Introduction by Bruno Goh Luse
Elvin Johns and my father Robert Luse first met in 1957 at a meeting of the Orlando classic guitar society. Since then they have been friends and sojourners together on the lifelong journey that is music. As a child I remember hearing many a taped letter from Elvin being played in my father’s studio, and I had the privilege of meeting Elvin in 1994 when we visited him in France. The music that we present on this page represents the last project that my father worked on before on his death in July 2015, and as such has special meaning for all of us who knew Robert. Elvin is not only a superb guitar player, he is also a most excellent writer, and he has agreed to release the text of his recently-completed autobiography along with the videos my father and I worked on.
The life and music of Elvin Johns, part 1:
When it was it was suggested that I should do an autobiography to go along with the recordings, it was clear that it had to stay within certain limits, but say more than might be demanded on an application form. So, I decided to restrict myself to two areas: For the most part only speak of my inner relationship to music and how it developed. And except for some family history, to mention only the principal people and sources that propelled me along my way. My life has been very rich with people who have helped with encouragement and comradeship. To somehow weave them into the fabric of the story would have made it very long.
Here’s how the story goes:
My earliest memories pertaining to the guitar date back to my childhood in Florida. There was a family living next door and quite a few of them played country and western music. Along with their daytime jobs they played in clubs and bars on weekend evenings. I was quite taken with the sound and wanted to see the instruments. They were nice people and granted my wish. I remember asking them where they put their fingers. They all laughed and one told me: “all over”.
Without a question I had been bitten by the music bug and asked if I could have guitar. My mother had an old piano and said that if I learned to play it, she would consider getting me a guitar. That seemed like a fair deal. I started learning the notes and after I had a couple of simple things down, I renewed my request. Well, no, I had just gotten started and had to get a lot better before there would be a guitar in my future. That discouraged me and I just gave up.
About the time I turned twelve, they decided that I had better learn to do something and conceded that I could have a guitar. There was a teacher at one of the local music stores downtown. He had a spot on his schedule and I was signed up to learn plectrum guitar. He taught both “Spanish and Hawaiian” guitar. He had a duo with an accordion player and had a lot of dance band experience. As part of my lessons, I had to show up once a week for a band class. There were guitars and accordions. It sounded like a real train wreck. It is hard to tell how the poor man stood it.
Like many musicians he moved around a lot and before long I was studying with his best student. That was something of a change. The guy was a Chet Atkins fan and also introduced me to the rock and roll style that was coming into fashion. I was with him for about a year and then he went into the army. I bought the rest of the method and became my own teacher. Every once in a while I would get together with some of my guitar playing friends and disturb the neighbors. We didn’t have much skill, but we certainly had volume. I progressed very slowly.
Growing up, guitar wasn’t my only musical activity. There was the church choir and choral music was an elective in both junior and senior high school. Several members of my family participated in singing groups so it seemed a normal thing to do.
Then there was that old piano in the house that my mother played when she had the time. She had a rudimentary technique and would play and sing old popular songs dating back to the 1800s and after. I frequently joined her and along with enjoying myself, learned quite a few old tunes. Wrong notes aside, it was a true heartfelt effort. There was quite a variety: along with the melancholy of the faces of the deceased among the branches of the “Ash Grove” there was boisterous glee of asking “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder”.
Entering high school, I found that I was one of the few that had a rudimentary ability to read music on the guitar. That wasn’t necessarily an advantage because those around me had learned other ways and some of them were quite good at learning by observation. They always had somebody in the family who could play a few licks. There was a very strong current of Country and Western music. Many people tuned into the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night. Many local radio stations played music recorded in Nashville all day long.
Numerous times in my life happenstance that looked like bad luck turned out to be just the opposite. Like a lot of kids I came down with the chickenpox and had to spend two weeks in a dark room that smelled of calamine lotion. To keep me from driving her nuts, my mother brought the family radio into my room and I spent two weeks being saturated with Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Homer and Jethro and the Carter Family.
Somewhat later Elvis Presley rocketed to national awareness. Elvis’s promoter was quoted as saying: Show me a white performer who can sing and perform like a black musician and I will show you how to make a million dollars. He had his man. The south was deeply segregated at the time I grew up there and we rarely got to hear black musicians. Eventually I did and along with Country and Western both were finally joined by a third: that vast repertoire which is lumped into something which is called classical music.
There was a copy of the Nutcracker Suite on 78rpms in the house and Mario Lanza on the TV which took the place of the radio when I was about eight. There was always the church choir too. I participated in that and belonged to the Choral Society in High School. My mother and a maiden cousin also belonged to a Bach society choir and as a young child I occasionally came to rehearsals when there was nobody to look after me at home.
Continue to part 2.