Lenny Breau Remembered

copyright 1996 by Monte Nordstrom
from issue # 32 - Cosmic Debris Musicians Magazine - Aug '96

Monte Nordstrom & Lenny Breau The first time I remember seeing Lenny was while watching CBC's TV programme "Music Hop" back in the late 60s. "Music Hop" was on every day at suppertime & each day of the week it was hosted by a different city. Host towns included Halifax, Toronto, Winnipeg & Vancouver. Many groups got otherwise unattainable National exposure from this excellent series. More on "Music Hop" (& "Let's Go!") another time.

Lenny was a regular member of the Winnipeg CBC studio orchestra & I first noticed him hunched over his huge Baldwin semi-acoustic guitar, sporting a Fu Manchu & a beatific expression. His superb two-handed style was easily appreciated even in a large ensemble. I later learned where the beatific expression came from.

Lenny himself came from Auburn, Maine, the son of a successful C&W duo known as Hal "Lone Pine" Breau & Betty Cote. Hal & Betty were RCA recording artists that had been produced by Chet Atkins. They relocated to Winnipeg when Lenny was a pre-teen, just learning the Atkins/Travis style from records. Lenny reminisced of playing dates billed as "Lone Pine Jr.", performing at drive-ins & country fairs while as young as eleven. His country roots ran deep but he soon discovered jazz & classical, adapting them to his style.

After scoring his CBC gig, Lenny was noticed by a touring Grand Ole Opry show. The Opry musicians had come to visit Hal & Betty but returned to Nashville singing praises of the young guitarist's abilities to Chet Atkins. The ball was rolling.

It wasn't long before "Guitar Sounds From Lenny Breau" came out on RCA, produced by Chet Atkins & Danny Davis. Lenny's guitar & understated vocals were supported by Reg Kelln & Ron Halldorson on drums & bass. With extensive & glowing liner notes lauding his talent, Lenny was on his way. Having Chet Atkins endorse Lenny as his "favorite guitarist" was a gold-plated invitation to the big-league! His fluid improvisational chops astounded audiences on the club circuit.

A second RCA came out entitled, "The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau, Live!" recorded at "Shelley's Mannehole" in Hollywood. Lenny once again used the rhythm section of Kelln & Halldorson. Lenny's performance on this recording was a highwater mark in his career and established his credibility with the upper echelon of Jazz & guitar players in general. He had achieved "Legend" status, but he had a drug problem developing.

In February of 1972, I was in Ottawa on an extended coffeehouse "tour" with Glen Dias. We were performing as the duo, "Ptarmigan" and auditioned at the prestigious "Le Hibou" for club owner John Russo. He liked our weird west coast sound and said he'd give us an opening spot but wanted to find an appropriate artist.

I remember John saying to me, "There's a guy coming in a couple weeks that your style might fit with, but he's pretty intimidating for a guitarist. How about Lenny Breau...?" My jaw dropped and I'm sure I stuttered when I gave my affirmative reaction. What an opportunity!

We opened for Lenny doing two shows a night for six nights. I hung around Lenny like a magnet, watching his hands and picking his brain. He gave me a couple of patterns, picking styles, one really big chord, and showed me his unique right hand harmonic technique.

Watching Lenny perform his 3-way style with 3rd & 4th fingers doing hammer stroke melody lines, his 2nd finger comping stacked 4th chords & his 1st finger & thumb doing a walking bass line or long pedal tones was truly a mind-splitter. And that was just his left hand!

He had great facility with his right hand, touching the guitar in whatever way necessary to achieve the sound he desired. His thumb & first finger picked the bass lines, middle fingers struck the chords and his pinky played the melody. He developed this 2-handed technique by emulating the jazz piano style of Bill Evans and applying it to Flamenco, Jazz, Blues & Country. His lush expanded chords and deft arpeggiating modal patterns were an aural expressionistic epiphany, a kind of soft Be-bop.

Not to mention that he was a real sweet guy. His limited vocal ability was offset by his delivery. He explained that he used his voice like a horn, thinking like Miles Davis. His lyric interpretation was humourous & genuine. Lenny had a stammering problem. As the week went along I noticed he had a hard time saying the title to the song "Why Did I Choose You", getting hung up on the "Ch" sound. One night after 3 failed attempts to announce the tune he sighed and said simply, "This song is called, Why Did I".

Another night after a "late one" previous, Lenny appeared on stage with dark glasses and a gaudy new shirt with the price tag sticking out. He explained to the audience, "I was up kind of late and I didn't want to scare the front rows with my red eyeballs."

When Lenny was held over for a second week due to Doug Kershaw's failure to appear, John Russo told Glen & I some disappointing news. Due to Kershaw's ticket refunds "Le Hibou" couldn't afford to pay us to open. Lenny said in his soft spoken way, "That's OK man, I'll pay them myself." Due to his generosity I had another week to enjoy the most amazing guitarist I've ever seen.

At the end of the first week I had my 18th birthday. The club gave me a birthday cake with little plastic charioteers on it and Lenny gave me a carton of Export A. We went to a dinner at Lenny's friends, Marge & Joy's apartment and ended up partying all through the weekend. At one point Lenny & I jammed. He was on Deepak Sahasrabutti's sitar & I was on my 12-string. As I recall it was a rather murky excursion. We ended up back at our friend Rose's pad at the "Pestalozzi".

The "Pest" was Ottawa's version of "Rochdale". It was a vertical commune full of college students, hippies, draft dodgers and drug dealers with its own security guards at the door. Lenny knew his way around and the parasitic dope dealers would always find him. At this time he was off his heroin habit but was sublimating his crave for a high with whatever smoke & chemicals he could find. If only he'd been able to end the cycle...

In any case, the two weeks I was able to spend with Lenny are among the most memorable and influential to me as a person and as an artist. I will always hold those days close to my heart. Sadly, I never saw him again.

Lenny's unfortunate predeliction for drug use marred the forward motion of his career and he stalled. Doomed never to crack the commercial market, Lenny continued to amaze & delight audiences with his superlative talents in spite of the proverbial monkey on his back. On occassion the monkey would win and Lenny would turn in a fuzzy performance or fail to appear. This nagging problem dogged him for the rest of his career. He managed to record some wonderful albums in between the bouts of his addiction but never again worked for a major label.

I was living in Banff when I heard of Lenny's death in L.A. It was August of 1984. He had been strangled and left in a swimming pool. Apparently his murderer is known but there is no proof for conviction. We were robbed of a true natural guitar genius. His music lives on in his recordings, most of which are listed here.

Label info & serial #'s pertain to vinyl.
"Guitar Sounds From Lenny Breau" RCA Victor-LSP-4076
"The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau, Live!" (CD now available) RCA Victor LSP-4199
There are 4 fine albums put out by the Adelphi Jazz Line, 3 of which are solo. "Five O'Clock Bells" Posterity - PTL 7002
"Mo' Breau" Adelphi - AD5012
"The Lenny Breau Trio" Adelphi - AD5018
"Last Sessions" Adelphi - AD 5024 (possibly available on CD: Adelphi Records, Box 7688, Silver Springs, MD. 20907)
"Minors Aloud" Buddy Emmons & Lenny Breau Flying Fish/Stony Plain SPFF 1019
(I got this most excellent album from Holger Peterson when I lived in Edmonton. It is a must-have collection of Emmons' jazzy steel guitar & Breau backed by a hot piano trio) Stony Plain, Box 861,Edmonton, Alta T5J 2L8
"Legacy" Lenny Breau with Dave Young (String Bass) Relaxed Rabbit - RR 427. This 1983 live album is duplicated & surpassed by the more complete: "Live at Bourbon St." Lenny Breau with Dave Young. Guitarchives-GTR-0001. This double Cd is available on Randy Bachman's label: Guitarchives: Bx 36055, 10991 #1 Rd. Richmond, B.C. V7E 3E6

Note: Monte Nordstrom has produced over 75 demos and has recorded 8 albums to date (Nov '99). He performs regularly at numerous venues on Canada's West Coast.
Email Monte at: nordstro@islandnet.com

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