It was only natural Lenny Breau would follow his parent’s musical path. They were the famed ’40s and ’50s C&W duo Hal “Lone Pine” Breau and Betty Cody (real name Elizabeth Cote). Calling Auburne, Maine home, they toured the US and Canada, and had Lenny join the backup band when he was only 12, already having been playing guitar half his life. Billed first as “Sonny Breau,” and then as “Lone Pine Jr – The Guitar Wizard,” he wowed audiences with his early brilliance, and within a year or so, also began regularly singing a couple of songs during each show. By the age of 15, he’d made his first professional recordings, working as a studio musician for Roy Aldridge and Dick Curless, as well as appearing on a pair of his dad’s Kountry Karavan singles.
Both of Breau’s parents were of francophone Canadian descent, and the family moved to Winnipeg in 1957 after being offered the steady job as the house band on CKRY Radio’s new country music show “Caravan,” sort of a travelling musical circus that went around Winnipeg and the area. Now 16, he continued to develop his wide-ranging styles, and also began teaching guitar on the side. Most noteable of his students in the late ’50s was Randy Bachman, who’d travelled by bicycle out of town to catch the Breau’s “Caravan” show.
But before the decade was over, he’d outgrown his parents’ musical nest, particularly because his father had slapped him in the face while improvising on stage. Spreading his wings on his own, he began performing with every local jazz musician he could. Always the astute student, Breau picked up tricks here and there during each show and added them to his own repetoire. Included during this period, he met local legend jazz pianist Bob Erlendson.
In early fall 1961, Breau had moved to Toronto, where he was looking for some new inspirations and creative outlets. He was introduced to manager George Sukornyk, and soon hooked up with bassist Rick Danko and drummer Levon Helm, part of Ronnie Hawkins’ backup band The Hawks, which eventually flew off on their own as The Band. They rehearsed some material for a couple of months, and although the tapes wouldn’t see the light of day for 20 years as a re-release, the appropriately titled HALLMARK SESSIONS contained several of Breau’s influences. Along with half a dozen solo guitar pieces, the record included the jazz standards “It Could Happen To You” and “I’ll Remember April,” the flamenco-tinged “Solea” and “Brazilian Love Song,” and the roots country of “Lenny’s Western Blues” and “My Old Flame.”
By the following spring, he was working with singer/actor Don Francks and stand up bass player Ian Henstridge. Between them they couldn’t think of a better name than ‘Three.’ Still, they became regulars on the local circuit, as well as developing a following in Ottawa and New York City. Those engagements led to a feature on him later that year, in the National Film Board documentary, “Toronto Jazz.”
Becoming a hot ticket, in the middle of a series of live dates in the eastern US, The Lenny Breau Trio was booked on Jackie Gleason’s, and then Joey Bishop’s TV shows in ’64. He took a job with the CBC and moved back to Winnipeg in ’65, appearing on numerous television and radio programs, including “Teenbeat”, “Music Hop” and his own “Lenny Breau Show.”
By 1967, Breau appeared on Dianne Brooks’ album SOME OTHER KIND OF SOUL. As well, his always-evolving sound led to forming The Lenny Breau Trio with Ron Halldorson on the bass and Reg Kellin on drums. He signed with RCA Records early the next year, and travelled to Nashville to work with Chet Atkins. One of his earliest and biggest guitar influences, Breau often played solos mimmicking Atkins’ style, as early as when he played with parents’ band a decade earlier, now Atkins was producing his first record. GUITAR SOUNDS FROM LENNIE BREAU. In the stores in ’68, it featured a mix of traditional country with pop and jazz-tinged soul covers, from Roger Miller’s “King Of The Road” and Hank Sr’s “Cold Cold Heart” to The Mamas & Papas’ “Monday Monday” and Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night,” to Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind.” The record also included an upbeat number about Breau’s time in Toronto with “Taranta.”
Breau, Halldorson and Kellin packed up their bags and headed off to California in the summer of ’69. Several shows during that tour were taped, and their performance at Shelly’s Manne Hole, one of the hottest jazz clubs in Hollywood at the time resulted in THE VELVET TOUCH OF LENNY BREAU, produced by Danny Davis and Ron Light and released later that year.
He moved back and forth between Toronto and Winnipeg over the next few years, but never really stayed still for long. He became a mainstay in several pockets throughout North America, while touring and recording with the likes of Anne Murray, John Allan Cameron, George Hamilton IV, Moe Koffman, Liona Boyd, and Jimmy Dale, to name a few. This went on for the next few years while also forming various versions of his own trio, taking his own acts on the road now and again.
The appropriately titled CABIN FEVER in 1975 was the culmination of Breau secluding himself in Ontario’s backbushes to tweak some material he’d been toying with over the last few years. Throughout the ’70s, Breau continued to lend his talents to other artists, both as a studio musician on stage throughout North America, covering practically every possible genre. His tours of duty included working with fiddle master Buddy Spicher, and fellow guitar maestros Gaye Delorme, Phil Upchurch, and Richard Cotten, among others. The tapes from his Nashville shows in ’77 with Cotten eventually made it to disc in 2001 as the PICKIN’ COTTEN album.
Working with pedal steel jazz great Buddy Emmons, their MINORS ALOUD album was released in ’78 on Flying Fish Records. Along with the title track the two penned themselves, it included the cover of Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From The Apple” and Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe,” and was heralded by the critics as a masterpiece of jazz/classical fusion.
A string of albums were released in 1979, beginning with FIVE O’CLOCK BELLS. Pressed by Adelphi Records in their jazz series, it was one of the few albums to feature his vocals, and mostly contained original numbers, as well as a mix of traditional jazz offerings and his avant-garde approach to some lesser expected interpretations – from Henry Mancini’s “Day of Wine and Roses” to Roy Rodgers’ “My Funny Valentine.” He kept busy that year, also releasing a solo show from New York City on Sound Hole Records entitled THE LEGENDARY LENNY BREAU – NOW!, predominantly original compositions in an intimate setting, just him and his guitar. Direct Disk Labs also released Breau’s self-titled album, which featured a cover of Anne Murray’s “You Needed Me” (the original version of which he played on), among others.
His appearance on his mother Betty Cody’s 1979 comeback album SINGING AGAIN features the only recordings Breau did with his younger brother Denny. Breau moved to Los Angeles in 1981, where he continued working the jazz circuit regularly, and appeared on Bucky Barrett’s release that year, KILLIN’ THE WIND. Breau released MO BREAU later that year, which featured a solo show taped earlier that year, as well as STANDARD BRANDS – a duet album with hero Chet Atkins.
This period also had Breau team up with fellow jazz guitar impresario Tal “The Octopus” Farlow. Originally used for a bio-documentary simply entitled “Talmage Farlow” about his rise, disappearance, and then resurrection, Breau’s contributions became the LENNY BREAU & TAL FORMAGE album in ’82. The two had worked together before, performing on many occasions throughout the jazz club circuit in the US. Their 1980 show in New Jersey was resurrected following both of their deaths as the STANDARDS BRAND album.
Hanging out in Nashville, he then hooked up with Buddy Emmons again that same year, and this time bassist Jimmy Ferguson and drummer Kenny Malone tagged along. He found a distributor in Tudo Records, and the jazz-tinged country standards were released two years later as WHEN LIGHTN’ STRIKES, shortly before his death. Featuring “Please Release Me,” “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” “She Thinks I Still Care,” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” the record not only contained the only studio recordings of him playing his famed 7-string acoustic guitar, but five which were critically acclaimed duets with him and Ferguson.
He was found dead in his swimming pool on August 12, 1984, at the age of 43. Local police originally ruled his death an accidental drowning, but the coroner’s report determined he’d actually been strangled. The case remains unsolved, although his wife, Jewel Breau, was the chief suspect but never charged with his murder. Shocked, numerous friends and colleagues banded together in the coming weeks for several tribute concerts and other projects.
Beginning with Adelphi reissuing THE LENNY BREAU TRIO album in 1985 (actually their 1979 LENNY BREAU album, that had four, not three members), many of his albums and previously unreleased live and studio sessions have seen the light of day. Most of the credit for this is due to Randy Bachman , who acquired the rights to all of Breau’s music and took it upon himself to allow indie labels access to it. Some were personal recordings with who are regarded by some critics as fellow musical geniuses, including the sessions with clarinet master Brad Terry. Those recordings became the three-part THE LIVINGROOM TAPES.
His 1983 intimate shows taped on Bourbon Street in New Orleans became LEGACY later that year, and a second portion of the shows became the QUIETUDE album in ’85. These shows actually featured Breau playing off jazz standup bass master Dave Young, tho they were initially labelled as solo albums. The complete sets, along with previously unreleased portions of the shows, became LENNY BREAU AND DAVE YOUNG – LIVE ON BOURBON STREET years later.
2002’s SWINGIN’ ON A SEVEN STRING was simply the 1984 WHEN LIGHTN’ STRIKES record, with a new name and with “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain” thrown in as a bonus. THE HALLMARK YEARS is a collection of previously unreleased studio recordings, released in the spring of 2001. Hot on its heels was LIVE AT THE PURPLE ONION, recorded live in one of Toronto’s hottest jazz clubs, featuring Don Francks on vocals and Eon Hinstridge on acoustic bass in a 70 minute show. Both were remasterings of 1962 tapes. Other selected songs from the Breau catalogue also began appearing on guitar-enthusiast compilation albums, beginning in the early ’90s.
A documentary entitled “The Genius of Lenny Breau” was produced in 1999 by his daughter Emily Hughes. Along with an intimate look at the musician, it also included interviews and excerpts of him with others, including Chet Atkins, Ted Greene, George Benson, Pat Metheny, Leondard Cohen, and Randy Bachman. A second documentary on Breau, “One Long Tune: The Life and Music of Lenny Breau,” by Ron Forbes-Roberts, was produced a few years later. Several DVDs have also surfaced recently, chronicling the life and times of one of jazz music’s most adored guitarists.