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Legendary Guitar: George Harrison’s Well-Traveled Crimson Les Paul

Jerry McCulley
|
05.07.2009

During the height of mid-’60s Beatlemania, the guitars most frequently associated with George Harrison on tour and TV/film appearances were the Gretsch Country Gentleman, Rickenbacker 360/12 and the Epiphone Casino that both he and John Lennon wielded on their final 1966 world tour and sessions for the epochal Sgt. Pepper’s album. Harrison had also played a cherry-finish ’64 SG Standard during the Rubber Soul/Revolver era, an instrument that shows up in promo films for “Paperback Writer,” “Rain” and “Lady Madonna.”

But in August of 1968, Eric Clapton gifted Harrison with a 1957 Les Paul Standard, now factory refinished to cherry red, that already had an impressive rock history — and would soon reach even greater heights. Harrison immediately dubbed his new crimson Les Paul ‘Lucy’ in honor of red-headed comedy icon Lucille Ball, then quickly put it to work recording the White Album outtake, “Not Guilty.” Within weeks George also appeared playing it in the Beatles promotional film for the single “Revolution,” which initially aired on David Frost’s U.K. TV show, and later on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour stateside.

In September, it would perform what remains one of the Beatles’, and rock’s, most iconic solos — but not in the hands of George Harrison. After the initial session for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Harrison admitted in a 1974 Crawdaddy interview, that because of ongoing tensions with main songwriters Lennon and McCartney he “went home really disappointed because I knew the song was good.”

“The next day I brought Eric Clapton with me [to the studio]. He was really nervous. I was saying, 'Just come and play on the session, then I can sing and play acoustic guitar.' Because what happened when Eric was there on that day … it helped, because the others would have to control themselves a bit more. Eric was nervous saying, 'No, what will they say?' And I was saying, 'F**k 'em, that's my song!'”

Harrison also admitted he lacked confidence in his own guitar work during the era, explaining that “I'd played sitar for three years. And I'd just listened to classical Indian music and practiced sitar — except for when we played dates, studio dates — and then I'd get the guitar out and just play, you know, learn a part for the record. But I'd really lost a lot of interest in the guitar.”

“[Eric and I] used to hang out such a lot at that period, and Eric gave me a fantastic Les Paul guitar, which is the one he plays on [“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”]. So it worked out well.”

Harrison used ‘Lucy’ frequently during the final studio dates for the White Album and the subsequent, haphazard Get Back/Let It Be recordings that followed in January, 1969, then played it extensively that summer on the Beatles swan song, Abbey Road. That’s ‘Lucy’ wailing on the middle of “The End”’s trio of brief guitar solos. George also took the crimson Les Paul on the road briefly with Bonnie and Delaney Bramlett later that year.


Harrison and ‘Lucy’ during Let It Be

As the legend goes, ‘Lucy’ was originally a late-’50s Les Paul Goldtop that had made its way to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, and then McCoys’ mainstay Rick Derringer, who’d sent it off to Gibson’s Kalamazoo factory for refinishing.

Decades later, Rick would recall “I loved playing it, but my dad — who’s always loved a guitar looking real good — used to comment on how it was kind of beat up. It was a very, very used guitar, even when I got it. But it played great. So I figured that since we didn’t live far from Gibson’s factory in Kalamazoo, the next time the group went there I’d give it to Gibson and have it refinished. I had it done at the factory in the SG-style clear red finish that was popular at the time.”

Yet Derringer noted that the instrument “just didn’t feel the same … it had changed into an altogether different guitar” after refinishing. So Rick traded it for a sunburst finish Les Paul at Dan Armstrong’s guitar shop in Manhattan, which is where Eric Clapton purchased it not long after.

But memories — especially those of veteran, hard-living rock stars — can be notoriously cloudy, while legends — particularly those surrounding the Beatles — tend to take on a life of their own, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Which is just what we encountered trying to track down photos documenting Harrison’s cherry-refinished Les Paul Standard in its original state. Which led us to wonder: Was ‘Lucy’ really a Goldtop in her first incarnation? Several pieces of circumstantial and visual evidence cast some doubts on the instrument’s generally accepted heritage.

The serial number on the rear of the instrument’s headstock — #7-8789 — does indeed correspond with a Goldtop that was shipped from Gibson’s Kalamazoo factory in December 1957. But, as noted in Anthony Babiuk’s and Tony Bacon’s exhaustive reference book Beatles Gear, experts who’ve examined the instrument note that the style and typeface of ‘Lucy’’s serial number don’t match other instruments of its vintage.

While John Sebastian did indeed own a Goldtop, and is pictured playing it on the cover of his well-received Real Live John Sebastian concert album, that record was released in 1971, years after he had supposedly given the ax up to Derringer. Yet during the Lovin’ Spoonful’s ’60s prime, Sebastian frequently played what appears to be a similar vintage Les Paul Standard with a sunburst finish. It shows up on the cover of the band’s “Summer In the City” single, some concert shots, and a 1966 television clip of their biggest hit, “Daydream.”


The Lovin’s Spoonful with John Sebastian … and ‘Lucy’?

Rick Derringer was most frequently pictured playing an ES series during the McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy” heyday. But a grainy, amateur snapshot taken at a 1967 dance featuring the band shows Derringer playing what appears to be a Les Paul Standard that appears very similar to the one Sebastian was documented using with the Lovin’ Spoonful the previous year — or is it the sunburst model Rick says he acquired from Dan Armstrong’s shop?


The McCoys and Rick Derringer, 1967

Perhaps only ‘Lucy’ knows for sure — and she’s not talking.

The fabled red Les Paul was stolen from under the bed of George Harrison’s Beverly Hills home during a burglary in the early ’70s. Eventually it ended up at the Guitar Center in Hollywood, where a musician from Mexico purchased the instrument for $650. After a complex set of negotiations involving a third party and a trip to Mexico, ‘Lucy’ was eventually returned to Harrison in exchange for a ’58 sunburst Les Paul and a Precision bass.

“[‘Lucy’] got kidnapped and taken to Guadalajara,” George would later muse, “and I had to buy this Mexican guy a Les Paul to get it back.” His beloved ‘Lucy’ Les Paul would remain a prized part of George Harrison’s collection until his death in 2001.


George Harrison’s collection in the ’80s; ‘Lucy’ is on the wall off his left shoulder


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