|Tough Old Men and Birdseye Maple: The Jim Harvey Story
by Deke Dickerson
There was a time in this country when hardy souls ate red meat and gulped whole milk and built their own houses and played music in the parlor when the day’s work was done. One of these men, a career Navy man named Walter James “Jim” Harvey, built musical instruments in Southern California nearly sixty years ago. Several other tough Navy men and flashy hillbilly entertainers played the instruments that Jim Harvey built. This is their story, and we soft, 90-pound weaklings of today deserve their scorn. Despite this, I urge you to keep reading.
Guitar history is full of stories that have become legend. If you have a cursory interest in vintage guitars, these stories are heard so many times that they are absorbed into a common vernacular of guitar geekdom. John D’Angelico, an old-world Italian craftsman, makes the world’s finest archtops in a small, uncomplicated workshop in New York. Lloyd Loar, a master archtop builder for Gibson, abandons the company to build his innovative yet ill-received Vivi-Tone electrics. Paul Bigsby, a motorcycle racer, machinist, and friend of Merle Travis, builds the first modern electric solidbody guitar in a Downey garage, setting the stage for the electric guitar boom that would engulf the world in the decades to follow.
All of these stories are fascinating, and yet if one digs a little deeper, there are always more stories, hidden behind layers of time and obscurity. To this author, these forgotten and neglected stories are equally as interesting, perhaps greater in their sense of curious discovery. Willy Wilkanowski and his unique violin-constructed archtop guitars offer a Polish immigrant’s alternative universe to D’Angelico’s Italian glamour. Paul Tutmarc, a musical inventor of the isolated Pacific Northwest, ultimately had superior ideas and implementation with his Audiovox brand than his better-known peer Lloyd Loar in their similar quest for electric amplification.
Undeniably, when Paul Bigsby made his beautifully handcrafted instruments and namesake vibrato, he earned his place in history. Paul Bigsby’s story deserves all accolades, but likewise Jim Harvey’s story has been unfairly relegated to the vault of obscurity. His story deserves to be told.
Certified guitar obsessives can certainly relate to the statement that the more obsessed one becomes with guitars over a period of time, all things eventually float to the surface. And so it is that over the last seventeen years I have seen tiny pieces of the Harvey guitar mystery come to light. This article is a biographical piece on Jim Harvey’s guitars, but it’s also about how these guitars, and these men, affected my own life.
Seventeen years ago, the first time I heard about Harvey guitars, the name was completely new to me. I heard about an older gentleman taking a custom-made doubleneck labeled “Harvey” to various music stores and record stores in San Diego, looking for a buyer. Assuming it must be the work of Harvey Thomas (the luthier from Washington state), I tried to find the man with the guitar.
In the pre-Internet, pre-cell phone days, attempting to find information on a brand like Harvey guitars was like wearing a blindfold and wandering in the desert looking for Biblical scrolls. There were no references to Harvey anywhere in any guitar book. I called Lou Curtiss of Folk Arts Rare Records in San Diego, and he knew the man selling the guitar quite well, revealing his name as John Goertz. Goertz had an unlisted phone number and was said to usually come by the store on Tuesdays. I told Curtiss to have Goertz call me the next time he came into the store.
When the man returned, he had just sold the guitar to a San Diego lawyer and collector named Tom Sims. I knew Sims from record dealings, and we were on a friendly basis. Sims let me come over and see the guitar. I had my first, fleeting Jim Harvey moment that day.
The guitar was absolutely amazing. You could see a heavy Bigsby influence, with a blonde birdseye maple finish with walnut accents. It was obviously meant to emulate a Gretsch Duo-Jet, with a baby Duo-Jet eight-string mandolin coming off of the top of the guitar. Like a real Duo-Jet, the guitar had DeArmond pickups (with two four-pole DeArmonds on the mando neck), Gretsch knobs, and a Bigsby vibrato. The headstocks resembled musical notes. The playability was excellent. The headstocks read HARVEY.
Who the heck was this guy? This guitar was too well made and too professionally finished to be made by another backyard hillbilly luthier. Harvey didn’t fit in. Typically, the backyard guys made guitars with hacksaw marks, misaligned pickups robbed from a Kay or Harmony, bowed necks that played with the comfort and accuracy of a musical corn cob. Whoever this Harvey guy was, he was very, very good.
I was disappointed I had missed my opportunity to buy this instrument. I wrote Tom Sims perhaps the most heartfelt letter of my entire life (sorry Mom), asking—pleading—for him to sell the guitar to me. Sims said no, but he sold me John Goertz’s mint Magnatone 280 amplifier as a consolation prize. I was heartbroken and defeated by Sims’s refusal to sell the guitar, but it would take 15 years to learn two of life’s most valuable lessons: Good things come to those who wait, and you can’t have all the pretty girls in the world.
It’s a good time to throw in another well-used old adage—the Lord works in mysterious ways. Though I was hurt by the fact that Tom Sims wouldn’t sell the guitar to me, 15 years later it was his ownership of the guitar that ultimately helped find Jim Harvey’s family, which led to the publication of this story.
The Harvey doubleneck, still owned by Sims, has been on display at the NAMM Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, California, for the last few years. It was at the museum that Harvey family members saw the guitar and told the then-museum director Dan Del Fiorentino that they were related to the man who built the instrument on display. Dan contacted me, and a few emails later, I was in touch with Jim Harvey’s oldest son, Howard Harvey.
Howard had a wealth of information, and he and his brother Walter had each kept one of their dad’s guitars. In addition, Howard’s wife Flower had put together a very nice scrapbook of dozens of photos showing the history of Jim Harvey and his musical instruments.
Seeing the photos for the first time confirmed what I had suspected: Jim Harvey was every bit the unknown Guitar Yoda I had imagined he would be. Although Jim had been dead for almost 30 years, these photos brought him to life. He seemed like a great guy. I wish I could have known him.
Jim Harvey was born March 12, 1922, in Onida, South Dakota. In 1926 George and Elizabeth Harvey moved their family to Pacific Beach, California, a residential area in the northern part of San Diego. George Harvey built the family’s house in their newly adopted hometown on a fresh plot of virgin California soil.
Southern California in the 1920s and 1930s must have seemed like paradise to a young emigre from South Dakota. Opportunities abounded that never would have existed on the plains. Southern California was rapidly becoming a country music mecca, from the Dust Bowl migration that brought a massive influx of hillbillies into the region.
A vintage photo, labeled “Winners—Dugdale’s Amatures [sic] of Pac. Beach” couldn’t better illustrate the dichotomy of Southern California during the 1930s. Standing to one side were Jim and Kenny Harvey, holding banjo and fiddle, dressed in hillbilly finery, their dark indigo Levis perfectly cuffed above polished cowboy boots. They weren’t Okies, but they certainly looked the part. Next to the Harvey brothers, there is a pair of attractive young women dressed in Hawaiian garb, leis around their necks, one holding a ukulele, showing the influence Hawaiian culture had on Southern California. On the right side of the photo, two cute teenage girls smiled and showed their legs. Two girls for every boy—California must have been heaven to these young farm boys from South Dakota.
Another photo shows Jim Harvey as a teenager posing in the driveway of his home, with a lemon tree in the background. Typical of that time, it was important to Jim to show his newfound affluence by posing for a shot in his best western clothes. In the photo, he is holding his Gibson archtop guitar, with his Martin mandolin, Gibson tenor banjo and upright bass placed around him. The most revealing detail of this photo—a custom pickguard on his Gibson archtop emblazoned with “JIMMY”—shows the burgeoning influence of customization on hillbilly guitar culture (a style that began with Jimmie Rodgers, the “Singing Brakeman,” inlaying his name on the fretboard of his Martin in the late 1920s). The customized guitar bug had bitten Jim Harvey.
Jim Harvey, above all else, was a Navy man, and a family man. He enlisted in 1939 and did his 20-year stint. When Jim became a chief petty officer and moved off base, he bought a home in La Jolla, another San Diego suburb just north of Pacific Beach. He married Hilda in 1941, and had three children—Howard, Barbara, and Walter Junior.
Jim’s father worked as a carpenter, then a cabinetmaker, and it was through his father that Jim learned how to work with wood. Later, in the Navy, Jim became a Chief Metalsmith, and gained experience with all kinds of different metals. This background (much like Paul Bigsby’s experience as a machinist and motorcycle mechanic) explains how Jim Harvey was able to make instruments in his garage that had such a professional aura. Howard Harvey remembers that his dad used a Shop-Smith, one of those ancient machines that used a single motor to drive five or six power tools mounted on a single rail, for just about everything in the instrument-making process. With only simple tools, Jim Harvey’s experience and perfectionism is what enabled him to make instruments of such high caliber.
Jim eventually became a member of FASRON #691 based on North Island in San Diego. Music played a large part in his life, and he would often go to the Bostonia Ballroom, where all the stars of the day appeared. The Bostonia was in El Cajon, a dusty town adjunct to San Diego where the Okies preferred to live.
It was at the Bostonia Ballroom, around 1950, that Jim Harvey first saw Paul Bigsby’s instruments. A particularly telling set of black and white snapshots, taken by Jim at the Bostonia, show his obsession with guitars. There were shots of Joaquin Murphy bent over his tripleneck Bigsby steel guitar, and more importantly, Merle Travis playing his groundbreaking Bigsby electric solidbody guitar. To a musician used to seeing hollowbody guitars and lap steels, most of which were made back East in places like Kalamazoo or Chicago, seeing a beautifully made solidbody guitar crafted in a Southern California garage must have been as radical as seeing a cell phone for the first time.
As much as the photos can tell us, the first musical instrument that Jim Harvey built was a simple doubleneck steel guitar, made around 1950 in the garage of his La Jolla home. The guitar was roughly patterned after a Bigsby steel guitar, but photos tell us that it was fairly primitive. Nonetheless, it appeared to inspire a passion in Jim Harvey, who now knew he could build a guitar, if he put his mind to it.
The first standard guitar Jim made was his own personal instrument. The body shape was an interesting one, with the large silhouette of an archtop guitar, and the thin neck-through-body, flat top and back construction of a Bigsby electric guitar. It was quite obvious that Jim had taken most of his inspiration from Paul Bigsby, with copious use of birdseye maple throughout, aluminum nut and bridge, and strap hooks instead of strap buttons. Most importantly, the guitar had a Bigsby pickup in the treble position, with one switch and three knobs, just like Merle Travis’s Bigsby solidbody guitar. Regardless of the inspiration, Harvey’s creation was remarkably original in all respects. It was no mere Bigsby copy.
Most unusually, Jim’s personal guitar featured photographs of his wife Hilda and his two children at the time, Howard and Barbara, inlaid in the markers of the fretboard. Perhaps if there are any readers out there who are spending too much time with their guitars and getting grief from their wives, this example of Jim Harvey’s should be followed—inlay her photograph in the fretboard!
Jim began building his guitar in 1951, and it was finished by early 1952. During that time, Jim Harvey began working on another instrument—a five-string electric mandolin made for another one of his Navy friends, William “Scotty” Broyles.
Like a lot of men in the armed services, physical fitness was extremely important to Jim Harvey. He constantly lifted weights, ran, and swam laps at the pool. It was at the swimming pool that Jim Harvey and Scotty Broyles struck up a friendship based on their mutual love of hillbilly music.
Scotty Broyles was and is a man small in stature, but tough as nails. Like most Texans, he is very friendly and outgoing, but his hard stance assures you that if there were to be a problem, he could still take care of business. Scotty was an electric mandolin player who came from the same Texas electric mandolin tradition as Tiny Moore, Johnny Gimble, and Paul Buskirk.
I got to know Scotty a few years ago, and made the long drive to visit him and his wife Betty in isolated Ridgecrest, California, on the edge of the China Lake naval weapons desert testing facility. Scotty let me sleep in until 6 a.m., and he did what seemed like a thousand pushups while I tried to clear my head with my first cup of coffee. These old navy guys are tough.
Scotty amazed and delighted me with a collection of color slides that he had taken in the early and mid-1950s. You don’t often get to see crisp, color shots of legends, and the images brought these people to life in a way I didn’t dream was possible.
There was a color slide of Merle Travis holding his Bigsby solidbody—the only known color photograph of Merle holding that guitar. There were amazing photos of Hank Thompson, Homer and Jethro, Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, Lefty Frizzell, Joaquin Murphy, and a hundred others, all dressed in incredibly ornate and vividly colored Western suits. Even the audience members at these shows were dressed in dazzlingly colored Hawaiian shirts and perfectly cuffed slacks. No wonder these 80-year-old guys think this country is going to hell in a handbasket—after viewing these slides, then going to the supermarket and seeing everyone in sweatpants, I would have to agree.
Scotty still has his 1952 Jim Harvey mandolin, and he wanted to pick with me. I awkwardly tried to accompany him on old rags and polkas that I had never played before. In our first get-together, we didn’t have a whole lot of musical middle ground, but I was and still am eager to learn the secret musical language that these 80-year-old men speak with ease. Scotty is still a great mandolin player and I had a ball getting to know him. I liked him so much that I never got around to asking him about selling his mandolin. Here was a man still happily playing the instrument he’d had custom made almost sixty years earlier. I just wanted to see him play it some more.
Scotty commissioned Jim Harvey to build him a five-string electric mandolin in early 1952. The idea for the fifth string, a low C below the G-string, was taken from Paul Buskirk’s 1950 10-string (five double courses) Bigsby mandolin. Scotty had seen Paul Buskirk playing his Bigsby mandolin in Texas, and was blown away by his ability on the instrument. A few years later Scotty would introduce Buskirk to Jim Harvey.
The steel guitar player in Scotty’s Band, Robert Hansen, designed the body and headstock shapes for Scotty’s mandolin. Like Jim’s guitar, the mandolin was made of beautiful birdseye maple, with Bigsby-style appointments, such as the aluminum nut and bridge and decorative pickguard. Engraved into the tailpiece was the inscription: “Custom made for Scotty Broyles by Jim Harvey.”
Scotty Broyles reveals the story of how some of Jim Harvey’s instruments utilized Bigsby pickups. When it came time to put a pickup in Jim’s first standard guitar, he made up his mind that he would drive up to Downey and see Paul Bigsby. Remember, these were the steamboat days of the electric guitar—Fender and Gibson wouldn’t sell you one of their pickups unless it was attached to one of their guitars. For the amateur guitar builder of 1951, the pickup was a magical, mystical thing.
Jim drove up to Downey to see Paul Bigsby, with Scotty Broyles in tow. As Scotty remembers it, “Jim asked Paul if he would sell him a pickup, and Paul said he’d have to see his work, and if it was good enough, he might consider it. Jim went out to his car and got the guitar he was working on, and Bigsby spent about ten minutes slowly looking it over. Finally, without saying anything, Paul walked over to a cabinet mounted on the wall, pulls out a pickup, comes back over to Jim and tells him the pickups are fifty dollars, and they’re the same price if he takes just the pickup or leaves the instrument to have him install the pickup himself.”
Paul Bigsby installed the pickups on Jim’s new guitar and Scotty’s mandolin. During the time that Scotty’s mandolin was in Bigsby’s shop, Bigsby was also putting the finishing touches on a four-string electric mandolin made for Tiny Moore, mandolin player with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
Scotty recalls how Tiny Moore became associated with the five-string electric mandolin: “Jim Harvey had taken my unfinished mandolin up there to Paul Bigsby to have a five-string pickup installed. Well, it was sitting around Bigsby’s shop for a few weeks while he installed the pickup, and about that time, Tiny Moore came and visited Bigsby to see how his new electric mandolin was coming. Tiny had ordered a four-string mandolin, but when he saw my Harvey five-string mandolin laying there, he changed his mind and told Paul right then and there his had to be a five-string too. Paul was irritated, because he was just about done with Tiny’s instrument! Eventually Tiny got his way, and that’s the reason Tiny Moore’s Bigsby had five strings instead of four.”
Scotty retains his original mandolin to this day, but Jim’s first guitar is lost to time. Photos seem to indicate that Jim sold the guitar to another sailor, but not before replacing the fretboard, adding a Bigsby-styled armrest, and adding a new pickguard that read “Emil.”
Another personal story to add, that goes along with the biographical chronology: A year after I saw that elusive Harvey doubleneck that began this article, another Harvey guitar popped up and was profiled in a now defunct magazine. This Harvey was much different than the doubleneck I had seen, but it was also highly influenced by Bigsby. The pickguard said “Bob” in cartoon cursive letters. There were some sketchy biographical details about Jim Harvey, but not much.
A short time later, I was at one of the San Francisco-area vintage guitar shows, when one of my favorite guitar dealers in the world, Jay Rosen, told me he had a guitar that I had to buy. Jay said that he had brought it to the show but wasn’t displaying it, because he knew it would draw a lot of attention, and he had already decided I was going to buy it. When he crouched under the table and cracked the case, I knew immediately that he had the Harvey “Bob” guitar saved back for me.
The guitar came with a letter from the original owner, with a business card in Las Vegas. I contacted Rob Tuvell and he has since become a great friend.
Robert Tuvell was a fellow Navy man stationed on North Island with Jim Harvey. One day he happened to stop and admire Jim’s new guitar at the base. Jim offered to make him a Bigsby-style electric standard guitar, if Tuvell would pay for the materials.
Tuvell remembers going over to Jim’s house to see the materials, once they arrived. He recalls the wood being beautifully figured birdseye maple, and that Jim made a point of telling him that the hardware for his guitar came from a Gibson.
For Tuvell’s guitar, Jim chose a decidedly unorthodox construction method. The body shape was roughly the same as his personal guitar. However, I have never seen another neck-through-body, flat and thin electric with a DeArmond floating pickup on it.
Tuvell recalls that the materials cost around $100, and to put that in perspective, at the time he was only earning $140 a month at the base. This probably explains why this guitar did not have a Bigsby pickup, since Bigsby charged $50 (approximately $350 in today’s money) for a single pickup. The DeArmond floating pickup was a decent substitute, suited to Bob’s needs—chunking rhythm guitar for dance bands.
Former owner Dave Westerbeke said of the “Bob” Harvey guitar: “This guitar has almost no acoustic sound, but plugged in, with flatwounds, it has an amazing bell-like jazz tone. Harvey didn’t finish out his guitars like, say, D’Angelico, but he was very strong on rudiments. He had a lot of guts. He put two wood screws through the bridge so it won’t adjust at all, but he nailed it perfectly and it intonates beautifully. With that ‘bolt-on’ bridge, extremely rigid neck, and neck-through design, it has more sustain than any guitar I’m aware of. I have a bunch of L-5’s and a Tal Farlow, but this kills all of them.”
Another interesting feature of the “Bob” guitar is the case. The case is made of solid birdseye maple, covered in black tolex and lined with green felt material, and weighs twenty pounds. Jim told Rob Tuvell when he received the instrument: “The case was harder to make than the guitar!” Jim made cases for all of his instruments, but with more standardized case construction methods.
Jim also made a pedal steel guitar, an elegant looking thing from the photos, though it too has disappeared. It was a single-8 string steel with five pedals, an innovative guitar made at the turning point of pedal steel technology. “Harvitone” was inlaid in cursive letters on the front. One classic photo, taken at the Del Mar County Fair exhibits hall, shows the farthest step Jim Harvey ever took in advertising himself as a guitar maker. The steel guitar and his personal “Jimmy” guitar are displayed in a booth next to model airplanes on an adjoining table. A hand-lettered sign read: “These electrical instruments designed and built by Jimmy Harvey, LaJolla, Calif.” This appears to be the only time Jim Harvey ever promoted himself in any way. According to Howard Harvey, Jim often flirted with the idea of making instruments on a commercial basis, even approaching his son with ideas about marketing and advertising. With his Navy and family commitments, he simply didn’t have the time.
Besides Scotty Broyles instrument, there were at least three other Harvey electric mandolins. One of them was based on a Martin acoustic mandolin, with a Martin-style headstock, scale length, and neck shape. The pickguard reads “Dave” and Scotty Broyles remembers Dave as a comedian who utilized the mandolin in his act. The other two mandolins appear in family photos, but their whereabouts are unknown.
Scotty Broyles also remembers seeing Jim Harvey on Smokey Rogers’s local television show talking about a guitar that Jim was making for him. Smokey Rogers was a former member of Tex Williams’s Western Caravan, and leader of the house band at the Bostonia Ballroom. The whereabouts of Smokey’s Harvey guitar, if it still exists, is unknown.
Jim began working on another personal guitar that would become his next “family” guitar. Since selling his original family guitar, his youngest son Walter Jr. (“Wally”) had been born, which made for a good excuse to make a new one.
There are several pictures that show the guitar under construction, and again, the Bigsby influence was undeniable. Around this time, Jim came up with the musical eighth-note motif for his new headstock design—one that I might add is particularly well designed and thought out. In fact, all of Jim Harvey’s work is remarkable in that it is clearly influenced by Paul Bigsby yet original in design, with graceful, flowing lines that set him apart from all other backyard guitar makers. Nothing Jim Harvey did was clumsy. The guy had class.
Jim’s new personal “family” guitar had one Bigsby pickup, and again featured photographs of the wife and kids inlaid into the fretboard position markers. In addition, the three knobs on this guitar were hand-cast metal with each of his children’s name stamped on top, so instead of volume, you adjusted the “Wally” knob, instead of tone you adjusted the “Howard” knob, and so on.
Paul Bigsby had come out with his new vibrato since Harvey’s first guitars were made, so of course this new guitar had to have one as well. Jim’s handmade vibrato used chromed steel and a hinged top base, and works darn well considering the failure rate of most early handmade vibratos. A scribbled note on the back of a photo, in Jim’s handwriting, reveals that he finished this guitar while on a Navy ship coming back from Japan. Jim’s son Walter Jr. still owns this guitar.
Around this same time, Jim took on another luthier’s challenge: To make an acoustic guitar. The “Harveytone” (different spelling than the “Harvitone” steel guitar) acoustic was a large-bodied, bizarrely shaped 10-string guitar with an abalone-inlaid armrest and playing card suits inlaid in the fretboard. The idea for the playing card suits came directly from Merle Travis’s Bigsby guitar. Jim would always refer to the acoustic as his “Gambler’s Guitar” (which, not coincidentally, was the title of a Merle Travis song).
It’s difficult to trace where Jim Harvey might have gotten the inspiration for the design of his acoustic. It’s aesthetic can only be explained by a 1950s Southern California combination of Project Blue Book flying saucers, Paul Bigsby’s hillbilly flash, and the large-bodied Guitarrons played by the local mariachis. It is simply one of the most unusual acoustic guitars I’ve ever laid eyes on. Though we will never know what inspired Jim Harvey’s vision, I think it is great.
The acoustic still exists and is owned by Jim’s son Howard. The instrument went through several phases in its life. At one point, the guitar was converted to a six string, and the four extra tuner holes were filled with (what else?) inlaid dice, adding to the “Gambler’s Guitar” motif.
In the 1970s, obviously inspired by the new roundback Ovation guitars, Jim cut the acoustic body down to half its original thickness, and added a fiberglass bowl back to the guitar (with a nod to SoCal surfboard culture, the outside of the bowl back was brown like the color of wood, but the inside of the bowl was metal-flake green, seen through the sound hole). There are extra holes in the pickguard from an electric conversion that is no longer there, and finally (why not?) Jim converted the guitar to a nine-string, drilling new tuner holes in between his original four extra holes that he had filled in with inlaid dice. The guitar is one of the most singularly original acoustic guitars in the world, bar none.
The acoustic guitar, as well as several other Harvey instruments, feature inlaid mother-of-pearl made from genuine abalone shells. In those days, abalone was not environmentally protected, as it is now, and Jim and his family would often go to the beach and dive for abalone shells. Both of the houses in La Jolla where the Harvey family lived were less than a five-minute walk to the beach. Howard Harvey remembers a large stack of abalone shells outside his dad’s workshop. Jim would cut up the finest pieces and use the mother-of-pearl for inlay on his instruments. I love this small detail—a guitar maker diving for his own abalone shells to get inlay material—it is a perfect Southern California guitar-making story.
John Goertz was a local San Diego music fan and amateur guitar player. He was one of those men who had a good job and used his expendable income to buy lots of records and several nice guitars. Around 1957, he ordered a guitar based on his own design—a Gretsch Duo-Jet with a baby Duo-Jet mandolin growing off the top of the guitar.
Goertz received the guitar in 1958, and kept it, rarely played, until he sold it to Tom Sims. The guitar is currently on display at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, California—interestingly enough, posed in a glass case next to J. B. Thomas’s 1956 Bigsby doubleneck guitar. The pair of birdseye beauties are worth the price of admission.
Paul Buskirk was a virtuoso musician, originally from West Virginia, who ruled the local scene in Houston, Texas. Buskirk was one of the country’s great mandolin players (FJ did a nice article on Buskirk in Issue #14), but he was equally at home on tenor banjo, guitar, or his favorite, the mandola. Buskirk had a long career dating back to the 1930s, including stints touring behind Tex Ritter and Gene Austin, a few years in Memphis playing for Eddie Hill, and a few years in Dallas in the early 1950s, where he recorded with Lefty Frizzell and many others.
Buskirk settled in Houston in 1956 to work with husband and wife team Curly Fox and Texas Ruby, who had a popular local television show on KPRC-TV. It was here that he helped a struggling young man named Willie Nelson. Willie was a disc jockey and songwriter and singer, but hadn’t had much luck until Buskirk set him up teaching guitar lessons at Buskirk’s music studio in Pasadena, Texas. As Willie recalls, Buskirk would keep him one lesson ahead of the students. When Willie’s recording of “Nite Life” came out in 1960, the record label read “Paul Buskirk and his Little Men, featuring Hugh Nelson, vocals.” Though Nelson had released a few singles before this one, with “Nite Life” his style emerged fully formed. It would take nearly 20 years for Willie to grow his hair and hit the mainstream consciousness, but this record began his ascent.
Six months after the release of “Nite Life,” Nelson was living in Nashville and had a contract with Liberty Records. Willie never forgot the career boost that Buskirk gave him, and later gave Buskirk a third of the royalties from his “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” album in the 1980s.
Paul Buskirk received a Bigsby mandolin in 1950. Typical of most virtuosos, Buskirk prided himself that he owned the best instrument possible, and also took a certain measure of pride in the fact that Paul Bigsby was at his service. In 1952, Bigsby gave Buskirk one of the very first Bigsby vibratos, adapted with pins for his ten-string mandolin, and a few years later Bigsby made Buskirk a five-string Fender-style mandola neck for his 1954 Stratocaster (!), an instrument that is now lost.
Eventually Buskirk decided he needed a doubleneck guitar, as the rock and roll business was killing his employment as a mandolin player. Buskirk contacted Paul Bigsby about getting a doubleneck made, and Bigsby turned him down. A letter dated May 22, 1956, related that Bigsby was unable to make Buskirk a guitar because he was making vibratos for Gibson and Gretsch at a rate of “100 units per month, and I do all the work myself.”
Regardless of Bigsby’s intentions with the letter, it slighted Buskirk. He considered himself too important of a musician to be rebuffed by Paul Bigsby.
Scotty Broyles left San Diego and returned to Houston in the mid-1950s, where he reacquainted himself with Paul Buskirk. After Bigsby’s rejection letter, Buskirk had a conversation with Scotty about the man who made his custom mandolin. Broyles gave Buskirk Jim Harvey’s address.
Burkirk ordered a doubleneck guitar from Jim Harvey with very specific instructions. The upper neck was to be a six-string, 20-inch mandola scale, the bottom neck a standard guitar. Because of his beef with Paul Bigsby, Buskirk wanted the pickups on both necks to be Fender Stratocaster pickups, and although the instrument would have two Bigsby vibratos, Buskirk wanted the Bigsby logos covered up with decorative walnut and abalone plates.
When the Paul Buskirk doubleneck was finished, it was without question Jim Harvey’s masterpiece. The enormous body was an artistic vision of birdseye maple, walnut, abalone mother-of-pearl, and the art of the French curve. Once again, the Bigsby influence was present, with a large scroll on the upper bout, but done in Jim Harvey’s original design. The final concept was equal parts Lone Ranger and the Jetsons, a futuristic vision of the West.
Buskirk remained a local figure, never becoming famous anywhere except Southeastern Texas, but his presence around Houston was huge. Buskirk appeared playing the doubleneck in a locally produced color movie, Tomboy and the Champ, backing up a child singer on a rockabilly ditty called “Barbecue Rock.” In 1962, Buskirk released an album on the tiny Merba record label, Paul Buskirk Plays a Dozen Strings, proudly displaying the Harvey guitar on the cover (interestingly enough, though Buskirk ordered the upper mandola neck as a six-string, mostly he only used five strings on it, and it can be seen strung this way on the cover of the record, making the Dozen Strings album title slightly misleading). The album was a tour de force of insanely hot playing, with the best song on the record a blazing instrumental called “Jim Harvey’s Rag,” a tribute to the man who made his doubleneck.
Buskirk’s influence was so strong around Houston, in the late 1950s a local luthier named F. A. Thorp made several five-string electric mandolins and mandolas, all based on the design of the Jim Harvey doubleneck, even copying the Harvey headstock shape. These have surfaced and been misidentified as Harvey instruments, but the Thorp instruments generally have DeArmond tinfoil pickups and are more basic in design.
The Paul Burkirk guitar appears to have been finished around 1958. Jim Harvey retired from the navy in 1959, and around that time, the guitar building stopped. Jim built a cabin by hand up in Pine Hills, an hour east of San Diego. Howard Harvey remembers that with all of his various commitments, family and otherwise, Jim simply didn’t have much time to make new instruments. Jim continued to tinker with the ones he had already made, and continued to play music, but the burning desire to make new instruments seems to have dried up by the end of the 1950s.
There was one more Harvey instrument, made in 1966, eight years after the Buskirk doubleneck. Not much is known about the young man whose name was Dick, except that he played in a local group called the Mavericks. This is all guesswork, but it would appear that Dick’s bandmate in the Mavericks was a guy named Collin who had a Gibson doubleneck. Not to be outdone, Dick had Jim Harvey make a tiny electric mandolin that would fit onto the upper horn of his fiesta red Fender Stratocaster.
Photos show the tiny Strat-shaped birdseye maple mandolin, posed atop Dick’s red Stratocaster. Jim Harvey sits on the couch next to Dick, showing him how the mandolin slides on top of the guitar. Jim Harvey looks older. This guitar’s whereabouts are unknown. The one bizarre photo we have of The Mavericks, lit from underneath like a 1930s horror photograph, shows Collin with his Gibson doubleneck, a smiling Dick with his Fender/Harvey doubleneck, and a drummer named Russ, who apparently didn’t mind being in a band with no bass player and two guys playing doubleneck guitars.
After living for decades in the beachfront towns of La Jolla and Pacific Beach, Jim Harvey bought a piece of land in Rancho Santa Fe. At the time, Rancho Santa Fe was a rural, mostly uninhabited area north of San Diego, set into the mountains and foothills.
In 1972, Jim Harvey built his own home from the ground up. Like his custom made guitars, the house was of his design and creation. The final touch was a swimming pool shaped like a grand piano, complete with 88 keys made of black and white mosaic tile. The diving board was shaped like a guitar, with the cement base poured into the shape of a guitar’s body, and the diving board itself shaped like the guitar’s neck.
Jim Harvey contracted mesothelioma and died at the age of 59 on October 15, 1981. By all accounts, for two decades Jim was a fanatic about weightlifting at the North Island naval base facility, which happened to be located in a basement room underneath the swimming pool. The bottom of the swimming pool area was lined with spray-on asbestos.
Were it not for the instruments themselves, Jim Harvey’s story would have ended there. The scrapbook of photos would stay tucked away in the closet. His family would have fondly remembered him. The problem was that Jim Harvey’s instruments were just too original and creative and well made to remain a secret forever.
There was one loose end, for me, in the Jim Harvey saga. Paul Buskirk was dead, but where was that guitar? It had to be somewhere.
Through my friend and fellow researcher Andrew Brown (who, not coincidentally, was the man who gave me Scotty Broyles’s phone number and first showed me the Paul Buskirk Dozen Strings LP), I discovered that Buskirk’s once magnificent Harvey doubleneck guitar had endured a rough life.
In the 1970s, the guitar was stolen from Buskirk, and it stayed in the hands of the thieves for several years. During that time, the guitar apparently spent most of its time in a car trunk. The thieves eventually needed cash, knocked off the metal Harvey logos from the headstocks, and tried to pawn the instrument. Buskirk was a very well-known figure around Nacogdoches (where he was living at the time), so the first pawnbroker they took the guitar into immediately recognized the guitar, and confiscated it from the thieves.
Buskirk got the instrument back, but was disgusted by the treatment it had received out of his hands. After that, Buskirk didn’t take care of it, either. One story involved Buskirk leaving it in the case underneath a dripping Texas air conditioner wall unit in his trailer for several years, which explains why the original case is long gone. The top neck headstock was drilled out to become an eight-string mandolin. There were dozens of extra holes in the body of the guitar, from unknown experiments. A clumsy jackplate hole was drilled in the back of the guitar after the sidejack needed repair. The neck and body joints, instead of being repaired, had auto Bondo putty added to them in the hopes of strengthening the joints. The original 1950’s Fender Stratocaster pickups were long gone. The necks were horribly bowed. The once majestic Jim Harvey masterpiece, at the time of Buskirk’s death, was as worn out as Buskirk himself. The guitar, for all intents and purposes, was dead too.
When Paul Buskirk died in 2002, he left no family behind. His wife and two daughters had died before him, so he made his friend executor of his estate, luthier Huey Wilkinson of New Caney, Texas, maker of Axehandle guitars. The estate was a substantial one; Buskirk had retained partial ownership of two Willie Nelson songs, the gospel standard “Family Bible,” and one of the most-covered country songs of all time, “Nite Life,” both of which brought in substantial royalties each year. A few years previous to his death, Buskirk had also given Huey his Bigsby mandolin, and what was left of the Harvey doubleneck.
Huey Wilkinson is one of those soft-spoken Texas gentlemen whose word is as good as gold. Once he likes you, he really likes you. Concerned with the legacy of his friend Paul Buskirk, Huey started the Paul Buskirk Music Scholarship Fund at a the Stephen F. Austin College of Fine Arts in Nacogdoches, and gave the school the rights to the Willie Nelson songs, which essentially would keep the scholarship fund going for the next 100 years. Before Buskirk died, Huey returned the Bigsby mandolin Paul had given him so that Buskirk could sell it and keep the money (it wound up in the Chinery collection, and is now part of a collection on the East Coast). The Harvey doubleneck, played no more, sat in Huey’s workshop. Every now and then, Huey would look at it and ponder restoration of the thing—then think better of it.
When I got Huey’s contact number, as luck would have it, it turned out that he knew me. A few years earlier, my group had stopped by Fuller’s Vintage Guitar in Houston, a store that Huey manages, and my bass player bought an Epiphone ES-295 copy from him. I didn’t remember much from our initial meeting, but then again, he didn’t mention at the time that he had Paul Buskirk’s Harvey guitar sitting at home, either.
I told Huey that I just wanted to see the guitar, even in the sad state it was in, and to get some photographs for an upcoming book. My band was driving in from Dallas to Houston to play a show that night, and Huey agreed to meet us in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel off Interstate 45.
As the hot Texas sun was going down, I took some photographs of the guitar. We both marveled at how wrecked the instrument was. After hearing what a great friend Paul Buskirk was to Huey, I didn’t want to sully the conversation by trying to get him to sell the guitar to me. I told Huey that if he ever decided to put the restoration in someone else’s hands, somewhere down the line, to let me know.
Huey’s response was: “Awww, load it in your van. Merry Christmas.”
I’m not sure exactly what Huey saw in me that made him want to give me the guitar. I sensed that passing on the guitar to me took care of his obligation to Paul Buskirk’s memory—he had done right by Paul on the Bigsby mandolin, set up the scholarship fund when Buskirk died, and waited for the right nutjob to come along for the Harvey doubleneck. That nutjob, apparently, was me.
Feeling as though I had been given the Stradivarius of California doublenecks, I was struck by the awesome responsibility of getting Paul Buskirk’s guitar back in its original condition. I contacted the best luthier I know, my friend Garrett Immel, about the job.
Garrett did an incredible restoration job on the guitar, painstakingly fixing 30 years of abuse and damage. Extra holes drilled in the body were filled in and concealed with hand-painted fake birdseyes that blended in with the rest of the birdseye maple. Unbelievably, Garrett put in more than 100 hours restoring the guitar. Additional help came from Steve Soest, who magically straightened the bowed necks, and pickup guru Don Mare, who supplied four 1950s style Strat pickups. When it was done, it was as if a time machine had gone back to the day it was completed and snatched it from Jim Harvey’s shop. The guitar was alive again. It was incredible.
With the Buskirk guitar restored, as far as I was concerned, there was really only one thing left to do—get all these instruments and all the original guys together in one place. Despite the fact that I had become good friends with Scotty Broyles, Rob Tuvell, and Howard Harvey, we had never all met as a group.
Each year on Easter weekend, I do a guitar showcase as part of the Viva Las Vegas rockabilly festival. This year, in addition to several young rockabilly hotshots, part of the program included a one-time performance by the “All-Harvey Band.”
The idea was to get all the known Jim Harvey instruments on stage at the same time, with two of the original owners playing their original instruments, and Howard Harvey playing one of his dad’s guitars. A set list was agreed upon, with a mix of standards like “Caravan” and “Sweet Sue,” and hillbilly classics like “Hey Good Lookin’” and “San Antonio Rose.” To augment the older guys and myself, I recruited my friends Joel Paterson, “Crazy” Joe Tritschler, and Sean Mencher to round out the band.
And so it was that nearly 60 years after Jim Harvey made these instruments, Scotty Broyles was up on stage playing his original 1952 mandolin, and Rob Tuvell was reunited with his original 1952 electric guitar. Howard Harvey played his father’s “Gambler’s Guitar” acoustic. Sean Mencher played the Gretsch-had-a-baby doubleneck (loaned with kind permission from Tom Sims and Tatiana Sizonenko at the Museum of Making Music), Joel Paterson played the “family” guitar, and “Crazy” Joe Tritschler and myself took turns on Paul Buskirk’s doubleneck, eventually both playing it at the same time for the grand finale.
We certainly weren’t the tightest band in the history of music, but that wasn’t the point. The crowd sensed the history and the heart of what they were witnessing. Half of Jim Harvey’s total instruments were on stage doing what they were made to do—get together to play music and have fun. The crowd gave the All-Harvey Band a standing ovation. We were all smiling. Somewhere I knew Jim Harvey was smiling too.
What had begun as a personal quest to acquire more guitars had turned into something completely different. In the end, getting to know these old navy men, experiencing the generosity of people like Huey Wilkinson, and getting to know Jim Harvey through photographs and stories meant a lot more to me than owning guitars. Seventeen years after I saw my first Harvey guitar, I eventually wound up with two Jim Harvey guitars in my possession, which are objects that I certainly treasure. The guitars, however, were really just the vessels that led me through one of my life’s journeys, to meet some amazing people united by a common love of music and joy. Ain’t that what it’s all about?
Author’s note: If anyone knows the current whereabouts of any other Jim Harvey instruments, we’d love to know about them.
(Special thanks to Howard and Flower Harvey, Derek Harvey, Walter Harvey Jr., Barbara Harvey, Rob and Marilyn Tuvell, Scotty and Betty Broyles, Tom Sims, Tatiana Sizonenko, Dave Westerbeke, Jay Rosen, Andrew Brown, Huey Wilkinson, Garrett Immel, Steve Soest, Don Mare, Dan Del Fiorentino . . . and Jim Harvey.)