Dunn, Robert Lee [Bob] (1908–1971)

By: Juan Carlos Rodríguez

Type: Biography

Published: November 21, 2006

Updated: October 16, 2020

Robert Lee (Bob) Dunn, western swing musician and the first electric steel guitarist to use his instrument for jazz, was born in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, on February 5, 1908. With musical encouragement from his fiddler father, Dunn gained an interest in Hawaiian music at an early age and developed his skills on the steel guitar in his teens. In 1927 he began touring with the Panhandle Cowboys and Indians touring unit. Influenced by the extemporaneous lines played by Texas trombonist Jack Teagarden, he incorporated this style into his Hawaiian music, creating a brassy sound with his steel guitar as the lead instrument.

In 1934, after playing in a number of jazz and blues bands, Dunn arrived in Fort Worth. There he met Milton Brown, who invited him to a studio jam. Dunn made a great impression on Brown and immediately became a member of Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies. In 1935 the band became the first to use an electric guitar to record a country-rooted song, entitled "Taking Off." Dunn fell in love with western swing music. His amplified steel guitar was featured on several recordings. He played and recorded more than ninety tunes with the Brownies before Brown's death in 1936.

After playing and recording with Roy Newman a year, Dunn got together with ex-Brownie Cliff Bruner and his Musical Wanderers. He cut several tunes, including "It Makes No Difference Now" and "I'll Keep on Loving You." In 1938 he formed his own band, the Vagabonds, and recorded for Decca Records. After serving in the United States Navy during World War II, he played in a number of bands in the late 1940s. In 1950 he retired from performing and opened his own music store in Houston, where he also taught music. He operated the store for more than twenty years, until his death from lung cancer on May 27, 1971. Dunn influenced generations of steel guitar players. In 1992 he was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame and the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame. In late 2010 the Origin Jazz Library label released a comprehensive 2-CD set of remastered recordings of Dunn's work, titled Bob Dunn: Master of the Electric Steel Guitar 1935-1950.

Paul Kingsbury, ed., The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). Rick Koster, Texas Music (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Juan Carlos Rodríguez, “Dunn, Robert Lee [Bob],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 19, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/dunn-robert-lee-bob.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 21, 2006
October 16, 2020

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