THE BLOG

The Holy Grail: I Buy A 1958 Sunburst Les Paul

09/27/2010 10:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It was the beginning of the Summer of 1970, and I was just back from my first ever trip to London. I'd saved up my money, and while over there, I had ordered myself a pair of custom-made Granny Takes A Trip knee-high, 2-and-3/4 inch heel patchwork boots, complete with optional silver stars and moons, of course. About 150 two-inch squares of 64 separate colors of leather per boot. Yes, I counted! 



Granny's was the hippest clothing and shoe store on the planet at that time, a tiny shop on super-trendy King's Road -- four years later, while waiting for my audition with Sparks -- I walked into Malcolm McLaren's' Sex Shop on King's Road and practically ran out. That was one scary seedy all-too-authentic joint! Anyway, that summer of '70, I was one of maybe a few dozen people in the USA with this wickedly badass Ultra-Rock Star footwear. I'd walk through the Times Square area wearing them with cut-off jeans and just stop traffic. People would shout raucous compliments from across the street in jaded New York City. Kids on the subway would go wild, their laughter slowly turning into overt envy. I must say, I wore them every damn day and felt like I pretty much totally rocked. 



If you've read my two-part blog on The Huffington Post, you'll recall that I'd caught the Gibson SG Special that Pete had thrown to me at the Metropolitan Opera House about four weeks earlier on June 7th. It was missing its headstock and a very hip repair and modification shop, Guitar Lab, had attached another one onto the guitar -- a very tricky job, and one that usually fails. Your guitar's head breaks off, it's now a "parts car," nomesane. But, Guitar Lab had made it work. I was broke, those boots were very pricey, so in exchange for building and attaching a headstock to the Gibson Pete had thrown me, it was agreed that I'd 'gopher' for Guitar Lab for the summer. I showed up every morning and got everyone coffee, cigarettes, lunch, changed guitar strings, rang up sales, ran various errands, cleaned up. Eventually, they even wound up paying me.



Two guys owned Guitar Lab, Carl Thompson and Charlie LaBue. Both were well known and very respected as repair men, and maybe more importantly, as players. Heavyweight session men hung out for hours; famous jazz players jammed. I saw and heard Jim Hall, Bucky Pizzarelli and Eddie Diehl jam in the tiny guitar lesson room with Carl. I met Tal Farlow, Peter Green and Danny Kirwin from Fleetwood Mac, Johnny Winter, among other stars, in that shop. Guitar Lab was The Place for those In The Know.



One day, about a month into my tenure, Bruce, this hotheaded very not-politically-correct kid from Long Island working for Carl and Charlie, a master repair and modification man at age 22, walked into the back room and said, "Hey, Binky. Ya wanna see Keith Richards with tits?" Uh, yes I do.



I walked out to the main customer area and there was this skinny pale black-haired ragamuffin chick (I never use that word, but this was a chick) holding a beat up Fender Duo-Sonic (at the time, a total loser/beginner's guitar; I'm now a proud owner of a 1964 worth more than $2,000) and she was just about falling out of a really large, loose, and worn-out-to-paper-thin t-shirt with prominent and frankly fabulous breasts. She was frantically and inarticulately explaining over and over again that her Duo-Sonic was, "Buzzin'! It sounds like shit. I mean, it's buzzin'. It's buzzin' bad. You can fix buzzin', right? God, this sucks, it's bad buzzin' alla time. Really buzzin' bad, man. Why's it buzzin'?" Almost like she had Tourette's.



And, as it turned out, Bruce's description was utterly on the money. Her haircut was exactly Keef's in Gimme Shelter. Her cheeks were gaunt, the black eye-liner was thick, the bone earring was in place, as was a skull ring, ditto old black ankle boots with rundown heels, (maybe more Dylan in the footwear department... what with the price of snakeskin, even then). No hips in ratty black skin-tight jeans. Even at the age of 17, I could see that she was so immersed in her dream that she was genuinely unaware of the effect she was having on five 1970 chauvinist pig guys who worked in a guitar shop. We were all smitten and totally in novelty lust with her. At least two Guitar Labbers kept her there talking for quite awhile. But, after a few minutes, I kinda drifted away and went back to opening cases of guitars left for repairs that I could drool over. I guess I was the least infatuated. I mean, I dug her. Her look was down so cold. I was jealous, even in my ultra-cool Granny Takes A Trip boots. But she seemed like she really was a total urban-hillbilly goofball. Actually, just not sexy at all. Yeah, it was Patti Smith.



Anyway, one afternoon later that summer, Teddy Slatus, Edgar Winter's road manager, came in with both of regular-customer Rick Derringer's sunburst Les Pauls. Back in those days, years before reissues, that meant two of maybe 900 total Gibsons made between mid-1958 through the end of 1960 with that glorious fade-from-a-red-to-gold transparent lacquer finish over highly figured maple and the then new and powerful (Patent-Applied-For) Humbucker pickups. After several other guitar-obsessions amongst the Stars of Rock Guitar, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Michael Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, and several other major cats had settled on this model Gibson as The One. And to this day, it rightly remains exalted.

I had seen only one in person once before, a year earlier, in the window of Jimmy's, one of the coolest of the nine or ten music stores on West 48th St. back in the 1960s. Dazzled, I walked in and asked how much it was. The salesman sneered "$500, and no, you can't play it, kid." I gasped. $500!! That was a psychotically high price for anything smaller than a Chevrolet!



So, now here I was, the gopher/odd job kid at Guitar Lab, and I've been told to take the strings off of both of Ricky's Les Pauls. Oh my! I was gonna get to actually hold these electric Stradivariuses! One Ricky had just bought, and was now his favorite, a very clean cherry Life-Saver red sunburst '59. The other was a relatively beat up 1958. It was an unusual dark molasses red-brown sunburst. I'd seen photos of various rock stars with their Les Pauls that indicated there were about 4 or 5 shades of cherry and orange sunbursts on these guitars, but, this dark elegant jazz-guitar-style Les Paul was unique and unexpectedly compelling.



Early on in my guitar obsession, in the Spring of 1969, I saw Buddy Guy open for The Who at the Fillmore East. I dug how torn up Buddy's original 50's sunburst Fender Stratocaster was and how fucking cool and "authentic" a guitar looked when it was sorta trashed. From that point on, I always actively sought out beat-up used guitars. Not only were they always cheaper, they always played and sounded better than the mint ones, anyway. The dark Les Paul of Rick's was the exact right kind of beat up. The sides and back were belt-worn and chipped to hell, but, the sunburst face of the guitar was in almost A+ condition. I was utterly thrilled to even be in the same room with these guitars.



While I was handling the dark one, before I removed the strings for the repair, I had an impulse, an urge I didn't even try to resist. I did something naughty. In the lobby of Guitar Lab's building, there was a large 6x10 foot tall mirror by the elevator door. This mirror was only one flight down from Guitar Lab. I don't recall how I was able to get it out and back, but, at some point during that day, I snuck downstairs with the dark Les Paul and took a look at myself, for the first time in my life, holding an actual 1958 sunburst Les Paul. I gave myself about 60 seconds of staring ecstasy before sneaking the guitar back upstairs and into the work area.



A few minutes later, hotheaded Bruce, the guy who was going to do the actual repairs, told me that I needed to copy down the serial number of the dark Les Paul because there was a small hairline crack on the headstock that needed gluing and the serial number was probably gonna be destroyed in the sanding process. That casual attitude toward something as serious as a serial number on a vintage Gibson would never happen nowadays. Bruce said I should write it on the wall in pencil. "Can't get lost on the wall." So, I walked over to the north side of the back room and wrote it in 1/2 inch numerals. Then, I wrote it down again on a scrap of paper and put it in my pocket. Bruce also carved it into the beat-up back of the guitar in 1/4 inch numerals.


Here's the Provenance Digression of this dark sunburst Gibson Les Paul... 

It's the guitar Rick Derringer used on most of both Johnny Winter And albums and about half of the first three Edgar Winter's White Trash albums. Yes, I own the guitar that went dadadadah duda da dahhh da da da duda on the recording of Edgar's "Frankenstein." On page 163 of "The Beauty of the Burst," by Yasuhiko Iwanade, a high-end Japanese coffee-table photo book devoted exclusively to vintage sunburst Les Pauls (true guitar porn), there is a picture of Rick playing this guitar.

But, much cooler, in "Beatles' Gear" by Andy Babiuk, there's an amazing story that briefly mentions this dark Les Paul, which I was totally unaware of until I read Andy's book. It turns out that "Lucy," the red Les Paul that George Harrison is using in the promo-film of "Revolution," and his all time favorite guitar, was originally owned by Rick Derringer. 

In early 1967, Rick had his banged up old gold 1957 Les Paul refinished by Gibson in Kalamazoo the bright wine red of the SG series (think Angus Young). But, once refinished, Rick no longer liked the guitar. He took it to Danny Armstrong's shop in New York City (yes, the same shop from my Cream guitar case story...) and, as Rick's quote says on page 225, "... I traded the red Les Paul for a sunburst one." A day or two later, Eric Clapton walked into Danny's shop looking for a gift for George Harrison and bought Rick's red Les Paul, who became Lucy. This dark Les Paul was the "sunburst one" that Rick got in that trade. Yes, it's even lightly dusted with Beatles lore.



Fast forward two years to May 2nd, 1972. I had become a semi-permanent fixture at Guitar Lab. I was no longer working there, but dropping by two or three times a week and hanging out, usually after my freshman classes at CCNY (the one year I did of college... 3 A's, 4 B's, 1 Incomplete). Guitar Lab, now in a larger space two blocks uptown, had a small room where the north and south walls each had, at any given time, about 7 or 8 guitars hanging from hooks. On the south wall were guitars in various states of repair, lacquer drying, glue taking, etc.; on the north wall were guitars for sale on consignment.



I walked into Guitar Lab at about 1:30pm that Tuesday and saw, for the first time since that week in July of 1970, Rick Derringer's dark sunburst 1958 Gibson Les Paul on the north wall. I turned to Carl Thompson, and said, "You've got Rick's Les Paul on the wrong wall, Carl." He replied, "No, I don't. Ricky called about a hour ago and told us to sell it. He wants $600 and he owes us $50 for the fret job we just did on it."

Without batting an eye, I said, "Carl, it's sold. Okay! It's sold!  Take it down right now! I'll be back with $650 today. Please put it in the back room for me. Just give me a couple of hours. It's SOLD!"

"Okay. Sure, Binky. Take it easy," and he walked over and took it down.



I ran to the elevator. I ran out of that building. I ran to the 20-minute IRT subway ride. I ran to my house in Brooklyn Heights. I ran to my room to get my savings account passbook. I ran to the bank. I ran to the teller. Sweating, chest heaving, I handed her my passbook, and I told her I wanted to close my account. She looked alarmed and said that she'd be right back.



I'd been working two jobs for a year, Wednesdays and Fridays in a small perfume factory, and Saturdays and Sundays at The New York Times as a copyboy. That's another story! I had exactly $652.80 in my account saved from these two small salaries (I still have that little bank book). Money I was saving for a sunburst Les Paul, should one ever turn up, truth be told.

Now, this bank was one of those old cathedrals to money, literally as large as a good-sized church, everything pale tan marble, glass, brass, 35-foot ceiling, everyone speaking in hushed tones. The teller returned with an older man in a dark suit, obviously some very senior presence. He started in with a speech about how impressed he was that a young man my age, a teenager(!), had had the discipline to save this much money and how he really thought "... you should consider what you're about to do and..."

"GIVE ME MY MONEY NOW!" I bellowed at the absolute top of my lungs, the reverberations slamming around that marble cavern. The bank official, beet red, a combination of anger and embarrassment no doubt, turned to the teller and said quietly, "Give him his money." and walked away without looking at me again.



I ran back to the IRT subway. I ran back to Guitar Lab. Got out the largest wad of bills I'd ever had in my pocket and I counted out the 32 twenties and a ten. Carl wrote me a receipt. I thanked him and then got back on the subway to Brooklyn.

I got back to my block, and quickly walked to my Tuesday-afternoon-empty home, opened the front door, walked in my living room, opened the guitar case I'd just carried from 49th St. and Broadway, took out the dark Les Paul, held it up to the mirror hanging over the fireplace, and said out loud...

"I am holding this sunburst Les Paul in front of the mirror, in my own living room this time, and... this is my guitar."