Lenny Breau Remembered
copyright 1996 by Monte Nordstrom
from issue # 32 - Cosmic Debris Musicians Magazine - Aug '96
The first time I remember seeing Lenny was while watching CBC's TV programme "Music Hop"
back in the late 60s. "Music Hop" was on every day at suppertime & each day of the week it was hosted by a different city. Host towns included Halifax, Toronto, Winnipeg & Vancouver. Many groups got otherwise unattainable National exposure from this excellent series. More
on "Music Hop" (& "Let's Go!") another time.
Lenny was a regular member of the Winnipeg CBC studio orchestra & I first noticed him hunched over his huge Baldwin semi-acoustic guitar, sporting a Fu Manchu & a beatific expression. His superb two-handed style was easily appreciated even in a large ensemble. I later learned where the beatific expression came from.
Lenny himself came from Auburn,
Maine, the son of a successful C&W duo
known as Hal "Lone Pine" Breau & Betty
Cote. Hal & Betty were RCA recording
artists that had been produced by Chet
Atkins. They relocated to Winnipeg when
Lenny was a pre-teen, just learning the
Atkins/Travis style from records. Lenny
reminisced of playing dates billed as "Lone
Pine Jr.", performing at drive-ins & country
fairs while as young as eleven. His country
roots ran deep but he soon discovered jazz
& classical, adapting them to his style.
After scoring his CBC gig, Lenny was
noticed by a touring Grand Ole Opry show.
The Opry musicians had come to visit Hal
& Betty but returned to Nashville singing
praises of the young guitarist's abilities to
Chet Atkins. The ball was rolling.
It wasn't long before "Guitar Sounds
From Lenny Breau" came out on RCA,
produced by Chet Atkins & Danny Davis.
Lenny's guitar & understated vocals were
supported by Reg Kelln & Ron Halldorson
on drums & bass. With extensive & glowing
liner notes lauding his talent, Lenny was on
his way. Having Chet Atkins endorse
Lenny as his "favorite guitarist" was a
gold-plated invitation to the big-league! His
fluid improvisational chops astounded
audiences on the club circuit.
A second RCA came out entitled, "The
Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau, Live!"
recorded at "Shelley's Mannehole" in
Hollywood. Lenny once again used the
rhythm section of Kelln & Halldorson.
Lenny's performance on this recording
was a highwater mark in his career and
established his credibility with the upper
echelon of Jazz & guitar players in general.
He had achieved "Legend" status, but he
had a drug problem developing.
In February of 1972, I was in Ottawa on
an extended coffeehouse "tour" with Glen
Dias. We were performing as the duo,
"Ptarmigan" and auditioned at the
prestigious "Le Hibou" for club owner John
Russo. He liked our weird west coast
sound and said he'd give us an opening
spot but wanted to find an appropriate
I remember John saying to me, "There's
a guy coming in a couple weeks that your
style might fit with, but he's pretty
intimidating for a guitarist. How about
Lenny Breau...?" My jaw dropped and I'm
sure I stuttered when I gave my affirmative
reaction. What an opportunity!
We opened for Lenny doing two shows
a night for six nights. I hung around Lenny
like a magnet, watching his hands and
picking his brain. He gave me a couple of
patterns, picking styles, one really big
chord, and showed me his unique right
hand harmonic technique.
Watching Lenny perform his 3-way style
with 3rd & 4th fingers doing hammer stroke
melody lines, his 2nd finger comping
stacked 4th chords & his 1st finger &
thumb doing a walking bass line or long
pedal tones was truly a mind-splitter. And
that was just his left hand!
He had great facility with his right hand,
touching the guitar in whatever way
necessary to achieve the sound he
desired. His thumb & first finger picked the
bass lines, middle fingers struck the chords
and his pinky played the melody. He
developed this 2-handed technique by
emulating the jazz piano style of Bill Evans
and applying it to Flamenco, Jazz, Blues &
Country. His lush expanded chords and
deft arpeggiating modal patterns were an
aural expressionistic epiphany, a kind of
Not to mention that he was a real sweet
guy. His limited vocal ability was offset by
his delivery. He explained that he used his
voice like a horn, thinking like Miles Davis.
His lyric interpretation was humourous &
genuine. Lenny had a stammering
problem. As the week went along I noticed
he had a hard time saying the title to the
song "Why Did I Choose You", getting hung up on
the "Ch" sound. One night after 3 failed
attempts to announce the tune he
sighed and said simply, "This song is
called, Why Did I".
Another night after a "late one" previous, Lenny
appeared on stage with dark glasses and
a gaudy new shirt with the price tag
sticking out. He explained to the audience,
"I was up kind of late and I didn't want to
scare the front rows with my red eyeballs."
When Lenny was held over for a second
week due to Doug Kershaw's failure to
appear, John Russo told Glen & I some
disappointing news. Due to Kershaw's
ticket refunds "Le Hibou" couldn't afford to
pay us to open. Lenny said in his soft
spoken way, "That's OK man, I'll pay them
myself." Due to his generosity I had
another week to enjoy the most amazing
guitarist I've ever seen.
At the end of the first week I had my 18th
birthday. The club gave me a birthday cake
with little plastic charioteers on it and
Lenny gave me a carton of Export A. We
went to a dinner at Lenny's friends, Marge
& Joy's apartment and ended up partying
all through the weekend. At one point
Lenny & I jammed. He was on Deepak
Sahasrabutti's sitar & I was on my 12-string. As I recall it was a rather murky
excursion. We ended up back at our friend
Rose's pad at the "Pestalozzi".
The "Pest" was Ottawa's version of
"Rochdale". It was a vertical commune full
of college students, hippies, draft dodgers
and drug dealers with its own security
guards at the door. Lenny knew his way
around and the parasitic dope dealers
would always find him. At this time he was
off his heroin habit but was sublimating his
crave for a high with whatever smoke &
chemicals he could find. If only he'd been
able to end the cycle...
In any case, the two weeks I was able to
spend with Lenny are among the most
memorable and influential to me as a
person and as an artist. I will always hold
those days close to my heart. Sadly, I
never saw him again.
Lenny's unfortunate predeliction for drug
use marred the forward motion of his
career and he stalled. Doomed never to crack the
commercial market, Lenny continued to
amaze & delight audiences with his
superlative talents in spite of the proverbial
monkey on his back. On occassion the
monkey would win and Lenny would turn in
a fuzzy performance or fail to appear. This
nagging problem dogged him for the rest of
his career. He managed to record some
wonderful albums in between the bouts of
his addiction but never again worked for a
I was living in Banff when I heard of
Lenny's death in L.A. It was August of
1984. He had been strangled and left in a
swimming pool. Apparently his murderer is
known but there is no proof for conviction.
We were robbed of a true natural guitar
genius. His music lives on in his
recordings, most of which are listed here.
Label info & serial #'s
pertain to vinyl.
"Guitar Sounds From
Lenny Breau" RCA
"The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau, Live!" (CD
now available) RCA Victor LSP-4199
There are 4 fine albums put out by the Adelphi
Jazz Line, 3 of which are solo. "Five O'Clock
Bells" Posterity - PTL 7002
"Mo' Breau" Adelphi - AD5012
"The Lenny Breau Trio" Adelphi - AD5018
"Last Sessions" Adelphi - AD 5024 (possibly available on
CD: Adelphi Records, Box 7688, Silver Springs,
"Minors Aloud" Buddy Emmons & Lenny Breau Flying Fish/Stony Plain SPFF 1019
(I got this most excellent album from Holger
Peterson when I lived in Edmonton. It is a
must-have collection of Emmons' jazzy steel
guitar & Breau backed by a hot piano trio) Stony
Plain, Box 861,Edmonton, Alta T5J 2L8
"Legacy" Lenny Breau with Dave Young (String
Bass) Relaxed Rabbit - RR 427. This 1983 live
album is duplicated & surpassed by the more
complete: "Live at Bourbon St." Lenny Breau with
Dave Young. Guitarchives-GTR-0001. This
double Cd is available on Randy Bachman's
label: Guitarchives: Bx 36055, 10991 #1 Rd.
Richmond, B.C. V7E 3E6
Note: Monte Nordstrom has produced over 75 demos and has recorded 8 albums to
date (Nov '99). He performs regularly at numerous venues on Canada's West Coast.
Email Monte at:
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