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Aubrey Ghent Interview

Aubrey Ghent’s peers universally acknowledge him as a master of the six-string lap-steel guitar.  This interview, recorded in November 1992, documented my first meeting with a musician who played in what would become known as the “sacred steel” tradition.   My friend Michael Stapleton, a partner in a music store in Hollywood, Florida, and the man who gave me leads to several sacred steel guitarists, accompanied me.  As we recorded a few samples of Ghent playing unaccompanied, he astounded us with his swinging rendering of up-tempo music, a lush vibrato and an ability to make his instrument sing in a soulful African American gospel voice.   Congregants say he is triple-blessed:  a talented and stirring preacher and powerful baritone singer in addition to a superlative, soulful steel guitarist.  His father, Henry Nelson, played steel guitar for decades in the House of God, Keith Dominion.  Playing throughout the eastern United States for worship services, revivals and large assemblies under the administration of his father, Bishop W. L. Nelson, he became one of the most stylistically influential steel guitarists in the church.  A talented steel guitarist and a gifted singer, Aubrey Ghent’s son, AJ Ghent, has taken the family steel guitar tradition into the 21st century secular world, successfully touring and recording as “AJ Ghent and His Singing Guitar.”

– Robert Stone

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  • RS 080 Aubrey Ghent Interview 00:00
Interviewee: Aubrey Ghent
Interviewer: Robert Stone
Date: 11/7/1992
Location: Fort Pierce, FL
Language: English

For the archive overview:
The Robert Stone Sacred Steel Archive

This is an interview originally recorded for research purposes. It is presented here in its raw state, unedited except to remove some irrelevant sections and blank spaces. All rights to the interview are reserved by the Arhoolie Foundation. Please do not use anything from this website without permission. info@arhoolie.org

Aubrey Ghent Interview Transcript:

Robert Stone:

Okay, this is Bob Stone with Florida Folk Life programs. I’m here with Mr. Aubrey Ghent in Fort Pierce. It’s November 7th, 1992. Before we start playing, can we talk a little bit about how you learned and…

Aubrey Ghent:

Sure.

Robert Stone:

And how they’re…

Aubrey Ghent:

Long as you carry the conversation.

Robert Stone:

Sure. Well, how did you get started?

Aubrey Ghent:

Well, basically at the age of, I think it was six years old, my grandfather, he was a pastor at a local church here, House of God. He saw my ability was musically inclined.

Robert Stone:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Aubrey Ghent:

He saw that he would invest, he thought. My grandmother and my godmother got together. My godmother bought me a little toy guitar, and I would play on that and mess around. That was about the age of three years old.

Robert Stone:

Where was that? Was that here?

Aubrey Ghent:

Here at Fort Pierce.

Robert Stone:

Were you born here in Fort Pierce?

Aubrey Ghent:

Right.

Robert Stone:

All right.

Aubrey Ghent:

Later in Fort Pierce. Everybody knows me.

Robert Stone:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Aubrey Ghent:

Basically from that, I went to at the age of six, my dad, pastored church here and in Leesburg, Florida, and he thought one Sunday morning, he came home. He had been in a conference meeting, and he surprised me with electric guitar, and it was a Truetone. Truetone amp and Truetone electric guitar.

Robert Stone:

What’s your dad’s name?

Aubrey Ghent:

Well, my dad’s name is Henry Nelson.

Robert Stone:

Henry Nelson.

Aubrey Ghent:

He lives in New York around Springville. He’s been playing 50 years.

Robert Stone:

He plays the steel?

Aubrey Ghent:

Steel guitar, 50 years and he’s about 65. He’s been playing all his life. Basically, I went from that. My grandfather encouraged me, because my dad played, and my grandparents raised me. My dad was in New York at the time. My mother died when I was two weeks old. Basically, my grandparents encouraged me…

Robert Stone:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Aubrey Ghent:

…To really get into music. From that around the age of nine, my grandfather bought me the first steel guitar. It was a Supro lap steel, and I had a Gretsch amplifier. I think I burned out amps every six months. About every six months, because I had a Gretsch, and I went to Ampeg. I had a Fender Pro Reverb.

Robert Stone:

Yeah.

Aubrey Ghent:

And I went to Yamaha, and all these, I would play at church conventions and different local functions.

Robert Stone:

So it was always sacred music?

Aubrey Ghent:

It’s been for a long time, except when I went to high school. I got into high school, went to Catholic high school, and they learned about my talent, and I would entertain the students at lunchtime, and because we were in a school atmosphere where everybody took lunch at the same time, and I would entertain them in the gym. I would set up my steel and all, and a guy played piano, and another guy on bass or something, and we would just jam there, and the whole cafeteria would just turn out, and they would come to the gymnasium.

Robert Stone:

Where was that school at?

Aubrey Ghent:

John Carroll High School.

Robert Stone:

Right here in Fort Pierce?

Aubrey Ghent:

Right here. I was in brass technique class. I played trombone and choreography. We dealt with basically dance steps, and we had a jazz band, so I was round of it. All of it. Basically, I chose gospel as a foundation and thought I would stick with basically gospel. The type of gospel that normally I play basically most of it is steel, it’s a jazzed up swing-type gospel music. It’s different, because we can, it’s versatile. We can get into where it sounds contemporary, beef it up where it actually sounds like a lead, a rock lead guitar effect, and we learned to be versatile with it.

Robert Stone:

Is this the use of electric steel guitar and gospel music, is this something that’s regional, or is it going on all over the country? It’s new to me, and I try and keep abreast of things.

Aubrey Ghent:

Well, basically it is all over.

Robert Stone:

It is.

Aubrey Ghent:

We have about three young men I know. One, his name is Calvin Cooke.

Robert Stone:

Calvin Cooke.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right. He lives in Detroit, and we all have basically the same style. He has more of a 10-string steel, C7 to E9 effect.

Robert Stone:

No pedals.

Aubrey Ghent:

He has pedals.

Robert Stone:

Okay. Right.

Aubrey Ghent:

He’s got pedals.

Robert Stone:

I understand now.

Aubrey Ghent:

Basically, he’s been playing since… I met him when he was 27, and he’s about 47. There’s another fellow. His name is Maurice Beard who also lives in Detroit, Michigan. He’s been playing, I think I met him when he was about 36. He’s about 55 now. He’s been playing all his life, and he has a unique style also that’s different than the style I play.

Robert Stone:

Do any of these people record?

Aubrey Ghent:

Only one, and that was Calvin. Calvin came out with a recording. I don’t think it was very successful down around the Southern region. Mostly, he probably did a few sales up around the Northern. Basically, they were not sold in stores. They were hand passable.

Robert Stone:

Yeah. Right.

Aubrey Ghent:

I don’t think he was really financially successful. Then there was another fellow, Chuckie Campbell, who also came out with what he tried to record, a gospel steel, and he got together with some other musicians, and I don’t know. It progressed now, because it’s been a long time since I’ve been in contact, but there are others. There are a few. There are some that’s trying, but then there are some that’s basically been in the field.

Robert Stone:

How about within the context of a vocal group? Were you talking about solo steel recordings or instrumental recordings?

Aubrey Ghent:

Well, basically instrumental and vocal. A combination. Matter of fact, you’ll probably meet Glenn tonight.

Robert Stone:

Yeah.

Aubrey Ghent:

He has a tape out also, and he has vocal and instrumental.

Robert Stone:

Okay, so he does have a tape.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right. I have a tape too.

Robert Stone:

Great.

Aubrey Ghent:

I’m coming out with an album first of the year.

Robert Stone:

Oh, good. Great.

Aubrey Ghent:

I have some guys who want to promote me, because they say it’s unusual, and they want to see how it does. I’ve got a tape, you can hear it too.

Robert Stone:

Sure. We’ll hear it out.

Aubrey Ghent:

It’s a unique style.

Robert Stone:

Yeah.

Mike Stapleton:

Which just seems to be coming out of the woodwork now [crosstalk 00:09:42].

Aubrey Ghent:

– what’s happening.

Mike Stapleton:

At our store, whenever we get lap steels, it’s about 90% chance we’re going to sell it to a Black person, and they’re going to be at the church where it goes to.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right.

Robert Stone:

Still once in a while, someone will come in that wants to play old Hawaiian stuff, or they’re afraid to get started on pedal steel, but they want to play country. Now, I see even more of the guys coming in that bought lap steels from six years ago are looking for pedal steels now.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right. Well, basically that’s what happened with Maurice and Calvin. They started out with the regular 8 string non-pedal steels. In later years, they went into pedal, because the church environment, it was a gradual thing, because sometimes you got to see if the church accepts their certain style, but steel playing has been in House of God church ever since around the ’30s.

Robert Stone:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Aubrey Ghent:

It started with my uncle, and his name was Willie Eason, and he played Lap steel. That was the first time a steel had really been introduced.

Robert Stone:

How would you spell his last name?

Aubrey Ghent:

E-A-S-O-N.

Robert Stone:

Eason.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right.

Robert Stone:

Was he from here?

Aubrey Ghent:

He’s from Philadelphia.

Robert Stone:

Philadelphia.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right.

Robert Stone:

Is that where the House of God church originated?

Aubrey Ghent:

No, actually House of God church started back in 1903 around the Southern area, Kentucky.

Robert Stone:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Aubrey Ghent:

That area with a lady, a woman leader by the name of Mary Lena Tate. Eason came along after that, around the time, basically, another of her successor who was Bishop Keith, and it was a woman bishop, and he would follow another bishop by name of Lockley around as a steel player in his ministry. He was a pastor, and he would play on the street corners of Philadelphia, New York, here in Florida, Macon, Georgia, Fort Pierce, Miami, Lauderdale.

Robert Stone:

That was electric steel at that time too?

Aubrey Ghent:

Right, electric steel. The old Rickenbacker.

Robert Stone:

Right. I was going to say probably the old Rickenbacker.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right.

Robert Stone:

With one of those little bitty amps.

Aubrey Ghent:

Exactly. With one around. Basically, it had just a volume and tones, and they would connect up to a store at the time, and plug in, and he would sit there on the corner. He would sing songs, like one song, he came out when he wrote. It was called, “Do you like Roosevelt,” so you can basically tell the time and the era at the time, “Do you like Roosevelt.” That was basically his main seller. It’s a lot of history when it comes to really Black steel playing.

Robert Stone:

Yeah. Do you ever listen to or pay attention to, or try to emulate any of the guys like Jerry Byrd or somebody like that, the white guys that are known for playing, especially non-pedal?

Aubrey Ghent:

Well, I think, is it Jimmy Byrd?

Robert Stone:

Jerry.

Aubrey Ghent:

Jerry Byrd. Yeah who was noted for what, master of touch and tone?

Robert Stone:

Right.

Aubrey Ghent:

I’ve heard his style. Basically though, I fell in love with Buddy Emmons. Emmons, his swing style.

Robert Stone:

Yeah.

Aubrey Ghent:

He has a very unique swing style, and basically those two, I’ve really grown to enjoy.

Mike Stapleton:

A lot of steel players I’ve talked to are leaning the same way. They say that Jerry Byrd can play anything and say that Buddy Emmons had that other feel to his style that they like.

Aubrey Ghent:

Exactly. Really good. Really good. Matter of fact, we were listening to a tape Lee had. It had some Buddy Emmons recordings, and his swing style was very fascinating.

Mike Stapleton:

Yeah. Lee was fooling with a Dobro when he was down last I saw. He was pretty intrigued with that. That was pretty cool. I wonder if there was any of that, in the early days, using acoustic instruments or not.

Aubrey Ghent:

Basically, to tell you the truth, a lot of the players that started, I’m trying to think of, it was a fellow by the name of Price who really, he resided in Miami, and he was the first one I’ve seen do it. He would take a regular guitar, a lead guitar, and he would put a nail on the guitar to raise the strings, and then he would use a bar, and it had a steel effect from just the lifting of the strings, so he could put a heavier gauge. Right? That was because he couldn’t afford a steel at the time, and so he would use a conventional method. I tried it, and I got the idea from him, and that’s why my grandfather went ahead and bought me a steel guitar, a lap steel.

Mike Stapleton:

Oh, you had your guitar set up as a steel.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right. I had the guitar set up as a steel, and then he said, well, I’m going to buy this boy a real steel guitar.

Mike Stapleton:

What kind of bars did you use?

Aubrey Ghent:

Basically, back then it was the round bar.

Mike Stapleton:

Thumb bar.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right. Actually, I didn’t know much about the Stevens at the time. These are new style Steven bars.

Robert Stone:

Right, Shubb-Pearse bars.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right. They had come out, but I bought Steven bars for years since I was 11 years old, and basically, that was the only brand. Until I went to Nashville, then we would get the bars made in Nashville. Our church headquarters is in Nashville, Tennessee, and so we meet a lot of steel players.

Robert Stone:

Yeah.

Aubrey Ghent:

Maurice Beard, he’s the head chief musician, and he’s a steel player in the Nashville Assembly of the Church.

Robert Stone:

Right. That could be a big factor and certainly helped the steel guitar situation.

Aubrey Ghent:

Oh yes.

Robert Stone:

Being based out of Nashville.

Aubrey Ghent:

Out of Nashville. Right. We get a lot of discounts and so forth, a lot of recognition from, I know we visited the Grand Ole Opry there, and so forth, and basically it’s very, very unique.

Robert Stone:

Yeah.

Aubrey Ghent:

Musicians with different styles, you would believe, right there and meet there at Nashville.

Robert Stone:

Yeah.

Aubrey Ghent:

At the headquarters of church.

Robert Stone:

Yeah.

Aubrey Ghent:

Our music department, there’s a large facet there, and of course, if you want to play, you have to audition, and you go into audition session. I played a few times there for church services, and it’s just tremendous, tremendous.

Robert Stone:

I’m ready to hear some.

Aubrey Ghent:

Are you ready?

Robert Stone:

Yeah. Enough of the talking, let’s… Well, we’ll talk some more.

Aubrey Ghent:

Put your money where your mouth is. Well, I don’t know if it… It will be unique. As you know, I’m a Peavey fan.

Mike Stapleton:

Yeah. I see that. They make pretty nice equipment.

Aubrey Ghent:

Oh they do, they really do. The tuning that’s used is not a C7 or E9 tuning. It’s basically a straight, I guess, back a long time ago, you used to call it vestapol tuning. Now, does that sound like an old term?

Robert Stone:

Yeah. Vestapol tuning?

Aubrey Ghent:

Right? Is that what it is? Okay. That’s the correct, but-

Robert Stone:

That’s a D tuning, yeah?

Aubrey Ghent:

Right. D, well, this happens to be really a C straight, a major chord tuning.

Robert Stone:

That’s great. That’s great. It is completely different.

Aubrey Ghent:

Would you like-?

Robert Stone:

Sure. Look at the right hand. Yeah. That’s great.

Aubrey Ghent:

I’ll come out with another contemporary style, which we used a drum machine and a wind machine to give it basically, it sounds like a disco beat.

Robert Stone:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Aubrey Ghent:

We’re coming out with that the first of the year.

Mike Stapleton:

How did your dad play? What kind of style?

Aubrey Ghent:

Same style. He’s got a real mellow, but 50 years of playing one instrument, six string, he has really mastered everything that really can be possible, imaginative. He has really… I’ve played in many concerts with Shirley Caesar.

Robert Stone:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Aubrey Ghent:

Albertina Walker, Inez Andrews. Have you heard of…

Robert Stone:

Yeah.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right. Tramaine Hawkins. About four months ago, I played a concert with her.

Robert Stone:

You don’t know Ethel Caffie-Austin do you, from West Virginia?

Aubrey Ghent:

No. The name sounds familiar.

Robert Stone:

She’s a great singer. This is just wonderful. Are you a minister in the church?

Aubrey Ghent:

Right. I am a pastor now.

Robert Stone:

You’re a pastor.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right. A pastor and a state evangelist.

Robert Stone:

Do you have your own church here?

Aubrey Ghent:

I’m assistant pastor at Vero Beach House of God church. Basically, I’m flexible, because I have other churches that I have to do revival, conduct revival meetings, and steel players will come in and play for me. If not, then I play myself, but basically, Glenn and others.

Robert Stone:

Where’s Glenn live?

Aubrey Ghent:

Glenn lives in Miami around the Perrine area, that was really damaged by the storm.

Robert Stone:

Where I used to live. I lived there until three years ago.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right. He’s very versatile, very popular now in Miami area. He’s good with the keyboard as well as steel, piano.

Robert Stone:

How many House of God churches are there in that area down there?

Aubrey Ghent:

Well, just in the Dade County area, I think we have something like about 10-12 churches.

Robert Stone:

Is there one in Perrine?

Aubrey Ghent:

There is one in Perrine; however, it was damaged.

Robert Stone:

I’m sure.

Aubrey Ghent:

Damaged by the Hurricane Andrew.

Robert Stone:

How about Homestead? Is there one down there?

Aubrey Ghent:

We had a church in around Homestead area, basically around the Florida City area in which it was heavily damaged. The roof just flew off the church.

Robert Stone:

We’re going to be down there tomorrow.

Aubrey Ghent:

Really? Oh, okay. Well, basically all of our churches have met at the Ely High School.

Robert Stone:

Right.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right. Ely High School in Pompano Beach, Florida.

Robert Stone:

…for the assembly. Is that once a year?

Aubrey Ghent:

Yeah. It happens once a year, and we have a…

Robert Stone:

[crosstalk 00:23:40].

Aubrey Ghent:

We have a convention too, it basically happens in July. It’s a Sunday school convention in which in the daytime, we have classes on basically academic level theological classes. At night, we have, that’s when we let the hair down and go for it.

Robert Stone:

Yeah.

Aubrey Ghent:

With choirs, groups, then we have many musicians that come in with unique talents, and basically Glenn, Glenn and Darryl are co-supervisors of the music department for conventions and assemblies. Whenever I come, they let me play, because I’m kind of a pioneer. Like I said, I got all of them going, and so I’m recognized whenever I come, and they respect me very highly whenever I go to the conventions. They say, “Hey, you want to play tonight? You’ve got it.” They let me sit in.

Robert Stone:

Do you usually play with a vocal group? Is that usually the context where you do instrumental features or what or everything?

Aubrey Ghent:

Everything, everything.

Robert Stone:

Even a large chorus sometimes?

Aubrey Ghent:

Right. Play with the chorus, many of the choirs that… We have a state choir, House of God, that they have basically most of their practice and rehearsal sections around Dade County, and Glenn many times will sit in on steel with many of the songs.

Robert Stone:

I bet that sounds great. Big choir and steels.

Aubrey Ghent:

Tremendous.

Robert Stone:

Yeah. We just had a large mass choir up at this thing I gave you on that blue sheet, that gospel concert from Jasper.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right.

Robert Stone:

Jasper’s right up near Georgia.

Aubrey Ghent:

I’ve heard of it. Jasper, Florida.

Robert Stone:

Yeah. Last exit.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right.

Robert Stone:

There’s a lot of gospel music up there, but I haven’t, I don’t know if, is there a House of God branch up there?

Aubrey Ghent:

The closest one we have in that area, it’s around Ocala.

Robert Stone:

Ocala?

Aubrey Ghent:

Right. Ocala area.

Robert Stone:

Are there any steel players there? Do you know?

Aubrey Ghent:

Well, there’s one fellow who’s trying.

Robert Stone:

Uh-huh (affirmative). So he’s relatively new.

Aubrey Ghent:

Right. He’s new. His last name is Franklin in that area. He’s trying. He just started. Matter of fact, I was up there about three weeks ago. I played up around, in Ocala.

Robert Stone:

See I live right in Gainesville.

Aubrey Ghent:

Oh, wow.

 

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