Leonard Harold “Lenny” Breau (guitarist) was born on August 5, 1941 in Auburn, Maine and passed away on August 12, 1984 in Los Angeles, California.
Lenny’s francophone parents, Harold “Hal Lone Pine” Breau and Betty Cody (née Coté), were professional country and western musicians who performed and recorded from the mid-1930s until (in Hal Breau’s case) the mid-1970s. From the mid to late 1940s they played summer engagements in southern New Brunswick, Canada, advertising their performances playing free programs on radio station CKCW Moncton. Their son began playing guitar at the age of eight. When he was twelve years old he started a small band with friends, and by the age of fourteen he was the lead guitarist for his parents’ band, billed as “Lone Pine Junior”, playing Merle Travis and Chet Atkins instrumentals and occasionally singing. Breau made his first professional recordings in Westbrook, Maine at the age of 15 while working as a studio musician. Many of these recordings were released posthumously on a CD appropriately titled Boy Wonder.
The Breau family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1957, and their new band travelled and performed around the city and province as the CKY Caravan. Their shows were broadcast live on Winnipeg’s CKY on Saturday mornings from various remote locations. One of their regular listeners was Randy Bachman, who was sixteen years of age at the time. On one occasion Bachman bicycled to a Caravan performance in his West Kildonan neighborhood and ended up meeting Breau. Breau and Bachman soon became friends, and Breau informally began teaching Bachman, who has since described those lessons as “…the beginning of my life as a guitar player.”
Around 1959 Lenny Breau left his parents’ country band after his father slapped him in the face for using jazz improvisations on stage, and sought out local jazz musicians, performing at Winnipeg venues including “Rando Manor” and the “Stage Door”. He met pianist Bob Erlendson, who began teaching him more of the foundations of jazz. In 1962 Breau left for Toronto and soon created the jazz group Three with singer/actor Don Francks and Eon Henstridge on acoustic bass.
Three performed in Toronto, Ottawa, and New York City. Their music was featured in the 1962 National Film Board documentary Toronto Jazz. They recorded a live album at the Village Vanguard in New York City and appeared on US-network television on the Jackie Gleason and Joey Bishop shows. Returning to Winnipeg, Breau became a regular session guitarist recording for CBC Radio and CBC Television, and contributed to CBC-TV’s Teenbeat, Music Hop, and his own Lenny Breau Show. To many Canadians, Breau’s jazz is still an evocative memory of the sound of CBC in the 1960s.
In 1963 and 1964, Breau appeared at David Ingram’s Fourth Dimension at 2000 Pembina Highway in Fort Garry, a suburb of Winnipeg. Every Sunday night was a hootenany open to all. Another regular at the club on Sunday Nights at the same time was Neil Young and his band with Vancouver CKNW’s Rick Honey as his drummer.
Breau’s fully matured technique was a combination of Atkins’ and Travis’ fingerpicking and Sabicas-influenced flamenco, highlighted by extraordinary right-hand independence and flurries of artificial harmonics. His harmonic sensibilities were a combination of his country roots, classical, modal, Indian, and especially jazz, particularly the work of pianist Bill Evans.
In 1967, recordings of Breau’s playing from The Lenny Breau Show had found their way into the hands of Chet Atkins. The ensuing friendship resulted in Breau’s first two LP issues, Guitar Sounds from Lenny Breau and The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau. Live! on RCA. He lived in various Canadian cities until 1976 when he returned to the United States. He spent the next several years moving between Nashville, Maine, Stockton, California and New York City eventually settling in Los Angeles in 1983.
These years were spent performing, teaching, and writing for Guitar Player magazine. During this time, he had custom 7-string guitars made, one classical and one electric. At the time, no company made a string that could be tuned to the high B on his classical guitar. Lenny used fishing line of the correct gauge, until La Bella began making a string for him. Only a few more solo albums and albums recorded with fiddler Buddy Spicher and pedal steel guitarist Buddy Emmons were issued during his lifetime.
Death and legacy
Breau had continual drug problems from the mid-1960s, which he managed to get under control during the last years of his life.On August 12, 1984 his body was found in a swimming pool at his apartment complex in Los Angeles, California. The coroner reported that he had been strangled. His wife, Jewel Breau, was the chief suspect in the case but she was never charged with his murder and the case is still unsolved.
Many live and “lost” recordings have been issued since Breau’s death. His studio recordings have also been reissued. Thanks to the efforts of Randy Bachman of Guitarchives, Paul Kohler of Art of Life Records and others, a whole new generation of listeners have access to his music.
A documentary entitled The Genius of Lenny Breau was produced in 1999 by Breau’s daughter Emily Hughes. It includes interviews with Chet Atkins, Ted Greene, Pat Metheny, George Benson, Leonard Cohen, and Randy Bachman, as well as family members. One Long Tune: The Life and Music of Lenny Breau by Ron Forbes-Roberts (University of North Texas Press 2006) is considered the definitive work on Breau. Nearly 200 people were interviewed for the book which includes a thorough analysis of Breau’s music and an extensive comprehensive discography of his recordings.
CBC Radio presented a documentary-soundscape on Lenny Breau entitled “On the Trail of Lenny Breau” (the title is in reference to Breau’s parent’s song “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine”). It was first broadcast on September 13, 2009 as part of a regular weekly program called Inside the Music. It was narrated by Lenny’s son Chet Breau. The one-hour feature was produced in Montreal by John Klepko.