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Lenny Breau

Nate Dorward

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The four Lenny Breau albums I've heard are some of my favourite records--Mo' Breau, Five o'Clock Bells, Quietude & Legacy (the first two are now available doubled-up on a signle CD, the latter two are now available as Live at Bourbon Street, though I still just have the original LPs). I was wondering what else of his people had heard, & how it was. Randy Bachman has recently been digging up a lot of previously unreleased material, & I know some of his other recordings have been issued on CD. My impression was that the available documentation was rather haphazard, given Breau's short & messy life, but I was curious what else was worth getting.

The good news is that there's a forthcoming bio of Breau--Daryl Angier at Coda tells me they'll be running an excerpt from it later this year.

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I've heard his first two RCA albums, and although the first is tightly produced (by Chet Atkins, iirc) and the second is a somewhat rambling (at times) live date, both would be "essential" listeniong for fans, I'd think.

The first one, in fact, was my introduction to Breau. Heard "King Of The Road" on a Tyler, tx "Easy Listening" FM station in 1972 and flipped out. For some reason, the "DJ" (a misonomer of sorts, since on those type of stations, all they did was pop in every half hour and give the weather forecast) announced the artist. If that tune sounds like an unlikely vehicle for some truly amazing guitar playing, well, so be it.

Guess he was a fan!

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Thanks for the comments Jim. Have you heard the ones I mentioned at the start, by the way? Definitely not "produced"! (Five O'Clock Bells & Mo Breau are charming stream of consciousness things from the studio, complete with a few bits of talking to the engineer, some dodgy half-sung vocals, some blues lines invented on the spot, &c. Despite all that, they have some remarkable stuff on them--"Toronto" for instance & "Visions".)

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Heard some, not all. Breau was a truly amazing talent who seemed (at times) a little bit unfocused. That first RCA album, "geared-for-airplay" as it is, furthers the notion, especially when contrated with the second. Yeah, he could do "more", but at what cost?

With some players, you take'em as you get'em, and Breau is one of those players. Frustration comes with the territory, if you know what I mean, but hey, c'est la'vie, no?

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Breau's recorded legacy does indeed look pretty raggedy. I like the RCA things, especially The Velvet Touch Of (is that what it's called?), which is the live date. I also like the recently released Hallmark Sessions, supposedly his first "professionally recorded" session, from 1961. It's mostly standards and originals, many done in a neat little trio with (surprisingly) Rick Danko and Levon Helm (later to be of The Band) comprising the rhythm section. Breau is young here but incredible. Is this one of those things unearthed by Randy Bachman?

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The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau was my intro, too. Recorded at Shelly's Manne Hole, if I remember correctly. Damn he was good. One of a kind. I heard a year or two ago that he was found dead in a swimming pool where he lived ('84?) - originally thought to be a drowning, it came out that he was murdered. Still unresolved as far as I know. Man, what a waste.

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I have "The Complete Living Room Tapes" which I find amazing and enjoyable. Some rather impromptu live performances showing off some astounding technique and a wealth of interesting ideas. I strongly dislike his singing though :(

I also picked up an old vinyl of Five O'Clock Bells that I like a lot.

My friend Paul Kohler, who owns Art of Life Records is a devotee of Breau. He has told me it is his desire to make every possible bit of Breau's recordings available to the public.

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That disc with Breau & Tal Farlow had slipped under my radar--hm, I'll have to get that one. The few snippets on the website sounded pretty intriguing.

How're the other ARt of Life Breau releases, do you know? I know I've heard one of the collaborations with Buddy Emmons though neither album cover there resembles the one I'm familiar with. Or maybe it was a 3rd LP?

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That disc with Breau & Tal Farlow had slipped under my radar--hm, I'll have to get that one.  The few snippets on the website sounded pretty intriguing.

How're the other ARt of Life Breau releases, do you know?  I know I've heard one of the collaborations with Buddy Emmons though neither album cover there resembles the one I'm familiar with.  Or maybe it was a 3rd LP?

I'd recommend it based on your interest Nate. It is called CHANCE MEETING. I first heard this years ago in college on a video. I think it was just called "Tal Farlow" though I really can't remember. I remember thinking these guys were out of this world. At the time, I hadn't heard anyone play guitar with that kind of fluidity and there they were, two grown men smiling and having a great time doing something I didn't know was possible. I'm pretty sure it was recorded in a local bar near Tal's home.

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  • 3 months later...

Up... There's a long piece on Lenny Breau in the new issue of Coda, which I found fascinating reading. Here's the cover image:


The piece concentrates on his time in Toronto in the 1970s, & really gives a sense of a jazz scene that's unrecognizable in the Toronto of today (all the clubs mentioned there are closed, for instance). The piece is a condensation/extract from a forthcoming bio of Breau. Can't wait for the full version.

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I've only heard the one on Adelphi.

Is that Mo Breau? Another one I have to dig out

of the stacks to refresh my memory.

I remember the days when some of our local stores carried Coda.

Miss those days...

Both Five O'Clock Bells & Mo Breau were/are on Adelphi; they're now available as a single CD combining the sessions.

My understanding was that Coda had trouble in the past with their distributor; I wish they'd get this sorted out (& get a website going!) as it's no longer on the stands of most non-Canadian shops....

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Wow, just this morning I was listening to the newly reissued Guitar Sounds of Lenny Breau (his first RCA album), and despite what might be considered some unpromising material ("Monday, Monday"," "Hard Day's Night"), it is an incredible album. Very spare settings, some electric guitar, some acoustic nylon-stringed, all terrifically inventive. Quite dazzling.

Edited by Hank
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  • 1 month later...
  • 4 weeks later...

I listened to the Five O'Clock Bells/Mo' Breau cd yesterday all night. My first taste of Breau. All I can say is - where was I all these years?! The man was a genius!

I'm thinking the same thing after listening to the Phineas Newborn disc you gave me! Thank you!

Yeah, what's the story on that/ did you like the music? Your first time hearing Newborn?

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  • 5 months later...

A review in Saturday's Globe and Mail. Stupid copyediting: the 1st sentence of the 2nd paragraph should have "before" rather than "when".


While his guitar not so gently wept


One Long Tune: The Life and Music of Lenny Breau

By Ron Forbes-Roberts

University of North Texas Press, 325 pages, $33.95

If Lenny Breau's life was one long tune, it was by all accounts a sad song, according to One Long Tune, the first extensive biography of the late jazz guitarist, by Vancouver writer and musician Ron Forbes-Roberts.

Call it a lament for Lenny, the Maine-born Canadian prodigy who left an indelible mark on the jazz and guitar world when he was murdered at 43 in 1984. His swimsuit-clad body was found at the bottom of an apartment rooftop pool in Los Angeles. An autopsy showed no water in his lungs and strangulation marks on his neck, suggesting he'd been killed before immersion. Though police suspected Jewel Breau, his wife -- who'd displayed abusive and violent treatment of her husband during their marriage -- the evidence was considered insufficient to lay charges. The case remains unsolved.

That was the dramatic climax of Breau's life, fuelled by 20 years of alcohol and drug abuse. Forbes-Roberts does not skip lightly over the destructive elements. But he's also a guitarist and clearly an admirer of Breau's musical talent and unrelenting dedication to the music and his instrument. In compiling this thorough and fascinating biography, which includes a discography and analysis of Breau's recordings, Forbes-Roberts interviewed more than 200 people, many of whom shared his enthusiasm and virtual reverence for Breau's innovative guitar style.

One of them was country-and-western star Chet Atkins, whose finger-picking technique intrigued Breau early on. Atkins used his right-hand thumb to play rhythm on the bass strings of a guitar, while one or more fingers plucked a syncopated melody on the treble strings. It was Atkins who arranged for Breau to make two LPs for RCA, and who later recorded a duet album with him. In 1979, Atkins pronounced Breau "the greatest guitar player in the world today."

Lenny Breau was born on Aug. 5, 1941, to country-and-western singers Hal Lone Pine (né Harold Breau), of Maine, and Betty Cody, of Sherbrooke, Que. Within four years, the boy was part of the family show, singing high harmony in a pint-sized cowboy outfit complete with toy six-shooter and holster.

Breau took up guitar at 7, and by 14 had quit school to be with his father's band full-time. In 1957, the family moved to Winnipeg, doing daytime radio, with area dances and shows at night. Sixteen-year-old Lenny -- a fastidious dresser, looking like "a cross between Sal Mineo and Tony Curtis" -- was the star of the package.

Winnipeg introduced Breau to jazz, though he'd always keep his affection for country references, along with flamenco, classical and folk, in his jazz playing. It also introduced him to his first wife -- Valerie St. Germain, sister to pop singer Ray -- whom he married when both were 18.

Breau couldn't read music in those early Winnipeg years. He was also a stranger to improvisation, relying on imitating solos and licks he'd memorize from LPs. However, he started learning musical theory from local pianist Bob Erlendson, and in time would become first-call guitarist for CBC studio work in Winnipeg.

Toronto beckoned in 1962. Breau worked with tap dancer Joey Hollingsworth and joined singer Don Francks and bassist Eon Henstridge in a hip, musically esoteric trio called Three.

But Breau was also getting into substance abuse -- marijuana, LSD, heroin, methadone, alcohol -- and dependencies would plague him the rest of his life. Breau periodically tried to get clean of drugs and booze. But he kept weakening and, rather than face a marijuana-possession charge in 1975, fled the country for Maine. He would not return to Canada for six years, and only then when Don Francks paid the $1,000 fine for Breau's marijuana possession and $5,000 of the $15,000 he owed in back income taxes.

In drug-and-alcohol-free times, Lenny Breau was in control whenever he had his hands on a guitar. Away from the guitar, away from the bandstand, Breau was a little boy lost.

Ray Couture, a country guitarist who knew him from childhood, sums it up in the book: "You just couldn't help but love Lenny, but if you loved him, he expected you to look after him because he couldn't look after himself."

Winnipeg vocalist Mary Nelson, like other "handlers" in Breau's life, felt protective of him: "We knew that the world had hard edges and Lenny couldn't handle hard edges," she says. "He couldn't handle them personally: as a musician, as a father, as a husband, as a friend. It wasn't that he didn't want to; he just couldn't."

Breau's drug dependency contributed to the breakup of his marriage to St. Germain and of an engagement to Edmonton vocalist Judi Singh. All told, Lenny fathered four children, two with St. Germain, one with Singh and one with Jewel, his second wife.

Ironically, it was Chet Atkins who introduced Breau to Jewel, a sometime singer born Joanne Glasscock. It was a meeting, Forbes-Roberts writes, that "marked the beginning of a toxic relationship so characterized by hostility and violence that Lenny spent the remainder of his life desperately trying to flee it."

They were married in 1981, the same year Breau returned to Canada for a series of appearances at Toronto's Bourbon Street, a jazz club on Queen Street West. That's where Ted O'Reilly, of radio station CJRT-FM, taped a performance in June, 1983, by Breau, with his seven-string electric guitar, and bassist Dave Young, a recording now available as a two-CD set called Live at Bourbon Street.

Within a year, Breau would be dead and buried in an unmarked grave in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, Calif. Funeral expenses were covered by a memorial benefit at Nashville's Blue Bird Café.

From its east-coast intro to its west-coast coda, One Long Tune is a mournful dirge. Forbes-Roberts would give Breau's ballad a hallelujah refrain for the purity of the guitarist's musical vision, but the everyday-life verses are tinged with a lingering sadness.

Stewart Brown is a Hamilton journalist who is writing a nostalgic book about the Brant Inn, the big-band showplace of the 1930s, '40s and '50s in Burlington, Ont.

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