One of the most sought-after backup musicians of the 1960s, Drake played on such hits as Lynn Anderson's "Rose Garden", Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors"' Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay"' and Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man". (Drake's work on this last tune is debatable, in that some sources[which?] claim Sonny Curtis to be the steel guitar player on that record. However, most of the evidence[which?] points to Drake being the steel player on Wynette's huge hit.)
Drake was born in Augusta, Georgia, the son of a Pentecostal preacher, in 1932. In 1950, he drove to Nashville, heard Jerry Byrd on the Grand Ole Opry, and was inspired to buy a steel guitar. He organized a band, Sons of the South, in Atlanta in the 1950s, which included future country stars like Jerry Reed, Doug Kershaw, Roger Miller, Jack Greene, and Joe South.
In 1959 he moved to Nashville and went on the road as a backup musician for Don Gibson, Marty Robbins and others. In 1964 he had an international hit on Smash Records with his "talking steel guitar" playing on the album Forever. The resultant single, "Forever," reached #22 in the Billboard Hot 100, eventually sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. His innovative use of what would be called the talk box, later used by Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh, Roger Troutman and Jeff Beck, added novel effects to the pedal steel guitar. The album Pete Drake and His Talking Steel Guitar, harkened back to the sounds of Alvino Rey and his wife Luise King, who first modulated a guitar tone with the signal from a throat microphone in 1939. The unique sound of the talk box with a steel guitar was new in the 1960s, and it made the sounds of vocalizing along with the strings of the steel guitar. According to an interview of Drake:
- "You play the notes on the guitar and it goes through the amplifier. I have a driver system so that you disconnect the speakers and the sound goes through the driver into a plastic tube. You put the tube in the side of your mouth then form the words with your mouth as you play them. You don't actually say a word: The guitar is your vocal cords, and your mouth is the amplifier. It's amplified by a microphone."
Drake played on Bob Dylan's three Nashville-recorded albums, including Nashville Skyline, and on Joan Baez's David's Album. He also worked with George Harrison on All Things Must Pass, and produced Ringo Starron Beaucoups of Blues in 1970.
Drake produced albums for many other musicians, and founded Stop Records and First Generation Records. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame's Walkway of Stars in 1970 and the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1987 and into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2010.
Developing emphysema after 40 years of smoking, Drake's health started declining in 1985. The Drakes built a recording studio in their home in Brentwood, Tennessee, where he continued to work every day until he lost his long battle on July 29, 1988, at the age of 55. He is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville with an inscription that reads "His Courage, His Smile, His Talent and His Love, Warms Our Hearts" and "For Pete's Sake."