I was first introduced to Lenny Breau’s playing about eight or nine years ago. My guitar-playing buddy Richard Somerville said “Hey man, you really should check out this cat, Lenny Breau. You would really dig him.” Richard loaned me “The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau.” I was blown away, to say the least. This guy was playing everything, literally everything there was to play on the guitar. Jazz, swing, country, Indian-inspired raga, flamenco, classical playing that would make Segovia smile. And the music sounded so good, not forced considering all of the styles that he played. It was smooth and personal and intimate music. And when it wanted to, it swung its ass off. I was hooked. I love finding new guitar players to check out. Lenny was my new guy. His music was hard to find though. I was on a journey.
I spent the next few years occasionally looking for Breau records. Nowhere to be found in the used record shops. I finally got a hold of the 1968 album “Guitar Sounds of Lenny Breau” – the first Breau major label record (RCA), “The Velvet Touch” from 1969 being the follow-up (on a side note: guitar legend Chet Atkins, an early influence on Breau, is the one who brought Lenny to RCA and supervised the making of these two albums. Chet became Lenny’s lifelong friend, mentor, and champion). “Guitar Sounds” had some great covers on it: Ray Charles, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elizabeth Cotton (“Freight Train” – yes! Watch this!), Hank Williams, but only one original “Taranta.” “Velvet Touch” allows for more originals, and they are all good and. From these two records it was so clear to me that Lenny Breau was an artist, a master musician who could interpret other composer’s material as well as compose his own. But after these two records there was nothing. Nothing really for more than ten years, and even then those late Breau recordings, though they show some absolute brilliance, they can be uneven and thus never wholly live up to his promise. Why? What happened?
The story of Lenny Breau is another one of those tragic artist stories – greatness silenced by the perils of addiction. In 2006, a new biography about Lenny Breau was published: “One Long Tune: The Life and Music of Lenny Breau” by Ron Forbes-Roberts (Univ. N. Texas Press). I took this book out of my library and tore through it. Lenny was a fascinating guy, troubled, talented, and a total mess. Reading between the lines, the guy was messed up, emotionally stunted by a showbiz childhood – his parents were country music performers (from Maine [!] and then Canada) and their son Lenny was a child prodigy. Breau’s story reminds me, in a way, of Bix Beiderbecke’s: a super-talented artist pushing himself to achieve virtuosity just to show his parents (in Breau’s case it was his father) that he had made something of himself, had achieved greatness with his music, only to be completely crushed by the parents not acknowledging those achievements and talents. Bix drank to push those feelings away. Lenny drank and did every drug he could get his hands on. Lenny was a good-looking guy when he was young; he was, by all accounts, a really nice guy who was obsessed with guitar and music.
A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a used copy of “The Hallmark Sessions” – a series of recordings, only first released in 2003, that Breau made in Canada with two friends – Rick Danko and Levon Helm (remember them from a little band called The Band! – did you know that those two could swing like that? I didn’t). Lenny Breau was only 20 (!!!) when he made these recordings back in 1961. Good Gravy! That’s just too much guitar for a kid that age to be playing. The crazy thing is, you can hear everything that he was to become. Sure there are moments of youthful over-playing, but there are also moments of shocking tenderness and maturity of phrase and touch. What a joy to hear these recordings. At a tender age, Lenny Breau was already an original and a true virtuoso. You can hear where he came from and where he was going. You can hear the love of jazz, the country music that is a part of his DNA, the interest in flamenco and classical forms, and you can hear how he was really stretching into the artist that he would become and maybe the true-to-himself artist he should have been – he might have been the greatest guitar player ever.
Lenny Breau died face down in a Los Angeles apartment building swimming pool. He was only 43. Signs point to his deranged wife as being his murderer but the case was never solved. If you are unfamiliar with the Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau, do yourself a favor and check out his music – it really is transcendent. And if you enjoy interesting biographies, specifically musician biographies, “One Long Tune” is an excellent read.
Check this out – YouTube scores again! Watching this film (made by Lenny’s daughter – an effort to make some sense of her father’s tragic life) again left me feeling truly sad but also grateful, inspired, and touched. Lenny really made an impact. He was a genius. And his music absolutely endures.
Part One: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLD-BVVYDV4
Part Two: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rV98gcW7X1I
Part Three: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ya0Ax5-1VSI
Part Four: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8sT6rDPx1c
Part Five: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDyus44m1F4
Part Six: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLqBn7RGz3c
Part Seven: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYa5TlFJgTY
There’s more YouTube Lenny Breau out there. Check it out!