ETA: Interview with Paul Pena from The Human Chorus
“It’s all about the music” has become quite cliche’, nowadays. If you want a REAL example of this credo, see Paul Pena.
Paul’s family came from the Cape Verde Islands and a Creole background. As a young child, he learned guitar from his father, Jack, and as a teenager, was classically trained in flamenco music.
Paul Pena first hit the American music scene at the Newport Blues Festival back in the late ’60s. Although blind, Paul became one with music and it was truly his “home”. After a few years of performing with the likes of B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and Bonnie Raitt, Paul recorded his debut album, Paul Pena, released by Capitol Records in 1972. It got little attention and has been out of print and unavailable for quite a while.
While researching all things Pena, I came across a great new blog, Feed Me Good Tunes. JT, one of the contributors, wrote up a very apt review of the debut album in June that I think captures it best:
Paul Pena could have been something. Paul Pena’s music was captured briefly in precious few recordings, considering his legacy in music spans over three decades. And yet, his soul lives on in this, his first album, one that’s been out of print for as long as I can remember.
Overall, it’s a seamless, gorgeous, glorious blend of blues, classic rock, and soul, sung with the smokiest baritone and clearest electric guitar. Pena’s playing and arrangements are sunny and bright, richly layered with chorus voices and slide guitar. His lyrics are full of hope and curiosity for the world around me, and read like a road map to understanding and maturity. Where are we going in the world? What is my place? What do I have to offer? What can I give back? Where should I go next?
As we enter the summer months, and an endless tangle of FmGT posts aiming to pin down the elusive summer sound, this album screams June, July and August. The airy arrangements and shimmering guitar riffs work tirelessly and breathlessly in the sunshine. This is true “larger than your headphones” music; you’ll sing along without really knowing the words, you’ll hum the melodies, you’ll pick at yr air guitar, you’ll subconsciously break out the handclaps, the adoration, the adulation and the uncensored joy in Pena’s music.
Choice cuts include the opening track, “Woke Up This Morning”, a shimmering expression of Pena’s determination to transcend his obstacles and get where he wants to be. “Gonna Make It Alright” is a breezy, bright song that grows out of a very Meters-esque riff into a nasty, deep groove. “Something to Make You Happy” is seven minutes of gritty, shuffle blues, anchored by a frenetic bassline and soulful B-3. “When I’m Gone” is another meditation on the meaning of his life and the value of his existence, presented in his unmistakable style.
Pena’s music is as good as any coming out of this era in American music. The seamless blending of so many genres is a joy to listen to, especially when wrapped in Pena’s virtuosic guitar-playing. If he was better-known, he’d surely stand in the pantheon of great blues players, but as it is, he’s still relatively-unknown.
Download this, and enjoy it. Spread it around. This music is too good to keep under wraps.
Pena’s life was defined by several layers of misfortune, sadness and tragedy, but in listening to his music, you’d never know it. I hope you get as much enjoyment out of Paul Pena as I do.
Additionally, he provides all eight tracks of Paul Pena. I, like JT, feel that it’s critical to share Paul Pena’s work, so I’m also posting them here for others to discover and enjoy. This album is epic, yet basically unknown. I’ve added a short review of my own, as well.
Woke Up This Morning – Paul is a wonderful mixture of James Taylor and Bill Withers on this first track. A mellow melody with powerful lyrics.
I’m Gonna Make it Alright – This one is very Wet Willie-ish to me. Great bass lines, guitar and the music is just real. I particularly enjoy the subtle crackles of the LP.
The River – Nice, slow blues ballad with rich voices and instruments. When listening through headphones, it’s hard to believe that this was recorded with little manipulation 35 years ago. Music the way it’s supposed to be.
One for the Lonely – Good, old fashioned early ’70’s rock. Pena was an opening act for the Grateful Dead at one point and there is that vibe to this song.
Something to Make You Happy – Not my favorite on the album, but very much in the vein of the anguish songs of the day.
My Adorable One – Just when you think you can pigeon-hole Paul, he throws a hard curve. This song SHOULD have been done by Otis Redding or Sam Cooke. Awesome….likely my favorite of this compilation.
When I’m Gone – Another beautiful acoustical. Fantastic musicianship and just a great song.
Lullaby - Soothing acoustics from a brilliant player. Demonstrates Pena’s vast songwriting capabilities.
Paul made a lot of friends along the way, with Bonnie Raitt being one of the most loyal. Paul provided back up on her first album and shortly thereafter, recorded New Train in 1973. It was on the Bearsville label and produced by Ben Sidran, who happened to be the keyboardist for the Steve Miller Band. Shortly after the album was finished, Paul and his manager, Gunther Weil, got into a notorious feud with label owner, Albert Grossman, over the album’s content and release. Grossman shelved the album and refused to let Paul out of his contract to record elsewhere. Therefore, New Train tragically sat on a shelf for 27 years until, with the assistance of old friends who recognized Paul’s failing health and who had the desire to see his dream fulfilled it was finally released in 2000.
Paul Pena Bio
When the album was aborted, Sidran shared one of Paul’s New Train tracks with Steve Miller, who immediately fell in love with Jet Airliner. It would be one of the biggest hits of his career and the music world’s only exposure to Paul Pena until the turn of the century. Paul would eventually get his vindication by performing Jet Airliner on Conan, shortly before his death.
New Train was truly brilliant. Jerry Garcia provides backup on New Train and Venutian Lady. Merl Saunders also lent a hand on keyboards.
The great harmony group, The Persuasions, provided back-up on the most famous song on the album — Gonna Move. That’s them in the banter at the beginning. While Gonna Move has been covered by Susan Tedeschi, The Derek Trucks Band, and most recently, Taylor Hicks, the original is my favorite.
Added treats….Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks Band doing Gonna Move, Joyful Noise and The Feeling Music Brings on the Early Show:
Taylor Hicks’ Gonna Move (I like this version better than the CD version):
Here’s a short article on Paul’s trials and tribulations. Life always seem to serve Paul the proverbial chicken shit, which he generally turned into chicken salad. Sadly, there are only 18 slivers of Paul Pena for posterity.
If I could recommend one CD in my life, this would be it. It’s simply that good. There are a few songs on this CD that are begging to be covered. There are several that could easily be hits today. If today’s artists are truly students of music and there is ANY justice, more of these songs will be covered. It’s the one way to properly pay homage to Paul Pena.
I would particularly like to see Let’s Move and Groove Together covered:
Man, just a gut grabber.
The other more obscure Pena song that would be a great cover for one of today’s artists is A Bit of Alright.
Paul spent years taking care of his ailing wife and was ill with diabetes and pancreatitis. He was misdiagnosed as having pancreatic cancer and went through unnecessary chemotherapy that likely contributed to his death. However, he still found time to explore music, discovering something a world away that would captivate him in his later years. He stumbled across Tuvan throat singing one night when scanning short wave radio to learn Korean. Subsequently, he studied the music and from that came Genghis Blues, a documentary that ended up winning an Academy Award.
Not exactly my cup a tea, but interesting nonetheless.
Paul passed away in 2005 of complications from his illnesses at the age of 55. Hopefully, a new generation of listeners will discover and share Paul’s diverse music, keeping it alive. That would be a fitting tribute to a guy that was truly “all about the music”. For now, however, do yourself and Paul a favor. Go to iTunes or Amazon and purchase the amazing New Train. You will not be sorry.
New Train review from I Guess I’m Floating.