Last week, I described the greatest purchase of my life ...Rick Derringer's 1958 tobacco sunburst Gibson Les Paul.
Working two jobs and saving money for over a year, I paid $650 on May 2nd, 1972, for a guitar now worth six figures...
Here's the story of how Jeff Beck tried to intimidate me into selling it to him...
Poor Rick Derringer!
About 5 months after selling me his 'back up' 1958 Les Paul, someone on the guitar grapevine told me that Rick's 'main' guitar, a 1959 cherry-sunburst Les Paul had been stolen. This was an all-too-common occurrence for rock stars on the road back then. Airlines, in particular, were notorious for "losing" or destroying guitars.
One afternoon, just before the holidays, my phone rang. It was Rick.
With a sort of tired, apologetic, voice-of-authority, he said, "Hey kid, look, I'm sorry, I really am, but, I'm gonna have to take that Les Paul back. But, I'm gonna give you $1,000 for it, just to make this a little easier for you."
In a friendly but hard-edged way, I replied, "Rick, the guitar is mine. I paid cash for it. I have the receipt. It's not for sale."
This clearly flummoxed Mr. Derringer.
"Huh!? I... uhhh... hmmm... I, uh... I'm gonna call you back."
Six months later, Rick did call again... "Okay, listen, Binky, I'm going to give you $2,000. I gotta have that Les Paul back."
"Rick, what can I tell ya, I feel bad, but, it's not for sale and never will be."
Then, a year later...
"Hey, Binky, it's me, Rick Derringer. I'm willing to give you $5,000 for that guitar."
"Rick, I'm really sorry, man... But, you can offer me $20,000, it's still not for sale."
Silence ... and then, "You know what, kid ... I sold it to the right guy! Enjoy the guitar, Binky."
"I do every day, Rick. Thanks, man."
By the late 1970s, several years later, the entire concept of "vintage" electric guitars had become, and remains, a major sub-culture amongst rock musicians and fans. And by now, after playing a few dozen gigs at CBGB and Max's Kansas City and The Coventry Club using my Les Paul, it was fairly well known in collector's circles that I owned the 1958 tobacco-sunburst that I'd bought off of Derringer in May of 1972.
One of the earliest vintage guitar brokers to the stars was a guy from California named Robb Lawrence. One day, I got a call from Robb, "Hey Binky, I'm in New York for a few days. I'm busy doing this coffee-table photo book. It's going to be portraits of famous guitarists and their vintage Les Pauls. Jeff Beck's in town and he doesn't have an old Les Paul with him. Can I borrow yours for a photo-shoot?"
"Well, hell yeah, as long as I come with the guitar."
"Uhhhh ... Hmmm ... Y'know, Jeff isn't very friendly, I just don't think that..."
I cut him off, "No me, no Les Paul, Robb!" I knew of Jeff's reputation for crankiness. Too bad. Robb somewhat reluctantly agreed to my being included.
Two days later, the morning after a great show by Mr. Beck at Philharmonic Hall in support of his groundbreaking "Blow By Blow" album, I met Robb, who was sporting an entourage of three nondescript guys about my age, in front of the Navarro Hotel on the extremely posh Central Park South aka 59th St. Up we all went to Jeff Beck's suite high above Central Park. Jeff opened the door, he was alone, and invited us in with all the warmth of a blizzard. He flopped down on the couch in the baroque living room portion of his temporary digs and asked, nice and surly, "So, where's this guitar?"
Robb motioned me to open the case. Somewhat dazzled by the presence of one of my Ultra-Heros, I handed my Les Paul to Jeff Beck. Sitting on the edge of the couch now, he started playing fast lead guitar about 2/3 up the neck. Played it for about 60 seconds, unplugged.
He then slowly looked up at me with ice cold eyes and said, as menacingly as he could manage, "Y'know, mate, this looks an awful lot like the one that was stolen from me." I had taken a seat in the armchair next to Jeff. I immediately stood up, and looking down at him, said, as coldly and emphatically as I could manage, "Yeah, well, Jeff, it isn't!"
He laughed and said, "Okay okay, calm down, man. So how much do you want for it?"
I replied, "Jeff, are you under the impression that this guitar is for sale? Because it's not. Not now, not ever."
Jeff seemed to shoot a dirty little WTF? look at Robb.
Was something weird going on?
Puzzled, and more than a bit put off, I decided to blow this popsicle stand. But first, I pulled a Bic pen outta my guitar case and sat down next to Mr. Beck on the couch and said, "Jeff, it would be an honor to have your autograph on the back of my Les Paul."
Jeff, genuinely aghast, groaned, "My God, man, you can't be serious. That would be sacrilege!" Everyone in the room made "How lame!" noises at my embarrassing 'groupie' move. Robb even said, "I'm sorry, Jeff."
Ignoring everyone else, I said, in a cocky conspiratorial tone, "Dig in nice and deep with that pen, Jeff."
He looked at me, and for the first time, actually connecting with me, broke into a huge grin, nodded, and said with his eyes, "Kid, you're all right." As requested, he dug in deep, signed the beat up back of my guitar, and handed it back to me. I stood up, put the Les Paul back in its case, latched it up, and turned to Jeff Beck and said, "It's been a real pleasure meeting you. I have been a huge fan of your playing since the Yardbirds and I thought you were just great last night, too." Jeff thanked me, "Cheers, mate."
Still feeling annoyed that something was off about the whole situation, I walked out of the suite to the elevator without saying goodbye to anyone else.
About six months later, out of the blue, perhaps as a peace offering (and one I definitely appreciated), Robb sent me a color slide of Jeff Beck, sitting on that couch, playing my Les Paul. It permanently resides in the case with the guitar. In fact, Robb's truly excellent and definitive two-volume book, "The Legacy Of The Les Paul", which took decades to complete, features a full page photo of Jeff Beck with my guitar on page 251 of Volume One. My name is even in the caption! Thank you very much, Robb!
On August 12, 2009, Les Paul, the man, finally left for Heaven at the age of 94. Most of us know his name because of Jimmy Page or Slash or Billy Gibbons or a 100 other famous and semi-famous guitarists who have sworn by Gibson Les Pauls for the last few decades. The true Rolls-Royce of electric guitars.
But, the fact is, not a single song on your iPod's play-list would sound remotely the way it does without Les Paul, the man, not just the guitar. Les Paul INVENTED the solid-body electric guitar. Les Paul INVENTED multi-track recording. Les Paul INVENTED reverb and echo. Les Paul INVENTED variable speed recording. Les Paul INVENTED mixing. Basically, a man of monolithic musical importance.
Two great quirky little stories about Les Paul stand out for me and exemplify the man's intuitive genius...
When he was a teenager, back in the late 1920s, Lester was sitting in his living room playing an acoustic guitar. He suddenly had a flash, walked over to his parents' Victrola, yanked the arm off and rammed the needle into the face of his guitar, and started playing through the machine's big horn (like the one that dog is sitting next to in the old RCA logo). Was that the literal beginning of electric guitars?
And, as far back as the 1940's, the way Les Paul would know he had mixed a track properly was through the following methodology: He'd have the studio engineers hook up the recording console directly to his car's radio in the parking lot. He'd go out and sit in the driver's seat and listen to the playback of the mix coming through the radio, and would then go back and tinker with it until it sounded right... in... his... car!
In the 1980's, I had the great fortune to catch Les Paul performing a few times at a club called Fat Tuesday's here in New York. He performed there every Monday, and later at a place called Iridium, for almost 30 years.
His playing was simply ridiculous. In his 70's and 80's he could just destroy virtually every rock player you've ever heard. Inhumanly fast and creative, with a totally wacky sense of humor. The closest any rock guitarist has ever been able to come is maybe my aforementioned hero, Jeff Beck, on a really good night.
On one of my visits to Fat Tuesday's, I took along my 1958 Les Paul for The Man to autograph. After his set, I knocked on the door of his dressing room. I heard Les call out, "Come in." He was sitting in this dark little room with an old guy his age, obviously a close friend. I apologized for the intrusion and told Mr. Paul that I was hoping he'd be willing to autograph my Les Paul.
"Sure thing, my friend. Let's see it." he answered.
When I took it out of the case, he said, eyes gone wide, "I can't autograph that. It's a real one!"
Les Paul called my guitar "a real one." I treasure that phrase coming from the man himself.
I took out a pen and, just like his prize pupil, Mr. Beck, he semi-reluctantly, semi-delightedly, dug in on the back, "To Binky / Keep Pickin' / Les Paul."
The last time I saw Les Paul perform, I took my Dear Departed Dad. After the show, as Les was standing by the bar having a club soda, my father walked up to Mr. Paul and said, "My son tells me you're responsible for an amazing amount of technological advances in guitar design and recording techniques. That's all well and good, but, Les, I want to thank you for the music."
And, as they shook hands, both those old coots got tears in their eyes... and I've got chills just typing that.