On April 2, 1968, a young guitarist was invited to sit down and record his first major label solo album in Nashville. This was no ordinary guitarist, this young man began to learn the instrument as soon as he was old enough to hold it, started touring with his fathers country band before age 12, recorded an album of Chet Atkins and Merle Travis songs at age 14. When he was 16 he was invited on stage by Merle Travis himself, who after being upstaged was so impressed by the kid’s musicianship took off his hat and remarked to the crowd, ‘Well folks, tonight there’s a better guitarist in the house than me.’ He went on to master flamenco, jazz and create his own complex and unique style, unequaled to this day.
This session was organized by none other than the legendary Chet Atkins, Mister Guitar himself. Upon hearing a tape of this aspiring, unknown player, Chet proclaimed Lenny Breau to be, ‘The Greatest guitarist ever to walk the face of the earth.’ Thats no small praise. For the sessions Chet brought in a successful co-producer named Danny Davis whose previous work helped polish country artists and bring them to a more mainstream, pop audience. Davis made it his goal to commercialize the album in order to get disc jockeys more interested in playing it. As much as he tried to dumb down the music so the beatle-brained public wouldn’t have a seizure upon hearing an original idea, Lenny was not to be tampered with. His mind and playing too free to be confined to the rigid structures of conventional pop.
Although Lenny disliked rock music and held great disdain for the entire genre, at Davis’s insistence, and not wanting to disappoint his idol and mentor Atkins, he was persuaded to record some popular tunes during the two recording sessions, alongside of his original idea of laying down several originals, and his jazz, country, bebop, flamenco and classical takes on some jazz and country standards.
Several months later when the album was finally released Lenny was shocked to find that so many of the tunes were left off in favour of the more commercial, radio friendly numbers like King of the Road, Monday Monday, and inexplicably, A Hard Days Night. Even so, the flashes of brilliance overshadowed their inclusion.
The album received great critical acclaim, but not even the inclusion of an FF tune could breach the barriers of bad taste built by the beatlemania brigade, and sales were minimal. Nobody cared. A few months later Atkins arranged for another recording, this time in Lenny’s comfort zone; a club in front of an audience of his peers. The choice of material was completely his choice. The result, The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau…Live!, has been called one of the most important jazz guitar albums ever recorded.
Lenny Breau led a short and tragic life, and although he released many incredible and unprecedented albums, he died penniless and virtually unknown, like most great artists. Conversely, Hootie and the Blowfish and REO Speedwagon both had huge hits covering the beatles. Lenny’s albums are mostly out of print now, while Magical Mystery Tour is still gets pumped out like a clogged toilet.
Anyway, I can’t leave you with that horrid song as the last thing ringing in your head, here’s Lenny playing The Claw by Jerry Reed, from …Live!
This is a clip from the documentary ‘The Genius of Lenny Breau.’ It was filmed during the recording of his first album.
If you’d like to read more about him, here’s a good place to start:
Velvet touch is still out of print, if you’re interested in hearing it you can get a copy here for free: Link