Flint teacher propelled steel players’ careers from Detroit to Nashville

Steel guitar players from Michigan owe a debt to Russell B. Waters, instructor at the Flint Honolulu Conservatory of Music and Dance during 1930s to 1950s.

Fifty-two years ago, a Flint musician who served as a guiding light to countless students – as bright as a Lake Michigan lighthouse beacon – passed away at his home, aged 50 years. Steel guitar players from Michigan owe a historical debt to the masterful teachings doled out by Russell B. Waters at the Flint Honolulu Conservatory of Music and Dance during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Players well-known in steel guitar circles, such as Chuck Rich, Terry Bethel, Chuck Adams, Jim Baker, and Chuck Hatfield, all took instruction from Waters before starting careers that led to greater recognition.

The Honolulu Ambassadors. Flint, Michigan. Photo: Craig Maki, courtesy Jim and Sudie Baker

The Honolulu Ambassadors of Flint, Michigan. Russ Waters is seated, second from left. Photo: Craig Maki, courtesy Jim and Sudie Baker

Born 1911 in Terre Haute, Indiana, Waters moved to Flint, Michigan, around 1927. [1] In 1934, he began teaching at the original Honolulu Conservatory (begun in 1926 in Flint, Honolulu Conservatory franchises appeared all over the United States through the 1970s). Proficient in several string instruments, Waters played with the Honolulu Ambassadors, specializing in Hawaiian music, in nightclubs and probably on radio. By the late 1940s, Waters hosted his students on WTAC radio Flint.

Chuck Rich said, “Russ Waters … had a radio show at noon on WTAC in Flint. … Russ would have his students on there. It’d be Terry [Bethel] and me, and Chuck Adams and Jim Baker, and we’d play the theme song. Then we’d all gather around [and play].” The boys played instrumental music, trading steel guitars for standard guitars and string basses with each tune, during the program. “It was just a big jam session all day long, after the radio [show]. And then there’d be things through the week … It was a good learning process,” he said. [2]

Russ Waters at WTAC Flint radio

Russ Waters hosted a mid-day radio program at WTAC Flint. Photo: Keith Cady, courtesy Chuck Rich

Terry Bethel clarified the group of teen-aged and pre-teen students played Moose lodges and other social halls, as well as supermarket openings, corporate functions, and at car dealerships in the Flint region. [3]

Jim Baker remembered Waters as a kind and patient man who gave much of himself to help his students succeed. His wife Sudie offered, “Russ Waters once said, ‘If I never did anything else in my life, at least I turned out a good bunch of steel guitarists.'” [4]

"Rickitick" by Smiling Max Henderson. Serenade Records 900

During the late 1940s and 1950s, Waters played steel guitar in “Smiling” Max Henderson‘s group. Henderson emceed TV and radio in Detroit and Flint, and wrote a column for the C&W magazine Rustic Rhythm. Waters can be heard playing tasteful licks on Henderson’s early 1950s recordings for Serenade Records.

Around 1955, Waters purchased the Honolulu Conservatory and continued teaching. When he left behind family and friends on January 16, 1962, Waters had taught music in Flint for 27 years.


Russ Waters’ former students Jim Baker, Chuck Rich, and Terry Bethel all played in Casey Clark’s Lazy Ranch Boys in Detroit. You can read about it in the book, “Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies.” On Tuesday, March 4, 2014, Craig Maki and Keith Cady will present an overview of 20th century country music in Detroit, as well as an in-depth examination of the history and personnel of the Lazy Ranch Boys, at the Livonia Public Library Civic Center Branch. See you there!

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Notes

  1. Russell B. Waters obituary, January 1962. Source: Newspaper clipping courtesy Jim Baker
  2. Chuck Rich interviewed by Keith Cady in 2002.
  3. Terry Bethel interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
  4. Jim and Sudie Baker interviewed by Keith Cady and Craig Maki in 2007.

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Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies book cover

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