The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau
In 1984, Lenny Breau was found dead in the swimming pool on the roof of his rooftop apartment. An autopsy later reported that he had been murdered, death by strangulation. His murder remains unsolved to this day.
This documentary takes a look at the man who to this day is considered to be one of the greatest guitar players who ever lived - the influences that formed him, and the tragic life he led that eventually led to his murder.
Transcript of the audio documentary
The following documentary contains some mature situations and language. Listener discretion is advised.
I'm Ross Porter and welcome to the documentary The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau.
On August 12th, 1984, guitarist Lenny Breau was found dead in a swimming pool on the roof of an apartment building in Los Angeles. A report issued by the L.A. coroners office determined that he'd been murdered, death by strangulation. The case remains unsolved to this day.
"Lenny Breau is one of the biggest celebrities in the guitar world. You know, he's one of those legendary people."
"Lenny was a technical wizard. Even though Lenny played it down a fair amount, it was astonishing what he could do and I'm still astonished by it. "
"He was like a little magic person. Even people who didn't know anything about jazz or the guitar, he was spellbinding. He just had that magic. It was just magic."
During his lifetime, Lenny's ability to play the guitar has been described in many ways. Chet Atkins once called Lenny "the greatest guitar player in the world. If Chopin could have played the guitar, he would have sounded like Lenny Breau." And respected guitar great Danny Gattin once said, "Lenny Breau played more great stuff at one time than anybody on the planet, with feeling and tone. He was the best that ever lived, bar none."
Born on August the 5th, 1941 in Auburn, Maine, Lenny's musical roots can be traced right back to the womb. His parents Betty Cody and Hal "Lone Pine" Breau were country and western performers. They had a band that performed regularly, decked out in cowboy gear, on their own noontime radio show. And even from an early age, their son, Lenny Breau, fit right in.
Lenny's mother, Betty Cody: "We used to rehearse in our barn, we had a big home and a barn and we used to have all our mics on and everything out there to rehearse and amplifiers and once in a while, he would listen to us and I remember one day we were singing "The Cattle Call", Lone Pine and I, we were rehearsing and I used to do the second part and all of a sudden we hear Lenny, just a little fella', about three, and he started doing the third part, up harmony, perfect."
When Lenny was 7, the family uprooted itself and moved to Atlantic Canada and not long after the move, Lenny first picked up the instrument that would go on to make him a legend.
Lenny Breau: "Well I was about 8 years old when I started to play the guitar and by the time I was 12, I started working with my dad off and on. So by the time I was 15, I was in the band, on the road."
Lenny was billed as "Lone Pine Junior" and quickly became one of the band's star attractions. He had begun experimenting with a style of playing that he'd heard guitarist Chet Adkins performing on the radio called "Finger Style". In "Finger Style" playing, the thumb is used to play a bass rhythm on the lower notes while at the same time the fingers pluck out a melody on the higher notes. Lenny was a quick study and took to it instantly.
Drummer Terry Clarke: "He just had it all. You really got it all together but he, but it was because he devoted himself 24 hours to that and by doing so he neglected lots of other parts of his life that, you know, he didn't, I mean he had to drop out of school. He really didn't learn to read, read or write very well so he was almost illiterate so he would need you to tell him what that said or have someone read a letter to him or he was kind of, it was kind of sad but on the other hand he was a brilliant guitar player."
In 1957, Lenny's parents were offered a job hosting a daily half-hour radio show in Winnipeg on CKY Radio. They knew nothing about the city, but without hesitation packed up their Cadillac and drove 5 days to get to their new town, a place that to Lenny would always seem like home. And heading the charge, as always, was Lenny's father, Hal "Lone Pine".
One of Lenny's biographers, Ron Forbes Roberts: "His father was his world. Hal was a very gregarious, outgoing man. He loved to be the center of attention and he knew how to be the center of attention. He was in some ways a very warm guy, but he was a bit of a dictator as well. He really had his family under his thumb and he was the guy who made all the decisions and set up his life to be pretty much what he wanted it to be. Lenny knew his father best through his stage persona, really. Lenny didn't have a whole lot to do with his family when they weren't on stage and I think that was part of the impetus for Lenny wanting to play guitar and be a part of that."
The family became instant celebrities in Winnipeg and Lenny, still known as "Lone Pine Junior", was drawing in the audience with his playing and his charm. One of the fans in Winnipeg at the time was future rock star, Randy Bachman.
"We met and I hung out with him for 2 years and he taught me everything about guitar. Yeah, he was playing with his parents' band at the time and they'd play 4 or 5 nights a week and he'd just be getting up at noon as I'd, I'd go to school in the morning, I'd go to these 2 twins, these girlfriends I had who lived right across the street from him in Garden City in Winnipeg. Their mother would make us lunch, they'd go back to school and I'd go over to Lenny's and he's have the old vinyl and he'd be lifting off licks and stuff and I was just learning to play, and I'd say, How do you play this, how do you play that?' We became really good friends. I think I was his only friend there. His world was all adults and we had a, I would bring him cool records, Rick Nelson and Elvis and Gene Vincent, how do I play this cool rock and roll stuff,' and to him this was a piece of cake because he'd already mastered the Chet Adkins, Merle Travis and was getting into the jazz and going to play with the jazz cats uptown in Winnipeg. I would see him at noon, I'd come back after dinner, he'd still be practicing. He would dress up in different costumes. When he wanted to do Flamenco, he would actually put on a shirt with the big white puffy sleeves and little black vest and a Zorro hat and sit in front of a mirror and take the posture and the stance and do the (plays guitar riff) and do all that kind of stuff and I said, Why are you doing this?' and he said, Cause like I gotta be like him, man. I gotta be the man,' and he would actually look like Sabicas or Carlos Montoya. The he'd put on another jacket and he'd be Barney Kessel and he would play all the Barney Kessel stuff, so almost like an actor. I loved him. He was really a sweet, great guy. I mean, to me he was the Johnny Appleseed of guitar. You could go watch him play a club anywhere, you could go up to him in the break and say, That last song. What was that riff you played?' and he'd go, Oh, it's (plays guitar riff)', and he'd show you the riff and everything. He would like plant these little seeds and every seed he planted, it turned into a great guitar player."
One of the other people that came into Lenny's life during this period was Winnipeg pianist, Bob Erlendson. During the 1958 Christmas holidays, Bob had been asked to play at a gig in the Stony Mountain Penitentiary just north of the city. He knew all the players he was supposed to play with that day, expect for one.
"Then comes Lenny Breau. He's a little kid, right, sixteen years old. And we didn't play but one number before we said, (gasps) Oh no! That's really something!' Right? He didn't know the tunes we were playing so he would just sort of sit there and listen to the first chorus and play a few odd things and by the time we were in the third chorus of the song, he knows it inside and out, right? And then plays a really fine solo. Probably better than any of the other members of the band."
Bob then hired Lenny to play in a group he was forming called "Four Guys and A Doll". Lenny agreed to join but had to leave town before the group ever performed. His parents' radio contract in Winnipeg expired and the band had to move to Moose Jaw where they had lined up a job playing on the radio there. Following Lenny to Moose Jaw was his new wife Valarie. They were expecting their first child and for Lenny, the grown-up tensions were starting to mound. But despite all that, nothing could take away his first love, music, and increasingly, jazz. His father was not pleased at Lenny burgeoning interest in jazz. During one of his bands' sets, Lenny snuck a jazz solo into the middle of one of their songs. Lone Pine smiled onstage as he heard his son play but after the show a witness claims to have seen Lone Pine slap Lenny in anger over the incident.
Bob Erlendson: "He got into some kind of terrible argument with his dad. He quit the radio show in Moose Jaw and brought his brand new baby and wife back to Winnipeg, right? And as luck would have it, Jack Shapira had started this jazz policy at an ex-legion called The Stage Door and we played 7 nights a week. Just Lenny and I. It was absolutely wonderful training for both of us, right, because every time he'd ask me a really sensible question, I would have to go home and think about it and work it out and bring the information back and teach him."
The year was a great learning experience for both Lenny and Bob. Bob, who now lives in Toronto, recently reflected on Lenny's musical development while he had a lunch of peanut butter and pancakes.
Bob Erlendson: "Lenny had to start right at the beginning to understand musical theory. Like, nobody have ever given him any, he was all by ear, right. So I spent a lot of time during the first few weeks just feeding him basic information and showing applications of that information in a tune. You know, I'd say, Ok, remember this tune? We played it last night or something. Here's an example of such and such.' Right? Whatever, and then I said, Ok, now you just keep thinking up questions,' and he'd be, he'd ask me one every night."
One of the great musical stylists whom Lenny was exposed to during that influential year was musician Bill Evans.
"I kept saying to Lenny, Look it, I'm already into some of this stuff too, so I'm gonna be a good influence on you directly but if you want to get more information on it, you got to look at Bill Evans and what Bill Evans does.' And he took that very seriously and did for the rest of his life.
Lenny Breau: "When I first started playing guitar, I listened to all the guitar players for about maybe 10 years or so. I had all the Dell Frelow albums and Barney Kessel albums and the Johnny Smith records, you know, and then eventually I reached the point where I was trying to develop something different and I heard this Bill Evans play one day and I said, That's it! I'd love to be able to do some of that on guitar.' And it gave me something to work on, it gave me a goal and he's been my big influence."
Multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson: "Well Bill Evans was the most beautiful musicians that ever lived and the beauty in his playing was just irresistible. Nobody could avoid it. And so that harmonic substitutions he'd use, they call it re-harmonization now, I mean he didn't call it that. He'd just call it fixing up the tune. But the fact is that he would take any tune that everybody else played and find a new way of playing it but that was so great that it'd almost sound like he'd written the tune. And like when you heard it, you'd think, Well that's the way it should go,' is the way he played it because the chords made perfect sense and everything was so beautiful. And I think Lenny probably just, he just had to figure out what it was on the guitar. I mean, on piano it's real easy, you just say, Well what was that chord?' and then you just fool around until you find it but on guitar you say, Well what was that chord?' and all of a sudden that chord's got more notes than you can actually play. He had to find a way to play what he wanted to play and so he basically invented a whole new technique on the instrument in order to be able to do it. Nobody's ever, very few people in the history of music could ever do that but Lenny was, he was the first cat and like he did all those things in harmonics that nobody'd ever dreamt of before."
Lenny's playing attracted the attention of a Toronto based manager who brought him to Toronto to try and make a go of it. He quickly became the talk of the town, even attracting the attention of singer Tony Bennett who was passing through Toronto and offered Lenny a gig in his touring band. Lenny's manager encouraged him to accept Tony's offer but Lenny already had his mind set up on a collaboration with someone that he'd recently met, a bohemian with piercing eyes who's free-spirited creativity captured Lenny's imagination.
"I'm Don Francks. I sometimes am an actor. I'm sometimes a carpenter. I'm sometimes living here and there on this earth."
Don was well-known at the time as an eccentric performer in the Canadian jazz scene and when he and Lenny met for the first time, the two hit if off immediately.
"When I met him, after I got over awe, that's when I finally said, My goodness gracious, this is amazing that I have a chance to be around such a genius but I have to find out whether he wants to be around me.' But I think I sung a few things with him down in the basement of his manager's house where he was staying and there seemed to be something that felt correct. And then that was when we decided that we needed a bass player and I told him I knew one and that was Eon Henstridge. So after we joined up, that's when we started to get on a journey of unparalleled musical adventures. And it wasn't until I read the book by Ron Forbes Roberts called "One Long Tune" that I learned that Lenny had already had an offer from Tony Bennett, you know, the pop singer, the crooner pop singer, and Lenny turned it down and chose to stick with me, which I didn't realize that at the time."
Author Ron Forbes Roberts: "Don Francks, I think, is, he really, he was really searching for something else and I think when he met Lenny, it just kind of magically clicked between those guys, but I can just imagine those guys together, just, you know, people have told me about it, it was just like seeing 2 rockets going off together. The interesting thing was that Lenny was somewhat introverted and nave and Don Francks was an extremely, even at that point, worldly trickster, you know, who knew exactly how to get what he wanted and I should say too that I've talked with Don Francks many times since the book came out and he's a little unhappy with the implication that he turned Lenny onto marijuana, which I guess comes across in the book. He insisted that Lenny was a stoner before he met him."
"I was really surprised when that was in the book. To think that I introduced Lenny, who'd been playing in jazz clubs and playing jazz music and I don't think at that time that I was the one in 1961 who introduced Leonard Breau to the weed."
Regardless, Lenny had started experimenting with drugs, a habit that may have begun with smoking a little pot but would soon include other drugs that would provide him with an escape from the mounting pressures of his grown-up responsibilities.
Ron Forbes Roberts: "Lenny was sort of a flamboyant character and he was not, you know, he was very open about his drug use. He didn't, you know, he was quite childlike and he would tell people, people would say, Well, why are you doing this?' Because I'm a junkie.' You know, he was comfortable with it."
Lenny traveled to New York with the group Three in Don Francks' vintage hearse. They had recently signed with the prestigious William Morris Agency, who had booked them as musical guests on the popular television program The Jackie Gleason Show.
Don Francks: "It wasn't long before somebody said, whether it was a producer maybe that said, Let's get Don Francks to do one song by himself, and let's have it a song that our middle-America will go "Oh wow" without getting too jazzy at all'. And then we were allowed to be turned loose and I think we did "Bye-Bye Blackbird" which was quite long and quite different than you'll ever hear "Bye-Bye Blackbird" ever done. It was a really good offering, and they enjoyed it. It was enjoyed so much that's how we got the recording with CAP Records which was a subsidiary of DECA."
The album was recorded at New York's legendary Village Vanguard, where Lenny's hero Bill Evans recorded several landmark albums of his own. With National television exposure and an album recorded at the famous New York club, things were looking golden for the trio. Then without notice, Don Francks suddenly put an end to the group. He wanted time to focus on his career as an actor. All the momentum Lenny had gained with the group came to a halt and he suddenly found himself miles from home without a musical direction to follow.
Bob Erlendson: "At the end of his Don Francks period, he was stranded in New York and he pawned his amplifier and he pawned his guitar, phoned me in a panic and it just so happened I had a job to offer him and that was one of Lenny's best times. He really played his buns off during that whole year."
Late one night, Lenny was jamming with Paul Yandel, the guitarist who was touring with country singer Kitty Wells. The two hit it off and when Lenny found out Paul was also a guitarist for musician and record company executive Chett Adkins, he gave Paul a demo tape to give to Chett. Little did Lenny know at the time, but that one action would change his life.
Biographer Ron Forbes Roberts: "Lenny first heard Chett when he was about 11 or 12 years old and very much in the guitar and heard Chett's playing and that was a pole star for the rest of his life really. He was just absolutely drawn into this style. He wanted to play just like that. He had, there was a guy who played in his parent's band who'd had a couple of informal lessons from Chett who showed him the basis of the style, and Lenny took off with that and by the time he was 14 or 15, he was at least as good as Chett at that style. I've heard some Chett experts say that he was actually a better, cleaner player, but really the relationship went way beyond that. I mean, Lenny appreciated Chett's style certainly, but when they met in the, around 1967, they immediately formed a very close bond and I think that Chett really filled a whole in Lenny's life."
Bob Erlendson: "Lenny and I were both living in Toronto at the time and when Chett talked the RCA Victor into getting Lenny to come down. Lenny wanted me to go and then RCA people said no on me going. I think Chett's idea was, "I don't want two stars in the band, I want one." And then it featured just Lenny doing his thing and, so I accepted that as one of those turning points in my life that didn't go anywhere. But it did for Lenny, right? And if he had been able to take advantage of it, it should have made him a career but by the time the second album came out, Lenny was already in trouble with the drug taking."
Ron Forbes Roberts: "Chett was an industry man. He knew a lot of other recording industries, one of the most powerful executives in the recording industry in the world. He adored Lenny and he was, you know, he certainly saw quickly the kind of trouble that Lenny was in and did everything he could in a very cool way to try to, at first I think, get Lenny out of the problems that he was in and then later to, how can I put it, to, Chett was a pretty unconditionally loving kind of man and I don't think it ever occurred to him to push Lenny out of his life. I think he just tried to damage control, you know, to make things so that, to intervene in Lenny's destructive tendencies from time to time, just do whatever he could for him, and I think he was intelligent enough and perceptive enough to realize they really are and that Lenny wasn't gonna go along with that really anyway. I mean, it's not that he was rebellious, he was, it was like herding snakes, right."
Lenny's alcohol and drug intake was increasing to the point where he would reportedly take up to 15 hits of LSD before going onstage. His playing began to suffer and Lenny developed a reputation as unreliable.
Bob Erlendson: "He was just, he was like a 15 year old, mentally. And I think, even though I really, I really loved this guy, I mean, he was a wonderful friend, and he was just completely irresponsible. Nobody had ever explained to him anything about how to handle money, and nobody ever explained anything about how sane it is to be a casual user of anything, you know, tobacco, alcohol, any of the drugs. A casual use means that you're not, you may be abusing your body to some extent but you're not destroying it, except in the long term. And so he was, he was an abuser of anything he took. I mean, we went through his phases right, his LSD phase and his cocaine phase and his heroin phase, pills, all kinds of pills, and always overdo. I mean and he would, he kept talking to me on my phone no matter how far, where we went, but he would never phone unless he'd had a couple of sober days cause he never wanted me to hear it in his voice that he was out of it."
Bassist and friend of Lenny's, Dave Young: "The big problem with Lenny was that he was not consistent. Because of, I guess, the influence of drugs or maybe certain amount of, Oh, I don't think I'm gonna do that,' you know, he was not, like his music he wasn't always predictable and so if you said, Lenny, we have a session tomorrow at 10 o'clock and it's probably gonna go til 5,' you'd be taking a chance sometimes, unless you went and pick him up and made sure that he got there. To count on him to get up in the morning, and take a cab and show up and be ready to play at 10 o'clock, sometimes it would be too much, so you had to look after him."
Back in Toronto, one of Lenny's life-long dreams was about to come true. Bill Evans was performing at the Colonial Tavern. Lenny was determined to finally play with the man whose original style had so strongly influenced his.
Drummer Terry Clarke: "Bill would very seldom invite people up to play. You know, you had to really be a tremendous player to do that, I've only seen a few people sit in with Bill. Bill was playing with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell, and Marty Morell's then girlfriend, his soon-to-be wife, was a very good friend of Lenny's, and so I think she introduced them and they got together and said, This is Lenny Breau,' and it was, and he had his amp and guitar with him and was just one of those things."
One of the people in the audience that night was musician Don Thompson: "Well it wasn't that great. I mean Lenny, I don't know what happened, but it wasn't the best night Lenny ever had. I mean, it should have been better than it was. Bill was very organized. He had everything really arranged, an arrangement for the trio and like he was very organized, and they had introductions and specific harmonies and everything, so when you get two people that've got really a whole bunch of chords going on and put them together, there's a lot of chords and a lot of stuff happening and that didn't, I remember I was kind of disappointed because it didn't really work that well, but I think it was also just the stress of the moment. I mean, here's Bill Evans playing and Lenny's asked to sit in and there's all this anticipation and everybody's expecting it to be like an earth-shaking event. Well, it wasn't. It wasn't."
Shortly after the ill-fated concert, Lenny had a run-in with the law that would change his life for most of the next decade and make him flee the country he had grown to call home. Lenny had a friend that grew and sold marijuana. One night while the two of them were staying in the same apartment, Lenny found himself suddenly in a very tricky situation.
Lenny Breau: "He sold it to a girl and the girl happened to be married to a narc, so he got busted and I was in the same house so I got the same charge and he wouldn't admit it was his so we all got charged with the same thing, like with possession with intent to sell and I've never sold nothing in my life, man, but I got charged with that. Plus I didn't show up in court cause my dad was dying in the States so it made me look like the guilty one because I didn't show up in court and I went to go see my dad in the States and all the other cats showed up but I didn't, so it made me look like the guy with the big two pounds that wanted to sell it, so I had to take the wrap."
Lenny evaded Canadian officials for the next six years by staying out of the country. In 1981, Don Francks had arranged for lawyer Austin Cooper to help Lenny in his legal battles. The same lawyer who had, just a few years earlier, successfully represented Keith Richards on a heroin charge. Austin was able to get Lenny's charge negotiated down to simple possession with a fine of $1000 and just like that, Lenny was allowed to return to Canada.
Drummer Terry Clarke: "At one point in the early 80s, Lenny had met somebody in his life that had really straightened him out as far as the drug situation and he was really, he really became clean for quite a while and he returned to Toronto, played at Bourbon Street, he did two weeks there, and the word was out after the first night that Lenny was completely straight and playing his ass off and sure enough, everybody went down. I mean you couldn't get in the place."
Don Thompson: "Well the first week was fantastic. It was amazing. Spectacular. Unbelievable."
While in town, Lenny was interviewed by JazzFM 91's Ted O'Riley:
"Just move that wherever you're gonna be comfortable."
"All right, all right, nice to be here, Ted."
"Back in Toronto again?"
"That's right. Yeah, back in the saddle again."
"Your own personal life is straighten out?"
"You've had problems in the past?"
"Yeah, but that's all over with now and I'm focusing on the music and the music is becoming very important to me now. It's becoming very important for me to play the best I can, like, no matter where I'm playing."
His first week at Bourbon Street was truly fantastic. In his review of one of the shows, journalist Mark Miller wrote, "Only the sound of the clubs door opening and closing broke the spell that the guitarist was weaving." Backing Lenny for most of the two weeks were bassist Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke.
"With all the great jazz players that have been junkies or have been addicts, there are good times and bad times and you want to believe that they're gonna be that way all the time and they just aren't. Lenny was I think maybe afraid of success. I think he'd had a lot of success in his life, but nothing was ever consistent so, and his personal demons would always get in the way."
Lenny had returned to Canada with his new wife Jewel. He credited Jewel with helping him stay sober. The two had been introduced by Chett Adkins a couple of years earlier. Jewel was a born-again Christian who at one time had been arrested on a charge of prostitution.
Bob Erlendson: "I try to take the, give everybody the benefit of the doubt. She was trying desperately to be really nice to me because she knew that I was an important figure in Lenny's life but I found it difficult to warm up to her."
Terry Clarke: "She wasn't hooked up right. I mean, there was definitely something wrong with this woman, because then, in the middle of a tune, she came up on stage and sang the last sixteen bars of the tune that we were playing, so a very strange event. She just walked right up and started playing and that was it. She didn't start this tune, she just ended this tune. I didn't know that she sang so it was a very odd, uncomfortable moment and it just became very apparent to me that she was really part of a lunatic fringe."
Don Thompson: "Well the first week was fantastic. The second week was sort of slipping because those guys started coming around. Those guys would start showing up at the club and I wouldn't know who they were, and after, instead of Lenny coming back, because usually I would go down to Don Francks house and pick him up and then we'd go down to the subway together and then we'd come home together, and like the whole first week, that's what we did, and then the second week these guys started showing up. Old friends, he said they weren't friends but old acquaintances that really wanted to hang out with a celebrity and so they hung out together and then the next night we wouldn't be able to play very good, and it kept getting worse and worse. Towards the end of it, he could barely play on the last night."
Don Francks: "As far as what he would do and where we would get whatever he was going to get, that's his business. It's not mine. Maybe appearing where a whole lot of people would come to, Bourbon Street, what a perfect place to meet old friends. Hey Lenny, look what I got for you, man. Here. Don't tell anybody, man. Here.' And as I say, if he didn't come home, he didn't come home, and that wasn't my business. I'm not my brother's keeper, I can only help my brother, I can't keep him."
Those two weeks at Bourbon Street were intended to be the warm-up for a Canadian Tour. His wife Jewel had flown home to L.A. by that point, leaving Lenny alone on the road. His first stop, which was his adopted hometown, Winnipeg.
Bassist Dave Young: "Lenny really felt pressure from certain situations and there were times in his life when he probably felt like he was just way over his head in terms of responsibilities. I mean, normally if he was feeling good and things were not, the rent was paid, you know, things were going along fine at home, than he would be ok. If there's a former wife or separation of the family and kids and all that stuff, I mean, that really took a toll on him. I know that there was one ill-fated concert in Winnipeg that was exactly that."
Writer Ron Forbes Roberts: "The story about it that I originally heard was that he arrived in Winnipeg in fine form, and then his wife slapped him with this child support thing and the sheriff showed up and then Lenny reacted as he usually did to those kinds of situations, he got himself wrecked, but the fact is that Lenny arrived in Winnipeg in that condition. He knew that he was going into a situation that was frightening to him, I think. You know, there was a lot of pressure on him, Lenny didn't like pressure, and he was picked up at the airport by his brother-in-law who told me that he had been drinking all night and taking Valium then he spent the day getting progressively worse."
I was living and working in Winnipeg at the time and was scheduled to interview Lenny at his hotel when he arrived, but as it turns out, I wasn't the only one who was waiting for him to get there. He was greeted at the hotel by the city sheriff who served Lenny with papers from his ex-wife Valarie demanding $100,000 in unpaid child-support. After meeting with lawyers, the support payment was eventually negotiated down to $3000, representing the fee Lenny was to get paid at that night's show. The pressure of the day was too much for Lenny. When he wasn't at the lawyer's office, he spent his time roaming around Winnipeg, drinking and popping whatever pills he could get his hands on. I finally caught up with Lenny backstage at the playhouse theater. This 1,500 seat venue was the largest Lenny had ever headlined at. We talked just hours before he was to go on stage.
"I, like, I wanna see if I can find that, find my girlfriend, I mean not my girlfriend but my daughter"
Lenny was unkempt.
"I'm gonna go back to Vancouver after I play, you know, like, like, now what's the name of that town I just said? Uh"
He was at times incoherent.
"this trip, right here, is a pretty emotionally packed time for you."
"Oh fuck, man. Jesus."
And clearly shaken by the emotional intensity of the day. It was difficult at times for him to keep his focus.
"Come on, sit down. What, you're taking my glasses!"
"Oh, are these yours?"
"No, man, those are mine, man."
"No, they're mine."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, try em on and you'll see."
We touched on his views on spirituality.
"So like, the fastest way to God, to me, is through music and like, when I play music, that's when I feel close to God."
And we talked about drugs, the demons that haunted Lenny, over and over again.
"And at first I did it for inspiration."
"Did it give it to you?"
"Yeah, at first. You know, I got the inspiration at first but in the end it turned against me. It turned against me, it wasn't inspiring anymore, it was a habit. And I had to have it. So then it wasn't inspiring anymore, it was a habit, it was a drug, it was a necessity. So after a while it worked against me. Like, I mean, like $100 a day, you know I used to spend $100 a day just to feel good. I mean, never mind just being inspired, but just to feel normal, I use to have to spend that much money in the end. It was a drag, man, like sometimes I say like Oh, wow, I don't feel so good,' and I had just spent $100. Sometimes I'd spend 3 or $400 just to feel good. You know, I still like to get high once in a while but I don't do it because I got a habit, I mean, I do it because I wanna do it, because I enjoy it but I don't do it because I have to do it. I mean, you have to respect that shit, man, and say hey, a little bit,' you know, not too much,' because if you take too much, it turns against you. It's like it turns against you, man. And all of a sudden, it's got you by the balls. And you can't do nothing."
By the time the show was scheduled to begin, the hall was filled with an almost capacity crowd, all of whom were there to see the Lenny Breau they remembered from his glory days of playing in Winnipeg. Lenny, in a shaky state, stepped out onto the stage.
"Well, what can I say? You know? I'd like to say that it's really a pleasure to be back here in Winnipeg. It really makes me feel good and I really feel inspired and like to see a lot of my old friends and just to be back here playing again it makes me feel very inspired and I feel like I'm probably playing better than I've played in a long time, cause thank you I've been kind of taking care of myself lately and like doing a lot of practicing, stuff like that, you know. All I do now is I drink 3 bottles of wine a day, so I'm fine. No, listen, that's not true. I'm like really straight ahead. It's like coffee city. Like, I drink a lot of coffee now and play a lot of fast songs. It's caffeine city. But I'd like to open with a tune that goes like this."
(Musical Selection: My Funny Valentine)
"Is your figure less than greek, is your mouth a little weak, will you open it to speak, are you smile? Don't change your hair for me, not if you care for me, stay little valentine. Each day is Valentine's Day. It's a really funny thing, when you're trying to sing a song, and you can't quite get it together, because something went wrong that day, something happened to me today, I just don't know what it was, but it just happened to be a real drag, I didn't know what to do, somebody wanted some money, like $2000 and I didn't have the money, what was I gonna do? So I said what the hell am I gonna do, and I said oh wow man oh wow, but my friend helped me out, I had a friend that helped me out, he said don't worry Lenny everything'll be cool, but nevertheless I was very worried"
The show was a disaster. Word quickly got out to the other promoters on Lenny's tour, and his next three concerts in Edmonton, Calgary, and Regina, were cancelled. His show in Vancouver did go ahead as scheduled.
In the audience that night was pianist, Renee Rosnes: "It was a disaster of a concert and they, the promoters, they knew, they were aware that Lenny could go out there, so they took great pains to, like, make he was fed, somebody was with him all the time, they drove him here, they drove him there, they were like just, a couple days before the concert, like catering to his every, just making sure he was on the straight and narrow so that he would make this concert and play well. Anyway, I don't know, he went into the bathroom or whatever before he got onstage, who knows? I don't know what he was doing, heroin or what, but anyway he got out onstage and it started off where he couldn't plug the guitar in. He couldn't find the hole to get the cord in, so this is how the concert started. So he stood there fumbling and fumbling, and the audience just sat there and it was just excruciating, you know, and he finally got the guitar plugged in and then, and then the concert, it was just horrible. People wanted their money back, people were leaving and it was just disastrous and it was so sad on so many levels."
Writer Ron Forbes Roberts: "He was checked into an emergency ward at St. Paul's Hospital afterwards and apparently thought he was being checked into a hotel, so yeah, it wasn't pretty."
Lenny left Vancouver shortly after and returned to the United States to be with his wife Jewel.
Don Francks: "I had very little contact with her, except on the telephone, and that was always, that was always difficult. That was always a little bit difficult. Well it was very, very difficult, it was a lot of harshness and screaming, you know, and even trying to get him on the phone sometimes was difficult. Jewel was someone that was extremely ill tempered, I'll just put it that way. She was ill tempered. I'm sure that it was maybe not easy living with him but then again I'm sure it wasn't easy living with her either."
Ron Forbes Roberts: "There was a long period of abuse and I talked to a lot of people who saw her whack him upside the head and in one case choke him and that seemed to be a pretty spontaneous act in front of a lot of people in a rage provoked by something that was clear only to her."
Terry Clarke: "I think he tried to leave her and there were rumors that her brothers were gonna threaten to break his fingers at one point so he fled Los Angeles and went, once again, to Chett Adkins home and he took him in for a while and then he ended up back in, he ended up in Boston for a minute and I think he was playing around there and then went back home."
Throughout all his difficulties, Lenny kept in close contact by phone with his friend and mentor, Bob Erlendson: "The funny thing is he never complained about his wife to me, at all, in any of those conversations, so I really didn't know how bad it was getting, right? So there I was in Nashville, Tennessee and I hear on the television that Lenny was dead. Wow. That was, I was horrified, right? And it was two weeks later before I got back to Calgary, and by that time, I talked to Jewel on the phone, with her swearing up and down that what had happened was that Lenny and she were gonna go to church that Sunday morning. And at the last minute he changed his mind, grabbed his guitar and a pen and some music paper and headed up to the pool while she took the baby to church, right? And that when she got back at 12, 12:20 or whenever, he was already dead and the police were already there. Now she claims that that's the way it went down. I don't know if she's lying or not. Police have never been able to prove anything."
Lenny's body was found face down in the roof top swimming pool of his apartment building. By the side of the pool, were pieces of manuscript paper and his guitar. There was much speculation about his death. One theory was that he had died as a result of an unpaid drug debt.
Ron Forbes Roberts: "A Los Angeles cop pointed out to me that back in the 80s, that wouldn't happen. That people didn't kill people over like a $25 drug debt. Lenny had an extremely expensive guitar sitting there that wasn't touched, you know, and those kinds of things don't make any sense."
The lead detective on the case, Larry Bird, had a different theory: "He was probably killed somewhere around his own apartment or inside his own apartment and then the body was taken up the stairway, two flights, Lenny was on the seventh floor, the pool's on the ninth floor and the body was dumped in the pool. Based on the coroner's report, he was definitely not in the pool when he was killed. So somebody thinking that if there's nothing visible, he's in the pool, everybody's gonna think it's a drowning."
Randy Bachman: "Well you always expect to hear that somebody like that OD's or something, to hear that he was murdered and it's still an open investigation, I mean it's a very, very sad thing, to have a guy that was that, I don't know, wonderful. He was such a great friend to me. I was devastated. I had to go onstage and play, actually we were in Winnipeg when we were playing and I did Looking out for Number 1' and I did an extended long solo and played every single lick he showed me and I was in tears and the crowd was in tears, big outdoor festival in Winnipeg at the stadium, and it was quite devastating."
In tribute to Lenny, Randy Bachman founded Guitarchives Music, a record label primarily dedicated to putting out previously unreleased Lenny Breau material. The label shares it's proceeds with Lenny's children, for whom Lenny left no will and no inheritance. To date, the label has put out seven Lenny Breau releases.
Bob Erlendson: "I thought he would write more, to tell the truth. Apparently there was manuscript paper found beside the pool when he, you know, when they discovered him, so he did go up there with the manuscript paper intending to write something. And now we'll never know what it was. Cause whatever it was that was percolating in his head that he wanted to put on paper never got put on paper. He got killed instead."
The appetite for Lenny's music hasn't died. Over time, it's only become stronger. After his death, several other record labels, in addition to Randy Bachman's Guitarchives, have been active in releasing Lenny Breau material. Currently there are over 25 albums featuring Lenny that are available to his still growing legion of fans, many taken from live performances or previously lost sessions. That's more than 5 times the number of albums that were released while he was still alive. Adding to that, there have been several books published on his guitar methods, several biographies have been written, a T.V. documentary has aired, and now a feature film is in development, all attempting to capture the essence of the man with the magic fingers.
We may never know who killed Lenny Breau but one thing we'll always have is his music and what a sweet thing that is.
I'm Ross Porter and you've been listening to The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau, an original documentary on JazzFM 91. The documentary was produced by Jeff Siskend. Executive Producer was Ross Porter. We recognize the financial support by the Department of Canadian Heritage via the Canadian Online Culture Program.
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