Thursday, December 18, 2008

Story submitted by Bill Bielby

It was my first electric guitar, an 8th grade graduation gift in 1961. In early April, my Dad and I went to Zordan's Music on South Michigan Ave in the Roseland area of Chicago, and Al Zordan was showing us new guitars in the $100 range. Even in those days, before Japanese imports, $100 didn't buy much of an electric guitar.

So, Al says, "Wait a minute."

He goes in the back room and brings out this beat up hard shell Les Paul case. He opens it up and framed in the pink lining is a '53 Gold Top with P-90s, except it isn't gold but midnight blue, almost black...what is sometimes called "oxblood." The pearl inlays had aged considerably and it was obvious it was a guitar with miles on it. But, apart from cosmetic wear, it played perfectly. So, we agree to buy it on layaway and every week for 10 weeks we headed for Roseland and gave Al another $10. Al also explained that the previous owner was a South Side blues artist known as Guitar Red.

Guitar Red (Paul Johnson) was a bit of a legend to aspiring guitarists on the South Side in those days. He recorded for Excello, Checker and Chess, and was known for his flamboyant playing style -- over his head, behind his back, even played the thing with his feet. Anyway, in June of 2002 I had tracked down Al Zordan to interview him for my book project on the early rock scene in the South Suburbs of Chicago. I hadn't seen him 35 years. We of course talked about my first guitar, and he mentioned that he had seen Red perform in a suburban club recently, and eventually I was able to track down Red and interview him in his home on the South Side. Red entertained me for hours with stories (including the one about playing that Les Paul with his feet) and with songs ranging from "Moonlight in Vermont" to "Little Wing."

In '63, my band, The Newports, needed a bass player. So, I traded that Les Paul in at Zordan's for a Hagstrom bass.

I'm guessing that guitar would be worth about $20K now.


Anonymous said...

Wow, what a cool story and great original photos. Thanks for sharing!

Keith Buckley said...

Bill -

This is a classic (albeit somewhat sad) story of the Garage Band era. Man, if I only had half of the cool guitars that got away ...sigh.
Thanks for sharing!