would sometimes take a vocal or pull out an old pair of spoons to beat on his knees as a finale.
Hitting the Big Time: Unfortunately for Reed, Willie Joe saw a brighter future in California and packed his bags to leave. But before he could escape Detroit, Reed presented him with a portable Unitar for the trip, complete with a hinge in the instrument, making it foldable! Willie Joe Duncan settled into Palo Alto and continued his outrageous ways. He was known to ride a pony up and down the street while dressed as a cowboy, and he continued to play his Unitar around town.
Eventually, he was discovered by Specialty Records house band leader Rene Hall in 1956 and cut a few rare but glorious sides for the company. Specialty Records was a hit-making machine at the time with artists like Little Richard and Guitar Slim. Willie Joe was invited to play solos behind Bob Landers, a gravel-voiced singer who had a catchy song, "Cherokee Dance." (Legend has it that Landers got his frog-sounding voice from throat cancer and died soon after the song’s release.)
"Cherokee Dance" was a fine song on its own, but the true pièce de résistance was the flip side of the 45, an instrumental titled "Unitar Rock." The song is a simple blues jam provided by Rene Hall and his Orchestra with Willie Joe front and center, slapping and beating the Unitar until it screamed for mercy. Its distorted, gnarled sound is one of the meanest guitar parts ever recorded... And it’s all on one string!
It amazes me that this song never achieved the cult status of Link Wray’s "Rumble." It’s pure rock and roll. It’s slide guitar to the extreme. To me, it’s the most brutal thing put to wax up until that time. After the modest jukebox success of "Cherokee Dance," Duncan was invited back to Specialty in 1957 as a studio musician, playing solos on a few other sides, including the instrumental "Twitchy" by Rene Hall and his Orchestra. In 1958, Hall left Specialty for Rendezvous Records in Los Angeles. He soon called on Willie Joe for one more dose of Unitar as the soloing instrument of Ernie Field’s single, "Teen Flip."
The Later Years: I have only found scraps of information on Willie Joe from 1958 onward. For a short while, he showed up on local R&B TV shows (Johnny Otis, Hunter Hancock) on a fairly regular basis. One musician told me Willie would jam at open mics in local bars and eventually added a second Unitar that sported an orange crate for a guitar body.
In 1985, Duncan was re-discovered by LA disc jockey Little Willie G and was asked to perform at a radio event. John Huffman, a musician who was part of Willie Joe’s band, said, “we played 45 minutes of music that night with all of it sounding like 'Unitar Rock!'” Willie Joe Duncan passed away sometime in 1988 or 1989. I have yet to get a definite date. (There's a comment section below if you have info!)
Willie Joe’s legacy: Although Willie Joe was an obscure hero, one musician who was greatly influenced by his music was the late Mark Sandman of the iconoclast grunge-jazz band Morphine. Sandman performed on a two-string slide bass that was built to sound like the Unitar. A replica Unitar was also built by Philadelphia-based musician (and one-string expert) One String Willie…including the Jimmy Reed mod of a folding hinge in the middle. See his pictures at onestringwillie.com.
Shane Speal is "King of the Cigar Box Guitar" and the creator of the modern cigar box guitar movement. Hear the music, see the instruments and read about his Cigar Box Guitar Museum at ShaneSpeal.com. Speal's latest album, Holler! is on C. B. Gitty Records.