The Immortal Lenny Breau

By Brawner Smoot

(From Guitar World Magazine-September, 1986)

The late Lenny Breau was an uncrowned king of jazz fingerstyle guitar. A relatively unknown voice on the instrument, he startled newcomers to his music by his ability to comp chords behind himself sounding like two guitarists, ring out lengthy bell-like harmonic passages, tastefully blend his influences of country, jazz and flamenco and fluidly improvise in this sryle. On August 12, 1984, he was found dead in a Los Angeles swimming pool. An autopsy revealed that he had been strangled in an unsolved murder that shocked those that knew this gentle, warm man. His friend and musical mentor Chet Atkins laments, "Lenny was one of the great little individuals and characters that's ever been in this world. Everybody loved him so much. Except the person who strangled him. I guess." Sadly, after a career of ups and mostly downs, Breau was just gaining greatly deserved respect and recognition, at least among guitar players. He leaves behind a representative but not easily found sampling of his music that is worth the search.

Leonard Breau was born in Auburn, Maine, on August 5, 1941, to Harold J. and Betty Breau, better known as country singers "Lone Pine and Betty Cody." His parents worked a c&w circuit that took the youngster from Maine to West Virginia and eventually to Canada (his parents' music is currently available on two German imports, Castle LP-8215, Hal Lone Pine And His Mountaineers and Castle LP 73, Betty Cody's Country Souvenir Album). Lenny grew up surrounded by guitars and by age eight he had graduated from toy Gene Autry and Roy Rogers Sears' guitars to a Gibson flattop. As an eleven-year-old he heard Chet Atkins on the radio and promptly abandoned his flatpick to embrare the thumbpick-fingerstyle Atkins approach that would serve as the foundation for the Lenny Breau sound. A year later he was so adept at his instrument that he became lead guitarist in his parents' band, billed as ''Lone Pine Junior, Guitar Wizard.'' In 1957, his family settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Breau began to hear jazz guitarists like Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow and started to experiment in this genre. He told me in 1980, "I wanted to play jazz. l'd be playing a square dance with my father's band and I'd be playing Tal Farlow runs in the middle of it and he'd turn around and say, 'What are you doing!' l'm supposed to be playing 'Little Brown Jug,' but I'm playing bebop licks and the people were just square dancing. I just had to try it out."

Breau was married and playing jazz gigs, first on bass and then guitar, by age eighteen. At twenty, he migrated to Toronto and banded with bassist Ian Henstridge and vocalist Don Francks to form "three." In 1962, the twenty-one year-old Breau and "three" first appeared on vinyl on Jackie Gleason Says ''No One In This World Is Like Don Francks'' (Kapp KRL-4501, out of print) recorded live at the Village Vanguard in New York. Although the Breau style is far from maturity, it's intriguing to hear how comfortably he has assimilated his influences at this early stage of his development. Breau returned to Winnipeg after "three" disbanded to pursue jazz while working by day in the tv studios while his playing and local reputation grew. In 1967, his music arrived in Nashville via tape. Atkins explained to me, "[Guitarist] Paul Yandell brought a tape by to me....He heard Lenny up in Edmonton or Toronto....and it was the freshest, most exciting thing I had heard in years....So I said. 'Who is this guy,' and he kept telling me, 'Lenny Breau,' and then I happened to remember I used to work with his mother and daddy. We did a tour once with Hal Pine and Betty Cody and their last name was Breau. But they used to tell me about their son, Lenny, who was eleven years old and could play so great. This was about 1953...I was highly impressed. I'd never heard such great technique in so many different areas of music. You know, he played great flamenco guitar also in those days and then he played electric and he had taken the harmonics that I had kind of developed, he had taken them so much further than I ever had and was doing things that I never dreamed of. It was one of the greatest days of my life, the first day I heard Lenny."

The result of these sessions, Guitar Sounds From Lenny Breau (RCA LSP-4076, out of print), was released in 1968 and is a breathtaking debut album, picturing Breau on the cover playing the 1965 Baldwin electric guitar he was then endorsing. In 1980, Breau recalled the album's concept to me, ''Just before I got into my jazz style, I had been studying flamenco off Sabicas' records. So I really dug doing that and I dug playing the Chet Atkins stuff. So the first record kind of shows all the different things I did."

Breau was also featured on Soft And Groovy- The Jimmy Dale Adventure (Capitol SN6290), out of print) in 1968. This album with Dale, a Canadian arranger and pianist (currently with Rob McConnell's Boss Brass), spotlights Breau on "Music To Watch Girls By," a delightful alternate version to the one on Guitar Sounds. He also accompanies Canadian guitarist Sonny Greenwich on ''The Look Of Love'' and takes solos on a couple of tunes with Greenwich and Ed Bickert, another picker from Canada.

In 1969, RCA released The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau-Live! (originally RCA LSP-4199), it is currently available in Canada as RCA KYLI-0462). Recorded live at Shelly's Manne-Hole in Hollywood, Breau is again featured in a variety of musical settings. The album opens with his soft spoken introduction to the band's tuning up, a mundane necessity that he turns into a beautiful moment, ringing out lush harmonic passages over Halldorson's bass notes in a quiet club. The trio (same personnel as Guitar Sounds) kicks into a roaring "There is No Greater Love," displaying Breau's ferocious electric bop artillery. The album presents him on acoustic solo guitar, electric 12-string (doing an Indian flavored tribute to sitar genius Ravi Shankar), and even singing a Merle Travis country tune in his own lovable fashion. The cover catches Lenny live executing a harmonic passage so the curious can check our his hand position. And another fan, jazz guitarist Johnny Smith, penned the liner notes. Find this record!

Unfortunately, neither RCA album was commercially successful. What followed for Breau was disillusionment with the music business, a decade long recording hiatus and a wave of personal problems. He performed in Toronto clubs from '69-'72 and, fleeing from troubles which included the breakup of his marriage, developed serious problems with alcohol, heroin, and methadone. In 1976, his father died, an additional emotional blow to the vulnerable Breau who performed sporadic club dates, as his reputarion for unreliability made people skeptical about dealing with him. He wandered from Nashville to New York to Maine, where his mom lived. On a cold winter night in 1978, a desperate Breau, high on alcohol and methadone, was pulled out of a New York City snowdrift by two policemen nearly frozen to death.

He did record as a sideman during this period appearing on the 1977 collaboration by pedal steel guitarist Buddy Emmons and fiddler Buddy Spicher, Buddies (Flying Fish 041). Breau also contributes to Spicher's 1977 direct-to-disc release, Yesterday And Today (Direct Disk DD-102, 16 Music Circle South, Nashville, TN 37203). The latter includes his melancholy ballad, "I Remember."

In 1978, he and Emmons combined their talents again to produce what became Breau's third release as a leader of co-leader. Minors Aloud (Flying Fish O88) spotlights their straightahead jazz playing and Emmons pedal steel pushed by Breau's guitar work is even more energized than usual. The album also includes Breau's waltzlike interpretation of a Bach Bouree. Buddy Emmons relates how the project came to pass, "I was recording for Flying Fish at the time and Mike Melford asked me if I wanted to do another jazz album....He wanted to know if I was interested in playing with Lenny on it and I said, 'Yeah, if it would be Lenny's album....just let me sit in on it.' And he said okay and so when Lenny got to town, he came over to the house and I said, 'Well, what have you got!?,' and he said, 'ldon't have anything, man, what have you got!' And I said, 'Well, I don't have anything either, whose album is it?,' and he said, 'I don't know.' So we just got down in the basement the night before and worked the album out.''

Five O'Clock Bells (Adelphi Records AD 5006, P.O. Box 288, Silver Spring, MD 20907) was released in 1979, Breau's first album as a leader since the RCA releases a decade before and his first solo effort. The concept was: sit Lenny Breau down in the studio and let the tape run as he plays spontaneous arrangements for solo electric and acoustic guitar. The first cut, the old chestnut, "Days Of Wine And Roses," sets the tone for the whole album. The music is unforced and fraught with feeling in its presentation of a personal, impressionistic, and original guitar conception. Also included is the composition, "Visions," by pianist McCoy Tyner who, along with saxophonist Coltrane, had become an important musical influence. A subsequent Adelphi release Mo' Breau (Adelphi AD 5012) came out in 1981 and covered additional material from these sessions (check out the back cover which shows his Dauphin 7-string classical guitar). Breau described the Five O'Clock Bells music thusly, ''I call it my 'Big City' record because I did it in New York and because it shows a little bit of darkness, echoing the mood I was in."

It seemed like Breau was back in the saddle again in 1979, a fruitful year for his releases. Following the initial Adelphi release was The Legendary Lenny Breau... Now! (Sound Hole, P.O. Box 120355, Nashville, TN 37212) recorded in the fall of 1977 and 1978 in Chet Atkins' basement. Atkins, an ardent friend and fan, recalls, "Yeah, I hung out with Lenny a lot and he would come here to the office and visit every day or so. So when I could catch him, when he was in good shape, I'd just take him out there and let him do a side or two and that's how that album happened. Sometimes he was in good shape and sometimes he wasn't. You know, sometimes he'd had a drink or sometimes he'd had a drug of some kind." Whereas the Adelphi sessions give you a look at Breau as if you were hearing an impromptu solo performance, the Sound Hole recordings are more polished. Breau is allowed the luxury of time and multiple tracks, turning tunes like Tadd Dameron's "Our Delight" into the listener's delight. Solowise, there's a reworking of "Freight Train"and two McCoy Tyner tunes. Mel Bay Publications (Pacific, MO 63069-0066) has released an instructional book and cassette tape entitled "Lenny Breau Fingerstyle Jazz" (MB 93972) which, among other things, explains Breau's harmonic technique and transcribes "Freight Train" from Legendary Lenny Breau plus the title tune and ''Little Blues'' from Five O'Clock Bells. On the cassette, we are treated to Breau's personal explanation of the material to guitarist John Knowles.

In '79, the numbered, limited edition Lenny Breau appeared (Direct Disk DD-l13, out of print in the audiophile version, but re-released sans gatefold cover as Lenny Breau Trio, Adelphi AD 5018). The record opens with Chet Atkins joining Breau and bassist Don Thompson on a lush acoustic version of the Anne Murray pop hit, "You Needed Me." The mutual respect and admiration berween the two guitarists combined with their stylistic similarities created a magical, musical moment. On the remainder of the lp, Breau switches to his custom made Tom Holmes electric guitar. He is backed by Thompson and drummer Claude Ranger, two familiar musical partners from Canada who show deep empathy for his music. The trio flies through a bebop version of a Bob Dylan tune and a John Coltrane blues. A splendid trio.

Between 1979 and 1981, whenever Breau was in Nashville, Chet Atkins would try to get some of his music on tape. The fruit of his dedicated labor surfaced in 1981 as Standard Brands (RCA AYL1-4191), an all-acoustic disc of gorgeous and spirited Atkins and Breau duets. These are not lengthy improvisations, rather nine concise masterpieces by two players breathing as one.

Breau's last two records as a leader are, unfortunately, posthumous offerings. Released in late 1984, When Lightin' Strikes (Tudor Records TR113004, 34 Merrick Avenue, Merrick, N.Y. 11566) houses a wonderful lp inside its bland, uninformative cover. One side is the only available documentation of Breau's acoustic seven-string guitar work (he used a high A string made of fishing line extending the upper range of the instrument instead of the lower range common to most seven-string players) presented here with Jim Ferguson on bass. On the other side, they are joined by Buddy Emmons on pedal steel and Kenny Malone on drums as Breau shifts from acoustic to electric guitar.

Quietude (Electric Muse Records, UMM 1001 distributed by North Country Distributors, Cadence Building, Redwood, N.Y. 13679) was released at the end of 1985 and is a duet record featuring Lenny's electric guitar and the acoustic bass of Dave Young caught live at Toronto's Bourbon Street club on June 14, 1983. Melliflous music abounds as Breau presents standards, blues and his third recorded reading of McCoy Tyner's "Visions." Relaxed and recommended.