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.