One Long Tune: The Life and Music of Lenny Breau

One Long Tune: The Life and Music of Lenny Breau

by Ron Forbes-Roberts
     
 

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Chet Atkins called Lenny Breau (1941-1984) "the greatest guitarist who ever walked the face of the earth." Breau's astonishing virtuosity influenced countless performers, but unfortunately it came at the expense of his personal relationships. Forbes-Roberts analyzes Breau and his recordings to reveal an enormously gifted man and the inner workings of his music.

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Overview

Chet Atkins called Lenny Breau (1941-1984) "the greatest guitarist who ever walked the face of the earth." Breau's astonishing virtuosity influenced countless performers, but unfortunately it came at the expense of his personal relationships. Forbes-Roberts analyzes Breau and his recordings to reveal an enormously gifted man and the inner workings of his music.

"[A] thorough and fascinating biography, which includes a discography and analysis of Breau's recordings."-Toronto Globe and Mail

"Forbes-Roberts does a credible job of depicting the variables that fostered Breau's total devotion to his instrument and subsequent descent into heroin addiction. Where Forbes-Roberts does his best work though, is in his technical explanations of Breau's unique guitar system and his comprehensive critical analyses of the artist's recording sessions."-All About Jazz

"Forbes-Roberts walks the line between adulation and research, music nerd and general interest reporter, with aplomb, and most importantly delivers a very readable account of a personality most readers should find endearing (if heartbreaking), even if they'd never previously heard of Breau."-Boston Phoenix

"The author has delivered a comprehensive, well-written book that evokes both sympathy and admiration for [Breau], with painstaking documentation of his technical approach."-The Toronto Star

About the Author:

RON FORBES-ROBERTS is an award-winning journalist and a contributing editor to Acoustic Guitar Magazine. He is a career musician with a degree in classical guitar and lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. GENE LEES's many important books on jazz include Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White.

Editorial Reviews

>

“In his brilliantly written and exhaustively researched biography, Forbes-Roberts gets to the essence of the creative process itself and the meaning of what it is to be an underappreciated genius.” --Bill Milkowski, author of Jaco
Boston Phoenix
Forbes-Roberts walks the line between adulation and research, music nerd and general interest reporter, with aplomb, and most importantly delivers a very readable account of a personality most readers should find endearing (if heartbreaking).
The Toronto Star
The author has delivered a comprehensive, well-written book that evokes both sympathy and admiration for [Breau], with painstaking documentation of his technical approach.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781574412307
Publisher:
University of North Texas Press
Publication date:
12/01/2006
Pages:
344
Sales rank:
803,456
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.77(d)

Read an Excerpt

One Long Tune

The Life and Music of Lenny Breau


By Ron Forbes - Roberts

University of North Texas Press

Copyright © 2006 Ron Forbes-Roberts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57441-230-7



CHAPTER 1

On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine ca.1916–October 1948


"Whoever'd think that a little Frenchmen could play like that?"

— Denny Breau on his brother Lenny

"Oh, Come out and listen while I sing and play for you/I am the Lone Pine Mountaineer."

— Hal Lone Pine


The towns of Auburn and Lewiston face one another across the Androscoggin River thirty-five miles due north of Portland, Maine. Most of the squat, red brick mills in both towns are deserted now, but for more than a century after the Civil War a ceaseless stream of textiles, building supplies, footwear, and other commodities flowed from their dusty, cacophonous depths. The mills were manned mainly by French Canadian immigrants and their progeny who were drawn to the region by the relatively high wages to be earned there in the latter part of the nineteenth century. By the time Lenny Breau's maternal grandparents, Aldina and Alphonse Cote, arrived in Auburn with their family from Sherbrooke, Quebec, in April of 1922, the region had become an entrenched enclave of Franco-American culture where 65 percent of its 40,000 residents spoke French as their first language, and still held tightly to the cultural traditions earlier generations had brought with them from the townships of Quebec.

One of the most highly valued of these traditions was the practice and appreciation of music, and the Cotes were well equipped to make a significant contribution to the region's culture in this regard. Alphonse Cote, a journeyman carpenter, built fiddles in his spare time, and Aldina sang traditional French folk songs, church music, and light classics in a beautiful soprano voice. All of their eleven children possessed musical gifts, but the one whose talents would become known to the broadest audience was their sixth child, Rita Francis. Born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, on August 17, 1921, Rita grew up singing her mother's stock of songs as well as pop tunes of the time. Then, in the early 1930s, she and thousands of young people of her generation were captivated by a new sound that swept out of the southern states on radio and records by Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter family, and other early country singers. "It just hit so fast in Maine," she says. "The French people really went for the country music. Everybody was trying to learn guitar and sing in those days."

Rita began emulating female country singer and yodeler Patsy Montana, and at the age of fifteen was singing professionally with Curly and the Country Boys at local dances and on WCOU radio in Lewiston. Rita, who was just beginning to speak English, was known to her audiences as "The Little French Girl," a stage name that her husband, Harold Breau, would replace a few years later with the countrified sobriquet — Betty Cody — by which she would be commonly known for most of her life.

Born on June 5, 1916, on his parents' farm near the village of Pea Cove, Maine, Harold John Breau was the eldest of six children born to Arthur Breau — a Canadian immigrant — and wife Flora Belle (nee Holmes), a native of Oxford, Maine. Fourteen years later, the family moved to Old Town, a small community ten miles north of Bangor where Harold began singing traditional English and Scottish ballads with his high school glee club. It was here that Harold heard his first Jimmie Rodgers record, an experience that affected him so profoundly that he decided on the spot to pursue a career as a country singer. After winning several talent contests, he landed a noontime spot on WLBZ radio in Bangor as "The Radio Cowboy," and then formed a trio called the Lone Pine Mountaineers. When the trio folded a few months later, Harold dubbed himself "The Lone Pine Mountaineer" and continued performing as a solo act. By the age of seventeen, he was a popular entertainer in northern Maine and appeared regularly on theatre stages and radio stations throughout the region.

In November of 1939, Pine — as he was commonly known to friends — came to Lewiston to play a series of shows, and hired a local band called The Sons of the Westerners as his back-up group. When Pine asked the band's leader and guitarist, twenty-year-old Ray Couture, to recommend a back-up singer for the group, Couture suggested his friend, Rita Cote. "He was broadcasting from Bangor as The Lone Pine Mountaineer," Betty recalls, "but I'd never turned on WABI so he was all new to me. I'd never even heard of him, but he hired me." In keeping with the western image he wanted his group to project, Pine dubbed his new singer Betty Lou Cody.

Initially, the group performed as The Lone Pine Mountaineer with The Sons of the Westerners and Betty Lou Cody and was later augmented by Betty's sisters, Lucille, Flo, and Maggie, who performed as "The Three Little Sisters." They also took on an ex-Vaudevillian comedian/clown named Billy Hall who called himself Bozo the Tramp. Later, Pine invited Gene Hooper, a young guitarist/singer from Machias, Maine, to join the show. This marked the beginning of a working and personal relationship between the men that would endure until Pine's death in 1977.

The group's working day began with a noon-hour appearance on WCOU, after which the band might drive for several hours for a performance in a theatre or community hall in some far-flung New England village. Their four-hour show was split into two hours of music and comedy routines followed by a dance of the same length. With their striking good looks, winning personalities, and the flashy western attire that Pine had specially made by a tailor in Philadelphia, the gregarious, outgoing king of Maine's country music scene and his demure, charismatic, and golden-throated queen easily won over their audiences the moment they stepped on stage. Not surprisingly, it wasn't long before they won each other's hearts as well. On June 29, 1940, after a six-month courtship, Pine and eighteen-year-old Betty Cody married. There was no honeymoon; immediately after the wedding the band set off on a tour of the southeastern United States. "Our manager had bought a big tent and we lived in that and traveled down south through a lot of the larger cities," Betty says. "We were traveling by car and staying in tents, one night after another. We'd hired a cook who cooked all our meals on the ground and we were eating outside. It was a rough, gypsy's life, all new to me."

The grueling trip came to an abrupt end in December of 1940 when Betty discovered that she was pregnant. The troupe folded their tents, bade goodbye to the Southland for the time being, and returned to Auburn where on August 5, 1941, Betty gave birth to Leonard Harold Breau. Named after Betty's younger brother, with Pine providing his middle name, Lenny was born in his grandparents' home at 52 Fourth Street in Auburn surrounded by a coterie of adoring relatives and musicians from his parents' immediate and extended family. All were delighted with the infant despite the physical anomaly that naturally caught the eye of the attending amateur and professional musicians. "The little fingers on both his hands were twisted like his grandmother's," says Betty's sister, Flo. "I remember Betty looking at him and saying, 'Gosh he's got fingers just like his grandma Breau; he'll never be able to play guitar like that.'" Lenny's pinkie fingers were curved and twisted slightly and would never entirely straighten out. This was a congenital feature inherited from his father's side of the family, which Lenny in turn would pass on to his own son. In other regards, Lenny was a petite but robust, healthy baby. "He had beautiful skin and dark eyes as big as quarters: a little black-headed beauty," says Gene Hooper. Lenny would grow to resemble closely his diminutive, dark-eyed mother although by his teenage years his body language and vocal cadence were very much his father's.

Shortly after Lenny's birth, Pine and Betty returned to the road and were often gone for weeks at a time. Lenny was left with family members in Auburn or Bangor or with a nanny named Mrs. St. Pierre whose young son was also named Leonard. To distinguish between the boys, she called her new charge Sonny, a name by which many of Lenny's family and relatives still refer to him. (The spelling of the diminutive form of his name fluctuated. While he signed his name "Lenny," up until the late 1960s, he was often referred to as "Lennie" in promotional material and in many articles written about him.) Lenny was two years old when his parents bought an old farm on Turner Road about ten miles outside of Auburn and it was here, a year later, that his parents caught their first glimpse of their son's musical talent. The couple was practicing in the barn when Lenny, attracted by the music, wandered in. "We'd started rehearsing 'Cattle Call,' the Eddy Arnold song," recalls Betty. "Lenny was listening and then, by gosh, we hear him harmonizing, doing the perfect third part. He was right on the dot on each note. We said 'do that again' and he did. He just made it up because neither of us were singing that part."

Lenny was soon performing with his parents, singing high harmony above his mother's vocal line in a perfectly intonated voice. He had inherited his mother's perfect pitch, and would become incensed when his father — whose own sense of pitch was often tenuous — would occasionally lose the melody line and be pulled towards Lenny's harmony. His son would stop in exasperation and complain loudly, "Daddy, stop singing my part!" Betty made her son a cowboy outfit complete with a small hat and toy gun in a holster and Lenny wore this outfit for his first promo shot, which became a best seller at the group's shows. In the photo, Lenny is holding a guitar that dwarves him despite its diminutive size. The phrase "Keep Smiling" is written on the photo to the left of his image and "Lone Pine Junior" is signed in his father's hand on the right. This appellation would adorn his promo pictures until the year of his first marriage.

Lenny's first live performances were on his parents' noontime radio show on WCOU and later on WLBZ in Bangor. With his parents flanking him, he would stand on a stool heightened with two telephone books, allowing him to sing into the microphone his repertoire of tunes, which included "Popeye the Sailor Man" and "Coat of Navy Blue." His earnest, reedy voice was a hit with listeners and attracted so much fan mail that before long he was taking the stage with his parents at their local shows. Besides singing a few solo numbers and harmonizing with his mother and father, Lenny worked with Bozo the Tramp. The two quickly developed a strong affinity and rapport that delighted their audiences, says Betty.

With Lenny it all came natural; he would do anything on stage. He would do a soft-shoe shuffle with Bozo and kibitz with him. One day Bozo was teasing Lenny a little and Lenny didn't like it. He didn't know it was just in fun. He said, "Ah, I don't like you anyway, Bozo. You're just a dirty old tramp." Bozo looked hurt and pretended he was crying and said, "I never thought you'd say that to me." Lenny got upset and said, "Oh Bozo, I didn't mean it. You're a clean tramp!" Everybody laughed so hard. He was about four and it was already just coming out of him.


Lenny used a toy guitar as a stage prop, but his first real instrument was a washboard with an array of attached bells and whistles for which Pine made a case emblazoned with the legend "Lone Pine Junior." Lenny did solo spots on his washboard and accompanied the band on a few songs. "His rhythms were not fancy," says his aunt Flo, "but always in time and in just the right place."

Lenny was five when his father gave him a child-sized accordion and he was soon picking out simple melodies on its recalcitrant keyboard. "I had a vanity with a full-length mirror and Lenny would practice in front of it," Betty says. "He'd look at himself in the mirror and make believe he was putting on a show. He had a key that stuck and when he'd hit that note he'd say, [stage whisper] 'Jessusssss!' I'd say, 'Lennnnyyy!' Then he'd start it all over again. He was already quite a character!"

By the late forties, Pine and Betty had worked Maine and surrounding states so thoroughly that they'd burnt out their territory, and audiences had dwindled drastically. When station CKCW in Moncton, New Brunswick, offered the band their own radio show, the Breaus decided this was an opportune time to move on to a new locale. On October 2, 1948, an item in the Lewiston Evening Journal announced the sale of the Breaus' Turner Road farm and declared "Harold Breau, the Lone Pine Mountaineer of Stage and Radio ... [and] singer of Western ditties is leaving soon on a Canadian tour." A month later the Breau family — one member larger since the birth of their second-born son, Dickie — along with Ray Couture, and Gene Hooper and his soon-to-be bride, Flo Cote, settled in Moncton, New Brunswick, where they broadcast daily as "Lone Pine and his CKCW Jamboree Gang." Because of their busy touring schedule, the Breaus deposited their sons with Ida and Alphie Babineau on a farm outside of Shediak, a town about twenty miles east of Moncton. The Babineaus had met the Breaus on an earlier trip to the Maritimes and after becoming fast friends with the couple, offered to look after their sons. Dickie Breau was three years old at the time and recalls his five years on the Babineaus' farm with great fondness. "The Babineaus were very nice," he says. "Ida was a doting kind of person who was always waiting on you hand and foot. They were more like parents to us than anyone who took care of us. The most normal childhood I had was on the farm. In fact, I've often said to my wife and friends, 'those were the best years of our lives.'"

Lenny was less enthusiastic about the new situation than his younger, more adaptable brother. While he got on well with the Babineaus, Lenny lived for his parents' bi-monthly visits, which generally coincided with their shows in the area. Lenny often performed at these shows where his candor and zeal elicited much appreciative laughter from audience members, Gene Hooper says.

One night we played a hall outside of Moncton and the pipes had dripped and it was kind of dirty. You could tell it hadn't been cleaned for a long, long while and in those days they didn't have no running water. The toilets had two or three holes. As we got into the hall we could smell the toilets and we started cleaning the place up, dusting and sweeping. Pine says, "You know, this is the dirtiest hall I think we ever played." When it came time to introduce Sonny, who was eight or nine, he says, "Howdy, folks," and took his little cowboy hat off the way Pine had shown him. Pine said, "Well, Junior, do you have anything to say?" He says, "Yes, I sure do. You know folks, this is the dirtiest hall we ever played in! And those toilets! Boy, do they ever stink. Somebody should clean this dump up!" Christ, we could have gone through the stage but it was the biggest hand of the evening.


In performance, Lenny rarely suffered from the stutter he had developed at the age of six or seven. Lenny would later claim that his stutter was the result of alternating constantly between French and English schools as a child. Betty, however, says that while Lenny was fluently bilingual as a child, he never attended an exclusively French-speaking school and did not change schools frequently, in any case. Whatever its origin, his stutter would stay with him all his life, usually manifesting itself when Lenny was nervous, angry, or under pressure.

In 1949, Pine and Betty's move to Sunnyside, Prince Edward Island, about ninety miles and a ferry ride away from Shediak, coincided with an upswing in their careers. The following year, they traveled to Montreal to record Ray Couture's composition, "Prince Edward Island is Heaven to Me" backed with "When it's Apple Blossom Time in Annapolis Valley" for RCA Canada. The company released the 78 on their budget subsidiary Bluebird label, and within the month the record was a significant radio hit in the Maritimes, making the Breaus superstars in Atlantic Canada. On Valentine's Day 1950, they took to the air as "The Noisiest Gang on Radio," on station CFBC in St. John, New Brunswick. The popularity of the show led to a thrice weekly, nationally broadcast spot on CBC radio. Later that year, Pine and Betty toured the Maritimes with country legend Lefty Frizzell and then relocated to Truro, Nova Scotia. From here, Pine commuted regularly to Bangor to host a show on WLAM radio that was nationally syndicated on the ABC network. By this time, RCA had released "Prince Edward Island" in the US where it enjoyed heavy radio play in New England. On the strength of this, the Breaus (accompanied by Ray Couture) returned to live in Bangor in mid-1951, leaving Dickie and Lenny on the Babineaus' farm. Lenny did not take this well, says Gene Hooper, who remained in New Brunswick. "He missed his folks very bad. It was hard on poor Sonny, very, very hard." Fortunately, by this time, Lenny had discovered a pastime that would help to make his parents' absence almost bearable.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from One Long Tune by Ron Forbes - Roberts. Copyright © 2006 Ron Forbes-Roberts. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author


Ron Forbes-Roberts is an award-winning journalist and a contributing editor to Acoustic Guitar Magazine. He is a career musician with a degree in classical guitar and lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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