The One That Got Away

The One That Got Away

Written by Jay Jay French

The day I just missed a 1959 ‘Burst

As an avid guitar collector, I’m often asked about my method and reasoning behind the guitars that I own or have owned.

To begin with, I never thought about “collecting” guitars until years after I became a professional musician in 1973.

At that point I had already had about a dozen guitars that had passed through my hands but never considered myself a collector.

My first guitar in 1965 was a Hagstrom bass which I bought with my dad for $25 from a pawn shop on 8th Avenue.

My first new purchase was a Fender Telecaster bought from a 48th Street guitar store, called Jimmy’s, in 1967 for $135.00.

My next new one was a Gibson SG Special in 1968. That one cost $242.50.

I remember each purchase and the prices like it was yesterday.

At this point, at the age of 16, I started to immerse myself in interviews with all my guitar heroes and started buying guitars as they kind of came to me through friends.

I owned a Gretsch Country Gentleman for about a month, a Fender Strat, courtesy of a Vietnam war vet newly returning and needing money, and finally my first Les Paul Jr. that I bought from a drug addict in Central Park for $275.00 (I way overpaid) on a beautiful sunny afternoon on May 1st, 1970. Why do I know this date? Because, for some reason, I made this guy sign a receipt for me in case the guitar was stolen.

Along the way over the next couple of years, I bought a new Fender Precision bass at Manny’s and a succession of used Gibson Les Paul Customs (both black & white versions) that averaged about $300.00 each.

I  started to hang out at the legendary Dan Armstrong guitar store on LaGuardia Place in Manhattan and started to notice the Les Paul model nicknamed “Gold Tops” (so named because the color of the top part of the guitar was painted gold) and Les Paul Standard “Sunburst” models (so named because the actual bookmatched wood veneer could be seen as you look straight on due to a translucent finish that looked slightly orange in the center and as the finish made it to the edge of the guitar the color was almost solid red color, looking like, well…sunburst) that were hanging for sale on his wall. I also was aware that both Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield were playing the Sunburst models. Dan Armstrong even had Bloomfield’s Gold Top (the one he traded for a Sunburst) as well as other famously owned Les Paul Gold Tops for sale. The prices for the Gold Tops were $550.00 which, in 1970, seemed really out there and about $200.00 more than I could afford at that time. It surely was way out of my price range. These Gold Tops were all manufactured by Gibson from 1952 to 1957 so I understood the idea of them being classic, but it was only 12 or so years after they were actually made and I didn’t understand why the prices were so high.

By 1972 I clearly remember walking down 48th Street and seeing a 1959 Gibson Sunburst color Les Paul with the price tag of $1,500.00. As you can see, the upward trend of increasing value was starting to take hold.

In the fall of 1972, however, I didn’t have $1,500.00 for a 1959 Gibson Sunburst. I knew that the closest I could get to one was a Gibson Gold Top but Dan Armstrong’s was closed and I didn’t know where I could find one. Also, I had no idea if the price had increased in the intervening 2 years.

Suddenly, in September 1972, as fate would have it, I was walking by a store in the West Village called The Music Inn. In the window was a 1953 Gibson Gold Top. The price was $700.00. I walked in and asked if they accepted trades. I told the owner that I had a 1969 Gibson Black Custom. He said that if I gave him my Gibson and $400.00 cash he would sell me the Gold Top.

I did it and that was my first real acquisition of a vintage Les Paul.

Although I now owned a 1953 Gold Top, I still really wanted a ‘59 Burst.

Twisted Sister began playing in January 1973 and although I bought, sold, and traded many newer Gibson Les Pauls, the Gold Top was my main guitar until 1978.

It was then that I met a Long Island Luthier named Steve Carr (not the Steve Carr of Carr Amps). Steve had built Kiss’s first stage guitars. By 1978 a real ‘59 Burst was going for $2,500.00 and still well out of my price range. He told me he could convert my Gold Top into a ‘59 Burst complete with Humbucking pickups and a stop tail.

It would only cost $500.00

I gave my Gold Top to him and waited 6 months to finally have my own ‘Burst.

It came back to me complete with the words “Disco Sucks” in pearl inlay carved into the fretboard.

It never played correctly, even after Steve worked on it some more, and I put it under my bed and pretty much forgot about it.

My regular guitars at this point were a 1978 Gibson “Norlin era 10-pound boat anchor tobacco burst” Les Paul and a 1976 Ibanez Explorer. Both custom painted by Steve Carr.

And then, one day in 1980 fate came calling.

Twisted Sister was playing at a club in Norwalk, Conn. called the Fore ‘N’ Aft. Located close by was the Calzone Case Company and I had become friends with Joe Calzone who made some road cases for us.

He asked if he could come down to sound check. When he showed up that afternoon he came with a guitar case. He opened the case and there was a beautiful 1959 Sunburst Les Paul. He asked me if I wanted to play it during sound check. Then he asked me if I wanted to buy it.

I asked how much and he said that he wanted $3,000.00 for it.

As you can see, the price had doubled from 1972 to 1980.

I started to think about how I could come up with that kind of money.

I took the guitar and went up on stage.

We started to play “Hell Bent For Leather” for the sound check. As the song was progressing, Dee lifted the mic stand and started to flail it around. I was standing next to him. In a split second the mic stand was thrust toward me and missed the headstock by a hair. I was so traumatized that I walked off the stage, handed the guitar back to Joe and told him to get it out of the club before something happened to it.

The thought of spending $3k on a 1959 Sunburst Les Paul that could be damaged so easily was too much for me to risk.

And so…I let it get away.

I have never really gotten over it.

Why? Well that guitar today would sell for about $275,000.00!!!!

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