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Media Life:Auburn’s “Summertime Blues” maker records new honor

Stephens, Blue Cheer on Rolling Stone guitar songs Top 100; Auburn race car champ pens new book
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Fresh from Blue Cheer’s “Summertime Blues” being named by Rolling Stone magazine as No. 73 on its roster of 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time, Auburn’s Leigh Stephens graciously shared some recollections with Media Life on the making of a classic cut. Stephens, who was also named four years ago to the Rolling Stone list of Top 100 Guitar Players of All Time, said Blue Cheer went into the studio with producer Abe “Voco” Kesh and an off-duty cop as engineer working with a four-track machine. It was late 1967 and the band had recently downsized from a six-piece into power trio mode at a time when the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream were setting a standard for three-member groups. Kesh was a deejay at San Francisco’s groundbreaking, free-form KSAN. As well, he produced tracks for the Charlatans and Harvey Mandel. “He was a blues nut,” Stephens recalled. “He was the first to break (blues guitar player) Albert King on the American radio scene and told everyone on air that if Albert King ever played the Filmore, he would carry his guitar for him.” Stephens remembers standing outside the night King finally played the Filmore. “And up walks Abe with a guitar in hand and introduces us to Albert King,” Stephen said. “Very cool indeed.” The kicker was that Filmore impresario Bill Graham had just told Stephens and Janis Joplin that they couldn’t get in for free that night because they hadn’t called ahead to get on the guest list. “He was a stickler for that,” Stephens said. “We had to pay $3.50 each. Outrageous.” In the recording studio for “Summertime Blues,” Stephens plugged a Fender Jazzmaster into a series of three Marshall stacks. When the tape started rolling, he kept the dynamics simple – with an Arbiter Fuzz Face effects pedal adding some bleariness to the distortion of the Marshall amplification system. LONGER VERSION CAME FIRST Kesh was savvy enough to send out an 11-minute version of “Summertime Blues” to local radio stations and it caught on with Bay Area listeners months before the single and album “Vincebus Eruptum” came out on the Philips label. The album would reach as high as No. 11 on the national charts. The single would be for the ages. Stephens would go on to play on one more Blue Cheer LP – “Outsideinside” – before leaving the band. He keeps a relatively low profile in Auburn these days and continues to record and make occasional live appearances. Rock ‘n’ roll has never forgotten Stephens’ fuzzed-up riffing and soloing on “Summertime Blues.” And while the Jazzmaster didn’t have the street cred of say a Stratocaster in the 1960s because it was seen more as a surf guitar than a rock instrument, it’s one of the prized axes for modern guitar players. Rolling Stone writes that the Blue Cheer song is “sometimes called the first heavy-metal record.” “It’s a showcase for the massive roar of Leigh Stephens’ guitar, so fuzzed-up it scrapes like steel wool, dragging the rockabilly riff through the dust,” Rolling Stone says. For a detailed look at “Summertime Blues,” including links to video by Blue Cheer and rockabilly pioneer Eddie Cochran, check out the Media Life: Etc blog post at auburnjournal.com. CHAPTER CHAMP Champion Indy car driver Scott Pruett of Auburn has ink running through his veins as well as gasoline. Pruett has teamed with his wife, Judy on their fourth children’s book under their own Word Weaver Books publishing banner. They’ve just published “Racing Through The Alphabet,” a book that helps younger readers get accustomed to their letters by using racing terminology. The twosome came out with “Twelve Little Race Cars” nine years ago, soon after the birth of their daughter, Taylor in 1998. “Twelve More Little Race Cars” followed in 2000. “Rookie Racer” appeared on bookshelves three years ago. The books will have to compete for space in the Pruett household with Scott’s collection of racing-related hardware. He’s won the 24 Hours of Le Mans once and the Daytona 24 Hours race seven times. He was an Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year. Pruett’s currently on top in the Rolex Sports Car Series standings as he seeks a record eighth championship in that sport. Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com.