Gitbox Culture

Musings on guitars, guitarists, guitar styles and approaches, technical matters and guitar design by a professional guitarist with a Ph.D in ethnomusicology. Also covering electric bass, lap and pedal steel guitar. And what the hell, banjo.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Nick Lucas, Tin Pan Alley troubadour and guitar hotshot

Near the end of the "Rude Songs" episode of Tony Palmer's epic film history of popular music, All You Need Is Love (UK 1976), we see and hear Nick Lucas, an elderly but still handsome and dapper man playing a small black guitar and singing "Tip Toe Through The Tulips".  He punctuates his chord strums with snappy little bass runs, in a way not entirely different from his 1920s contemporaries Jimmie Rodgers and Riley Puckett.  In his later years Nick Lucas (1897-1982) would be contextualized by Johnny Carson as an important influence on Tiny Tim.  Tiny Tim (1932-1996) became a household word on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In television show by doing a vocal cross-dressing act with a high falsetto voice, singing many of the same old-time standards that were Nick Lucas' stock in trade.  His popularity had peaked in the late twenties and early thirties, but Nick was still working up almost until his death, a Tin Pan Alley troubadour from bygone days.

Interestingly, Nick Lucas began his recording careers with two 1922 guitar instrumental sides for Pathe, "Picking The Guitar" and "Teasing The Frets."  These records feature worked out guitar set pieces with piano accompaniment, of the kind that would have been thrilling to the country people that formed his core audience on the American vaudeville theatre circuit in the teens and twenties.  I hear in "Picking The Guitar" many of the licks that would find their way to bluegrass and later country guitarists like Lester Flatt, Hank Garland and Chet Atkins.  But listen to how he alternates a bumptious cross-picking major-key hoedown with the almost fey European ornamentation of a minor-key theme.

"Teasin' The Frets", the B-side, is quite a bit jazzier and recalls nothing so much as the ragtime banjo recordings of Vess Ossman and Fred Van Eps, the two early 20th century masters of the form.

Nick Lucas is probably best known today among guitarists as the name behind one of the first celebrity endorsed guitar models.  The Gibson Nick Lucas Special was marketed from 1926 to 1941, outliving Lucas' broad popularity by around ten years.  Bob Dylan played one on his 1965 British tour, and that resonant guitar can be heard and seen on the legendary Dylan documentary Don't Look Back.  Gibson revived the model from 1991-1992 and again from 1999-2004.  I've played one of the newer ones and it's probably my favorite newer Gibson acoustic.

Nick Lucas, along with the movie cowboys like Gene Autry, forged the contemporary image of the singer-guitarist.  We can see him as a forebear to Elvis, Bob Dylan and John Lennon.  But he was also, by adapting ragtime banjo licks, among the first jazz guitarists, as heard especially on "Teasin' The Frets."  For this achievement alone so early in jazz recording history, Nick Lucas can challenge Eddie Lang as the pioneer of jazz guitar.

No comments:

Post a Comment