Category Archives: Celebrities

Those wonderful lost-then-found famous guitars

The news of Peter Frampton’s condition, a degenerative muscle disease called inclusion body myositis, and announced by Frampton himself on February 23, 2019, is of course bitter news made bearable by the fact he’s not dead, but will just be slowing down some. Those blisteringly fast and sublimely melodic solos that he has created during 50 years of touring and recording will remain, as will he and that amazing smile. I am sure, even after he completes his upcoming blowout tour, there will still be a lot for Peter to complete.

The Frampton Les Paul on the full-length cover of “Comes Alive.” Just one more reason why double albums are more fun than digital downloads.

Reading the news of his condition in a New York Times story led me to an another Frampton-related article from 2012, which talked about his reunion with his iconic triple-humbucker Les Paul Black Beauty that went missing after a cargo plane crash in 1980.  The article, by New York Times writer James McKinley Jr (Twitter: @jamesmckinleyjr) describes how the instrument escaped a fiery obliteration in Venezuela, only to be adopted by an individual in Curaçao, then discovered by a customs agent who repairs guitars in his spare time, and returned to Peter with the help of a diehard fan in the Netherlands as well as the head of the island’s tourist board.

Frampton was naturally delighted to get his guitar back and it didn’t take him long to be sure it was genuine. That’s one of the benefits of being a full-time pro-guitarist. You get so intimate with your individual instruments, you can recognize them by touch alone. He took the pickups to Nashville to be replaced, but he kept the scorch marks on the neck.

Peter Frampton on the left, Myles Goodwyn on the right, each with their long-lost guitars safely home. Hmmm. Is there something about losing a cherished guitar that makes rock stars turn to plaid?

A similar thing happened to April Wine frontman and composer Myles Goodwyn, who got his 1962 Gibson Melody Maker stolen in 1972 and returned only last year, December 31, 2018. He, too, knew it was the real thing as soon as he got got back in his hands.

It’s weird to see my two musical heroes in almost the exact same pose (and clothes) celebrating the exact same happy ending to a multi-decade mystery.

Me playing “Could Have Been a Lady” with a Frampton ending.

(As a side note, in tribute to these two great guitarists, I play a version of Could Have Been a Lady with a Frampton solo at the end, which always goes over well. You can see video of it here.)

I am sure there are many, many stories like this. The love for a particular guitar is made even more poignant by the fact that these artists can afford to buy as many guitars as they want, or have guitar manufacturers give some to them in exchange for an endorsement. When George Harrison lost his Gretsch Country Gentleman (it fell off the top of their tour van on the M1 in 1965 – read the story at the BeatlesBible here), he admitted he could have as many guitars as he wanted, but he had grown attached to that particular one. B.B. King’s Gibson, Lucille, enjoyed a better fate when it was rescued from a burning hotel. It was just that precious.

George Harrison and Lucy

Mentioning George Harrison inevitably leads to the amazing story of Lucy, a 1957 Les Paul Goldtop that had been repainted red. It had been owned by Rick Derringer, John Sebastian, and Eric Clapton before arriving at George’s Beverly His home. It was then stolen and taken to Mexico where it was essentially held for ransom. The full story is available in Beatles Gear, All the Fab Four’s Instruments, From Stage to Studio by Andy Babiuk. An excerpt, focusing on Lucy, is also available at B&B Guitars here as well as in my post here.

Guitars have a style and a personality all their own, and these models, epitomize this. Great tunes were written on them, concerts were played with them, and many famous hands touched them. As such, the artists’ souls and physical selves have blended with the wood and the finish and they have all changed and matured over time.

As for Peter Frampton, he will always be one of the greatest guitar virtuosos of rock. His solos were not just blues scales – they sang. There was melody to them. George Harrison, (of course), Eric Clapton, and Myles Goodwyn – all that beautiful music. And part of it came from the inexorable connection between the artists and their guitars.

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Billy Joel: A nod and a wink to 19,000 friends

Billy Joel, Toronto, March 2014. Photo by Steve Prentice.

Billy Joel, Toronto, March 2014. Photo by Steve Prentice. (That’s why it’s so far away)

I had the privilege of seeing Billy Joel play Toronto’s Air Canada Center this past Sunday, and it was a treat. Having seen many pro bands deliver tight, well rehearsed 3-hour shows as part of a multi-city concert tour, it is easy to get used to cool professionalism washed in the magic purple of stage lighting. But with Billy Joel, you get all of that along with a remarkable intimacy that turns the cavernous concert arena into a merely oversized cocktail bar, with the seasoned piano man himself tinkling the ivories.

His opening joke – “Billy Joel couldn’t make it tonight – I’m his father”  actually works, especially when he pauses, mid monologue, to look up at himself on the scoreboard jumbotron thing, and say, “I look so much like my old man…” before turning back to the crowd with that twinkle in his eye that seems to say that he genuinely enjoys sharing these anecdotes and stories with an appreciative crowd.

It makes you wonder whether the spontaneous rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” was truly spontaneous – I mean did the band rehearse, or are they, as I would like to believe – just that good that they can play any tune that the master summons up?

The show moved through a number of his lesser-known pieces, such as Vienna, before ending up with his most successful upbeat rock tunes. Even the train wreck that occurred during “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” where he tripped over the words after straying too far from the teleprompter and forced the band to restart did nothing to calm the energy of the full house crowd that stayed standing through the entire  second half of the show.

Billy Joel, Toronto, March 9, 2014. Photo credit - someone who posted on Twitter.

Billy Joel, Toronto, March 9, 2014. Photo credit – someone who posted on Twitter.

He is a giant in the business, but he talks to his audience like he is everyone’s grandpa now, the way Bill Cosby does. Responding to a song request shouted out from one of the front rows, he said, “No! I’m 65. I’ll get to it when I’m ready!” But again, the wink and the smile in his voice showed a good-natured comfort that can only come from decades of live performance.

Technical virtuosity aside, what struck me the most about Billy Joel was the way he connected with the audience. He knew he was actually in Toronto (not every act seems to know or care where they are), and his stories of playing Massey Hall and Maple Leaf Gardens, and his recognition that his absence from the city during the 2003 SARS outbreak meant that “we sucked here for a while” added a connection that everyone felt. It was also appreciated by many that his drummer wore a Maple Leafs jersey.

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Bob Culbertson and the Chapman Stick

Bob Culbertson playing on Pier 39, San Francisco, August 2013

Bob Culbertson playing on Pier 39, San Francisco, August 2013

Walking along the Embarcadero in San Francisco very recently, I heard the most beautiful music floating across the late afternoon breeze. It sounded like a trio, playing a gorgeous flowing piece of easy-listening jazz; there was no percussion, but something that sounded like a marimba, accompanying a harp or two – an actual sit down harp, not a harmonica.

I approached Pier 39 in search of the trio, but what I found was something and someone far more amazing. I had discovered Bob Culbertson, master of the Chapman Stick. He was playing a tune I did not recognize, but I stood enthralled for a full ten minutes, listening, for it sounded like he carried an entire band in his two hands.

The Chapman Stick: where guitar meets piano.

The Chapman Stick: where guitar meets piano.

I had never seen a Chapman Stick in person before. It is a remarkable instrument that resembles the neck of a guitar, but longer, and with no actual body. It is worn vertically, from belt buckle to shoulder and is played with both hands primarily pressing the strings down onto the frets. There are different models, having either 8, 10 or 12 strings, with the heavier bass notes in the centre, and lighter melodic notes toward the outside.

The result of this complex playing arrangement, at least in the hands of a master, is remarkable, and Bob Culbertson is indeed a master. His slender fingers walked up and down the Stick’s fretboard, threading their way constantly and carefully to new footfalls. The was no dramatic strumming, as guitarists are prone to do, no rocking of the body as pianists do, and of course no sharp intakes of breath as horn players most do. Instead the music just came from this delicate dancing caress, and it was remarkable.

Dubbed “The Segovia of the Stick,” Bob’s playing delivers everything that a jazz trio can do. Sensitive, captivating melodies backed by a walking bass line, with counterpoints weaving seemingly effortlessly between. That one person can keep track of so much and deliver so much is truly amazing.

Many years ago when Stanley Jordan was still relatively unknown, people marvelled at the idea that music could be drawn from a fretted string instrument by hammering rather than plucking. I remember hearing a jazz station DJ introducing a Jordan track one time by daring the listeners to believe him when he said there was only one musician playing.

The hammering technique for guitar has a number of masters and devotees. In Toronto we are lucky enough to have an amazing player by the name of Andrew Lopatin who actually plays in the subways. He too, is worth stopping and listening to, even if you are late for work.

But the Chapman Stick goes far beyond what a six or seven string guitar can do. It has a soft, flowing musicality that truly benefits from sensitive pickups doing the work of amplification. It is not well known in popular music circles; perhaps the most well-known player is Tony Levin, an alumnus of King Crimson, and acts as diverse as Mike Oldfield, the Blue Man Group and the Dave Mathews Band have also experimented with it.

Listening to Bob Culbertson play is simply awe inspiring. There are moments when it seems he is not actually playing at all, but merely holding the Stick upright, while it does the work. But that’s an unfair description. Bob is a master – one of those extraordinary musicians who becomes part of the music. It flows through him, to the instrument. Glenn Gould, the pianist, was like that. So was Vladimir Horowitz. Robin Williams and Eddie Izzard share this talent in storytelling and comedy. There is something that seems to go beyond mere practice and delivery, beyond merely working an instrument to make art. With artists like Bob, there doesn’t seem to be any force required. He simply lets the music descend into him and play itself on the strings.

But it would be unfair too to dismiss all the years of hard work and practice that Bob must have put into his craft. His face is placid as he plays, but his eyes are sharp. He scans the crowd, singling out those who truly enjoy the music and he makes a true connection.

Thankfully, for those who cannot get to San Francisco to see him, his music is available online, and this is obviously the easiest way to experience his true genius. His website is www.stickmusic.com.

For me, a musician who has always struggled to make a guitar do what it is supposed to do, it is a rare privilege to look over the fence and observe a true virtuoso – someone who is a conduit of melody – and to partake in its all encompassing beauty.

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Why I Admire Performers Like Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey

To be honest, I have never given Mariah Carey much thought. As an aging rocker raised on Elton John, Paul McCartney and U2, I have certainly experienced my share of glamorous musicians and diva antics, but I have never had much time for warbling femme-fatales, and so she, along with Celine Dion and Beyoncé have always been kept in a soundproof box in the back of my mind. To be fair, I admire any entertainer who can stand up in front of a crowd and wow them, regardless of the type of music they perform, so I never went so far as to say mean things about them. Its just that the specific tone of their singing never appealed to me. OK, maybe Cher once in a while, but I have always preferred female performers with a little more of a gruff edge, like Melissa Etheridge and Susan Tedeschi, and a little less time spent in the makeup chair. This (photo upper-right) is how I have always understood Mariah Carey to look. I figured this was probably actually her passport photo, given how glamorous she is.

So it amazed me when I saw her in one of the best movies I have ever seen, Precious, by Lee Daniels. This is a tough movie to watch. It is gritty, brutal and extremely memorable. The performance by Gabourey Sidibe was stellar, but in my opinion the show was completely stolen by Mo’Nique, who is better known as a comedienne.

Mo’Nique played a real SOB of a mom. A TV-addicted welfare case who treated her daughter worse than dirt. And it is only (SPOILER ALERT) during her tour-de-fource scene at the end of the film do you truly find out why. Her character was not a pretty character, but Mo’Nique played it well.

Mariah Carey was in this movie too. She played the social worker who sought to understand and fix the problems in Precious’s life. And she looked like this.

Also Mariah Carey

Also Mariah Carey

No makeup. No big hair. No radiant skin. She looked like every other 9-to-5 schmoe out there who has a job to do, but who doesn’t really like it very much.

I find it extremely admirable when beautiful celebrities shed their skin and reveal to the world that beneath it all, they are still one of us. They weren’t born looking like Halle Berry (OK, maybe Halle Berry was). They were lucky enough to make it big in a vicious industry where most fall away, and their product is big, wonderful excessive enormousness.

So I salute both Mariah Carey and Mo’Nique for taking what some might consider a big risk in appearing on the big screen in all their plain normality. To me this only makes them more beautiful.

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What if John Lennon had lived?

John LennonI was sitting in a Starbucks recently and a track from John Lennon’s Double Fantasy came over the restaurant’s sound system. I was 15 years old when that album came out, and had already been a Beatles/Lennon fan for a decade. I remember how that album, from the first three bell tones of its first hit single Just Like Starting Over seemed to herald a new age for this brilliant songwriter. Clean and sober, ready to literally start over, ready to share his remarkable talents with the world once again.

Lennon seemed to possess a triple threat as a songwriter: brilliant wordplay combined with enormous tenderness, as well as the ability to create memorable hooks or riffs that guaranteed permanent implant into a listener’s ears and heart.

His death happened long before the age of social media or even cellphones. In an era when newspapers and television reigned, expressions of regret over his death came from all corners of the globe, even from the dark interiors of the Soviet Union, an unheard-of connection with the West which presaged the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the Soviet system itself. It showed just how pervasive beautiful music actually was; to penetrate the darkest, most oppressive areas of the world, to flourish among its people.

Obviously the songwriting team of Lennon & McCartney produced a dizzying collection of monster hits, any one of which most bands would trade their souls to claim as their own. And Sir Paul has continued to thrive, creating beautiful pop tunes, and entertaining well into his seventh decarde.

But Lennon had a deeper, more introspective style. He seemed able to touch people with his poetry, cynicism, and his message of peace in a way that went beyond music itself. Dare I say that his approach was on par with the peaceful “non-action” actions of people such as Gandhi and Mandela. Yes, these men suffered much more, but all three changed the world through non-violence and sheer charisma.

Others have come along to attempt to fill the Lennon shoes: Bono comes to mind. Yet for all of  Bono’s star power, there seems to be something essentially corporate about him. He has the power to flirt with world leaders, he speaks at Davos, and can look the Pope in the eye, but he seems, at least to this observer, to still be one of them. Lennon was never one of them. How would the various leaders of the world’s countries and multinationals have responded to his political fearlessness?

How different would the world be if Lennon had not been taken from us?

Take 9/11, for example. For such a tragedy to unfold right in the middle of Lennon’s beloved adopted hometown. What tune could he have written? What call for global peace could have been wrung from his soul to match and exceed the magnitude of this carnage? I believe the world would by now have a new and universal anthem for peace, had he had the chance to write it; a magnum opus from a man dedicated to non violence.

And what of any additional work with McCartney? There is no doubt they would have come back together. The world would have demanded it.

Of course I could be totally wrong. Maybe he would have turned into a parody of himself, botoxed, facelifted, and unwilling to let go of his youth, like Steven Tyler.  Maybe he would have matured into a genteel older version of himself, like Sting or Peter Gabriel. Or maybe he would have died anyway, from something natural or unnatural. But had he been able to have stayed with us, his words and art would still have to come out. He would have been a force to be reckoned with, creatively, socially, politically and musically.

He left behind both towering achievements and an indefinable void, with the rest of us just wondering what might have been.

 

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Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Lucy

They all loved Lucy.

They all loved Lucy.

Today (March 30) is Eric Clapton’s birthday. Of course the man needs no introduction, so I would rather talk about Lucy. Mr. Clapton is known as one of the pre-eminent and most famous users of the Fender Stratocaster, definitely a guitar that suits his clean and melodic style. But he was not always a Strat man. Back in the days of Cream and the Yardbirds, Eric played Les Pauls and Firebirds. He was a Gibson guy.

One of the most famous Les Pauls in rock history, then, has to be Lucy, the red 1957 Les Paul Goldtop upon which Clapton played the beautiful solo on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

According to Wikipedia, the guitar was first owned by John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, who then gave it to Rick Derringer in a trade for an amp.  The finish became very worn, so Derringer’s father took it back to the Gibson shop where it was repainted red. Derringer did not like the feel of the repainted guitar, so he sold it to a New York music shop, where Eric Clapton found it and bought it. He played it for a while, but because he “already had a Les Paul” he gave it to George Harrison. George was struggling with the writing of “Gently Weeps” so he invited Clapton to come to the recording session. Clapton noted that George’s solo didn’t sound “Beatle-y” enough, so he sat down and delivered. Again, according to Wikipedia, “Clapton laid down the track in a single take; but later stated that he was so high at the time he doesn’t remember it at all.”  George kept the guitar, but it was stolen during a robbery of his Beverly Hills home in 1973, where it traded hands a couple of times, it went to Mexico and eventually was recovered by trading a couple of other guitars. George kept Lucy, and presumably it is still part of his estate.

This leaves me with a couple of questions:

With so many guitars in the world, how come just a handful get to live storied lives like this one?

And also, these musicians have piles of money and access to all kinds of instruments. How come they lend and borrow from each other like this? I think it’s cool, but are they really that stuck for a good guitar? George Harrison’s brown Telecaster has a similar story. It was given to him by Joe Walsh.

It all makes for wonderful lore, and it certainly helps out the marketing of high-end Signature series reproduction guitars, but you have to wonder a.) whether these stories are true; b.) whether any of the world’s greatest guitar solos would have happened the same way if they had just picked up any old studio guitar lying around;  and c.) whether they will live on for centuries, like Stradivarius violins, to be played by successive generations of gifted artists.

Anyway, happy birthday, Mr Clapton. Thank you for making it all look so easy.

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Steven Tyler and the power of networking

Steven Tyler and Joe Perry getting along for once...

Steven Tyler and Joe Perry getting along for once…

Today (March 26) is Steven Tyler’s birthday. As the flamboyant frontman of Aerosmith he has made a great living playing in and leadig one of the world’s most famous rock bands, while not taking himself too seriously. The staccato vocal rhythm prevalent in a lot of his tunes comes fromthe fact he was a drummer first, playing drums in his upstate New York hometown. He also learned a great deal about coposition by sitting under the piano in his home while his father, a classical musician, played. He would write tunes with “two hands” in mind, and would go back the studio and say “bass, you play what my left hand is doing on the piano – yes, he can play piano too — and guitar, you play what my right hand is doing. So as weird and strung-out as he may still appear, he is a wise man of rock – very smart in both the ochestartion of tunes and of course the choreography of a great live show.

But as with many immortal partnerships (Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, Elton & Bernie) the soul-mate connection between Tyler and his amazing guitar player Joe Perry leaves us with the intriguing thought of what might have happened if they never hooked up. According to Tyler’s excellent autobiography, Do The Noises In My Head Bother You (which is even better as an audiobook, read by Tyler sound-alike Jeremy Davidson), Perry was playing around in other bands, and it was only the connection they had to a summer camp that got them together. Perry, as a teenager, was the fry-cook there.

Now this may not be networking in the truest sense of the word, but it goes to show just how much fate pays a major part in our lives. If Tyler had not gone back to that summer camp, would we have Aerosmith? If Jagger and Richards had not bumped into each other and started talking about blues records, would the Stones ever have existed? If Reg Dwight and Bernie Taupin had not seen and answered the same newspaper ad, well, who knows?

One of the greatest stepping-stones to personal success and satisfaction comes from the people you know. They provide opportunities, for business, for gigs, for advancement in all areas of life. When we reflect on all of the great might-have-beens and all of the great victories, they are usually due to being in the right place at the right time – with someone else.

Your personal network is your best tool for getting ahead, and should really be nurtured every day.

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Paul Schaffer – We’ll be here for the rest of our lives.

schafferPaul Schaffer is a fascinating guy. At once both nerdy and cool, like fellow countryman Geddy Lee, he has lived a musician’s dream, playing continually and successfully, backing up everyone who is anyone, and spending what seems like every waking moment immersed in music.

His autobiography, We’ll be here for the rest of our lives, is a fabulous romp through thirty or more years of his life, from his time as a young man growing up in Thunder Bay, where his lawyer father looked past his obvious talent on the family piano at Bar Mitzvahs and expected him to pursue a career in law, up to his current gig as musical director of David Letterman’s show.

The audiobook is even better than the book itself, because Paul himself narrates it. His tone of voice carries with it a certain tone of disbelief, as if he can’t actually believe all of this is happening to him.

He describes coming to Toronto for the first time, as a student at U of T, finding work as a piano player for a local strip club, before hooking up with the cast of Godspell that gave birth to the cast of Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and many other comedy legends.

He is one of these guys who was either born with a musical horseshoe strategically placed, or he is the living embodiment of Samuel Goldwyn’s famous quote, “the harder I work, the luckier I get,” since every job he got seemed to lead to another bigger, better one.

He was the musical director for SNL; he was in Spinal Tap; he was almost an original Blues Brother – Belushi dropped him in a jealous snit for his collaborations with Gilda Radner, he busked with Miles Davis and David Foster in Scrooged, and of course, he penned “It’s Raining Men.”

His biography is a great adventure story in rock music history, a definite good read. Another great Canadian delivering great entertainment.

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