She called herself rock's first side chick. Why this Arizona guitarist was so much more

Ed Masley
Arizona Republic

Corki Casey O'Dell liked to think of herself as "the very first rock 'n' roll side chick."

It's a term of affection the session guitarist was given by Duane Eddy, who was called upon to give a speech at her induction to the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2014.

The two old friends had shown up to the ceremony dressed in black, their sense of style intact, if undeniably grayer, some 50-odd years down the road from the recording dates in Phoenix that had brought them to that stage.

O'Dell was featured on a string of seminal recordings produced by Lee Hazlewood, not the least of which was Eddy's breakthrough single, "Rebel Rouser," a wildly influential 1958 release that peaked at No. 6 and paved the way for Eddy's own induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

At that point, O'Dell had already taken part in the recording of the first big rock 'n' roll song out of Phoenix, Sanford Clark's recording of "The Fool," which Hazlewood wrote. It was a No. 7 rockabilly hit in 1956.

Joe Chambers, who founded the Musicians Hall of Fame, told The Tennessean at the time of her induction, “She stood her place with all the guys. She was not looked at as a female player. She was looked at as a player, period.”  

That legacy lives on in both the recordings she made and the path she forged in the early days of rock 'n' roll. But how she got there? That's her story.

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The road to 'Rebel Rouser'

The guitarist was born Vivian J. “Corki” Ray in Oklahoma, but her family moved to Arizona when she was a child. The surnames "Casey" and "O'Dell" came from marriages to fellow musicians. She got to know the gang who worked with Hazlewood at Audio Recorders through her regular appearances at Madison Square Garden, a downtown Phoenix music venue where Ray Odom hosted concerts.

O'Dell recalled those days in a 2008 interview with the Musicians Hall of Fame. It was the first she'd ever done. 

"When I was, oh, probably a senior in high school, I watched television with Marty Robbins. And it was Mr. Ray Odom, who had a television station that had this group of men on it that I loved, the Sunset Riders."

When she found out they were playing Madison Square Garden, she showed up at the hall and introduced herself. This would most likely have been 1954, the year she turned 18.

"I thought well, I’m gonna go over and just see what that’s about," she recalled in 2008. "And I’m gonna hire them to play one of our school dances. And I did. They didn’t think I could do that but I did. I hired them."

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Corki and the Sunset Riders

O'Dell would show up every week to see Sunset Riders play. As Eddy came to understand it, she came one night to sing a song and planned to just accompany herself on guitar, but Sunset Riders knew the song so they joined in. 

Corki Casey O'Dell

Jimmy Spellman, one of several Phoenix-based recording artists whose records featured O'Dell on guitar, recalls seeing her performing with the Sunset Riders at the Garden.

"Many times she would fill in on rhythm guitar," he says. "And she would step up to the mic once in a while to do a song or two. She was great. She stepped in and did whatever was necessary to make the show complete. She had a great personality, wonderful smile."

Corki Casey circa 1959 performing live in Phoenix with Buddy Wheeler of the Rebels on bass and Dick Wilson on guitar.

O'Dell also performed on "The Hillbilly Hit Parade," Odom's TV show on Channel 3, often playing Madison Square Garden with the Sunset Riders that same night.

Al Casey was a full-fledged member of the Sunset Riders at the time. That's how the couple met.

"He was a fine musician," O'Dell recalled in that first interview.

"He was on steel at the time. So of course, I said, ‘Well there’s a guy I’m interested in.'

As Eddy recalls it, "The next thing you know, they were married, having kids."

O'Dell appears on Sanford Clark's 'The Fool'

It wasn't long after marrying Casey that she started joining him on sessions, including the 1956 recording of "The Fool."

Jay McDowell, a curator at the Musicians Hall of Fame, recalls a conversation with O'Dell about her role in that recording. 

"She said Duane was there just hanging in the studio," McDowell says. "He wasn't playing on it. He was just there. Of course at this time nobody had heard of Duane Eddy. And that was the first breakout hit that got any chart action for Lee Hazlewood."

Corki Casey circa 1959 performing live in Phoenix with Buddy Wheeler of the Rebels on bass and Dick Wilson on guitar.

The Duane Eddy years

It was Hazlewood who invited her to record in the sessions with Eddy, approaching her at Madison Square Garden.

As she recalled in 2008, "Lee came over and said, ‘Corki, I’m gonna take this young man, Duane Eddy, into the studio, and I’d like for you to play rhythm guitar.' So we did. And I of course, I was really into my guitar. I was pretty good for what I was doing."

She was the only woman on the session.

"I sat with Lee Hazlewood in the studio and him throwing things and cussing and everything else," she recalled with a laugh in 2008. "Like we do. We didn’t know we were making history."

Eddy had seen her play at Madison Square Garden. But he hadn't really given it much thought until her husband, guitarist Al Casey, suggested that he bring her to the studio. 

Corki Casey O'Dell and Duane Eddy

"Al pointed out that she played good rhythm," Eddy says. "Which she did. I hadn't paid any attention to it, but I noticed one day she was really driving the puddin' out of it."

Eddy recalls the day Al Casey brought it up to Hazlewood.

"He said, 'You know, Corki plays guitar,' and Lee figured it out first," Eddy says. "He said, 'Oh, you want that double income for the sessions.'"

Eddy laughs. "Al said, 'Yeah.' So we hired her. And then she did the job fine. So we kept hiring her. She played on my records from then on, up until I moved to LA and signed with RCA in 1962."

The thought that Hazlewood occasionally threw her on a session just to keep the family working was not lost on O'Dell, who mentioned it to McDowell at the Musicians Hall of Fame years later.

"She said there were definitely sessions where she felt like Al could have handled all the guitar and she wasn't necessary," McDowell recalls. "She felt like Lee was giving her the job to give them another income at the time when they had small children."

Corki Casey O'Dell

Those small children were why O'Dell stayed behind when Eddy and the Rebels hit the road, along with her husband, as their career was taking off.

But O'Dell continued her studio work in Arizona with Eddy and other artists at Floyd Ramsey's Audio Recorders through the early '60s, securing her place in music history as a pioneering force for women in the boys club of the rock 'n' roll recording studio. 

And as soon as each session was over, as Eddy recalls, "She would always be out of there like a shot to get home to her kids because she had a babysitter."

Flagpole Rock on E. Van Buren Street

O'Dell was also involved in a bizarre yet legendary piece of local music history in 1959 when she joined Casey in recording "Long John's Flagpole Rock" by Lonesome Long John Roller in a car perched high atop a flagpole on E. Van Buren and First streets.

Corki and Al Casey cutting "Long John's Flagpole Rock" with DJ Lonesome Long John Roller on a flagpole 40 feet above Read Mullan's Used Cars on Van Buren Street in Phoenix.

The KHAT DJ spent more than 200 days in a Ford Fairlane convertible 40 feet in the air above Read Mullan's used car lot to break the world's flagpole-sitting record, winning a car in the process.

O'Dell and Casey joined him on the flagpole to record two songs, overdubbing bass and drums in the studio after the fact. 

"They got her and Al Casey up this flagpole in this car," McDowell says. "I remember her talking about, you know, 'How many people got to make a recording in a car on top of a flagpole?"

Corki Casey O'Dell in the '60s

O'Dell's musical journey continued after Eddy left for RCA.

She recorded a solo single, 1963's "Whirlwind" backed with "Once It Was Mine," as Corki Ray. That same year, she and Eddy's first wife, Carol Roberts, had a doo-wop-flavored girl-group single out as Sugar & the Spices, the contagious "Bye Bye Baby."

She and Roberts also recorded an album with Casey as the Raintree County Singers, which Dixon describes as "kind of a loungey folk group," and she's featured on several Al Casey Combo releases. 

Corki Casey with Al Casey and Carol Roberts in a promo photo for the Raintree County Singers.

In 1965, Al Casey moved to LA, where he soon fell in with legendary session group the Wrecking Crew, playing on classic recordings by the Beach Boys, Phil Spector, Elvis Presley, Glen Campbell, the Monkees, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra and more.

No one seems to know exactly when the Caseys got divorced, but Corki briefly lived in Las Vegas before moving to Tennessee in 1969 with Kenny O'Dell, her second husband. Kenny O'Dell's hits included Charlie Rich's iconic “Behind Closed Doors” and the Judds' first country No. 1, “Mama He’s Crazy.”

At the time of her death in 2017, she'd been living outside Nashville, in a town called Nolensville, since 1969. There, she focused primarily on raising her three children from her marriage to Al Casey while Kenny O'Dell, who died just 10 months after she did of what Eddy calls "a broken heart," focused on his songwriting career.

Eddy says the O'Dells were a cherished part of Nashville culture.

"They just had a big time here," he says. "They were well-known and loved because they went to the functions downtown and Corki was somewhat of a character. So positive and happy all the time. It just cheered people up to be around her."

Duane Eddy and Corki Casey-O'Dell perform during a concert after being inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum at the Municipal Auditorium on Tuesday Jan. 28, 2014 in Nashville, Tenn.

They threw great Nashville parties every Christmas, Eddy says, with "people in the business, artists, singers, producers, writers, the whole nine yards."

Both of them, he says, were "just extremely well loved."

And it showed when O'Dell's life was honored at the hall of fame induction. 

She and Eddy reunited at the ceremony, playing "Rebel Rouser" together for the first time in several decades.

"We put Corki right in the middle of the stage," Eddy says. "And I realized damn, this is one of the reasons those records feel so good. Because of her rhythm. She was down in the mix. But the feel was there and she just drove the stuffing out of it."

"She was an adorable old lady by then, but she could still crank it up."

McDowell says he remembers O'Dell being really nervous about playing at the ceremony, having gone years without facing a crowd — or even playing, really.

"This was a big arena crowd," he says. "But she was great. Duane knew she would fall right back in and be fine. And she was."

That night, she got a standing ovation.

A few weeks after her induction, Casey sent McDowell a plaque to let him know how much it meant to her.

"It said 'Thanks for my Cinderella night,'" he says. "I still have that. It's a prized possession."

'Casey was a pioneer for women in rock 'n' roll'

Although she'd been living in Nashville for decades by then, it's the music she made here in Phoenix that earned the guitarist a spot in the Musicians Hall of Fame. 

Corki Casey O'Dell

Local music historian John Dixon says, "She was a very talented lady who played on the greatest hits ever recorded in Phoenix. She was the first female to play on a hit record, 'The Fool,' and then she played on all Duane Eddy's million-selling records between '58 and '60."

Jeff Freundlich of Fervor Records, a Phoenix label that specializes in placing archival recordings in films and TV shows, says, "Casey was a pioneer for women in rock 'n' roll, playing on hit records at a time when the industry was completely dominated by men. To me, one of the best parts of that story is that it didn't happen in New York City. It didn't happen in Los Angeles. It didn't happen in Nashville. It happened right here in Phoenix."

O'Dell talked to McDowell about life as the only woman in a 1958 recording studio.

"She talked about having to be one of the boys," he says. "She had to give it back to them just as they gave it. Had to put up with the dirty jokes. She had to roll with it. But I also remember her saying that it wasn't a real struggle."

When she spoke in 2008, O'Dell said of being the only woman in the room, "It wasn’t awkward at all. I felt very comfortable, because I knew ‘em all. We worked around the clubs and the joints and all. And we really didn’t know what we were doing. I mean, it was so new. The history of learning to record."

In that same interview, O'Dell looked back with pride on both her pioneering role and the women who followed in her wake.

"Of course, now we have lots of great ladies playing their guitars," she said. "So they made it. They got it. That’s great. I love seeing that."

Reach the reporter at or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.