Dammit, Jimi Hendrix, That Was Supposed to Be MY Les Paul!

There had been other 'fad' guitars during rock 'n' roll's earlier years.
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There had been other 'fad' guitars during rock 'n' roll's earlier years.

In the early 1960s, the brief but crazy-popular Surf Instrumental era, Fender Stratocasters, Jazzmasters and Jaguars were essentially the three models played on about 97 percent of those wonderful reverb-drenched California guitars-only sonic extravaganzas.

When the British Invasion hit, it was George Harrison's Rickenbacker 12-string's debut in Hard Day's Night that knocked Fenders (who had started to seem square having been so identified with the now fading Surf Sound) out of the Must Have classification. It was, for a brief time in my life, my single most coveted inanimate object. Pete Townshend destroying a Ric-12 on Shindig in mid-1966 destroyed me.

Soon enough though, Fender was to have its revenge.

The first truly wild-technique guitarist out of England, Jeff Beck in The Yardbirds, was seen on that there Shindig show playing (for the time) psycho-futuristic lead guitar on a Fender Esquire, that being a budget version of Fender's famous Telecaster (think Broooooce). Within about 6 months, Fender Telecasters and Esquires were The Bomb. Every single band on any and every TV show had at least one guy playing a creamy blond Telecaster. Within a year, this guitar's popularity had eclipsed every model and fad before it. It was REQUIRED that you own a blond Telecaster. The secret we all found out within months of owning them (I got mine for Christmas, 1966) was that they were/are brutally unforgiving guitars. Telecasters inherently fight the player and consequently deliver that unique snapping tone (think Brad Paisley). As much of a bitch as they were to master, The Must Have Tele Craze lasted almost two years.

But, in the middle of 1967, Mike Bloomfield in the Paul Butterfield Blues band single-handedly turned the Gibson Les Paul guitar into The One To Own. As I pontificated in a recent column here, Bloomfield was truly the first Guitar Hero Gun Slinger for baby boomer guitarists. His playing was on a totally other plane from everyone at the time. He tore heroes like Keith Richards and George Harrison new ones.

Although I'd seen the gorgeous sunburst version of the Gibson Les Paul when both Stones' Keef and Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian appeared on TV with them, no one else ever showed up with one and that model faded from our little minds [within a year, the sunburst models of 1958 - 1960 would become and remain The Holy Grail].

On the other hand, Mike Bloomfield's beat up "Goldtop" Les Paul knocked my and everyone else's pick in the dirt. Within a month it seemed, the early 1950s gold Les Pauls were the most in demand In-The-Know guitar. What we all found out very quickly and rudely was that unlike all the previous Fetish Guitars, Les Pauls were discontinued models! For the first time, you could not just walk into a music store and buy one. You had to HUNT... ONE... DOWN!

And this time, the "fad" was not based on image or flavor-of-the-month status. Serious players were discovering that Les Pauls made in the 1950s by Gibson were actually the best sounding and playing solid body guitars ever made. This was now (and forever, it turned out) the Mack Daddy of all Fetish Axes.

Naturally, I got bit bad. Real bad! Had to have one. HAD TO! HAD TO! HAD TO!

One day, I got ahold of a copy of "Rock Special" edition of Look Magazine. Among the excellent b & w photos (Avedon, I believe) was a shot of the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia was holding something I'd never seen before... a BLACK Les Paul. My God, it looked like a gold one wearing a tux. It was instantly my favorite guitar on Earth.

In my mid-teens, I was a (genteel) hoodlum kid who cut school all the time to go to West 48th St, in the 1960s, music store Mecca. Manny's was the King Store out of the dozen or so located on the one block of W. 48th St between 6th and 7th Avenues.

I walked into Manny's late one afternoon (probably for the 100th time) and head-salesman, Manny's son, Henry, almost a second father to me by this point, had gotten a hold of a (GASP!) 1956 black Les Paul Custom... The King of Electrics at that moment... and not just in my scrambled little head. I'd never even seen one in person before.

Oh My God!

Across the area where you'd rest your right arm as you played it, Henry had stuck a 6 inch strip of extra-wide masking tape and had crudely written on it, "NOT FOR SALE."

I flipped.

"Please, Henry, oh, please please please sell it to me. I'll trade you back the Telecaster and the Ampeg amp and I'll get my father to loan me some money and..."

"Binky, stop! Listen to me! This whole Les Paul business is ridiculous. Nonsense! I'm telling you, they are no big deal. I'm not gonna sell it to anyone, okay, Binky. I'm just gonna keep in it in that glass case and make all you fools drool!"

Classic Henry, actually!

Regardless, I dashed home and talked to my Dad for over an hour and wore him down to the point where he said, "Okay, okay, go back to Henry and see how much cash he's gonna want on top of your guitar and amp..."

The next morning, cutting the entire day of junior high, I jumped on the subway in Brooklyn and got to Manny's less than half an hour after they opened. I ran to the back area. Henry and Billy (the other guitar salesman, a truly swingin' suave Sammy Davis Jr.-type ultra-cool jazz-playing black guy... Billy and I became good friends, but, it took me about 5 years to prove myself worthy of his respect and friendship) were having coffee and bagels.

"Henry, I talked to my father and he's willing to... Oh, crap!! WHERE'S THE LES PAUL, Henry?!? My Dad will lend me the money!"

"Oh, ferchrissake, Binky... about an hour after you left, Jimi Hendrix walked in and demanded that I sell it to him. You know I can never say no to Jimi. Sorry, Bink."

If you ever see a photo of Jimi playing an upside down black Les Paul... especially if it has that strip of masking tape on it (Jimi wittily kept it on the guitar for awhile) that was supposed to be mine, dammit!

PS Should you want to read about the Les Paul I DID buy four years later...

Small caveat... Since I wrote this story, I found out my Les Paul was made in 1959.

Shucks, huh!

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