Guitar Man

Fri, 05/06/2016 - 11:15am

“Is the ferry going? It seems kind of windy,” said a guy carrying a soft guitar case slung over his shoulder. He looked very concerned as he stood at the end of the State Pier waiting for the M/V Manitou to be loaded. He was with a group of musicians who were going to play a gig on the island. Ken Lyon and The Tombstone Band was the name of the outfit. As the band’s van was being backed on board the ferry, the guy with the guitar continued scanning the white-capped harbor, “I wonder if they’re flying,” he asked. (They weren’t flying.) This guy did not want to get on the Manitou — he knew her reputation from past crossings. The last car was loaded, and then we put the last pallet of freight on the boat. When the docking lines were let go, the guy with the guitar was on the ferry — he didn’t look happy. It was blowing at least 25 knots from the southwest — with gusts to 30-plus knots. The Manitou was being used because there was work being done on the main ramp — there was no second ramp at that time. Furthermore, it was the coldest day of the winter.

I first saw guitarist Ed Vallee playing in a bar called the Surf Hotel in Narragansett. It was around 1971, and it was a saloon at the Pier that the wrecking ball would soon dispatch in the name of urban renewal. Ed played with a rock band called “Universal Rundle” — a catchy name. There was not a player in this band who was old enough to legally be in the place. It was the same deal for most of the customers. These were the halcyon days for baby-boomers who ferreted out these little bars to hear live music. This same scenario played out in other little East Coast beach towns; one called Asbury Park, New Jersey, comes to mind. Ed “Bumpsey” Vallee worked his gold Les Paul guitar handily with this roughhewn group of musicians from Narragansett and Wakefield. They were good.

“At 17, I joined up with the late Albi" — Al Manfredi — "and the Spellbinders, and cut my teeth on the guitar in the Combat Zone in Boston,” says Vallee. He also played in other clubs with the Spellbinders on the North Shore as well as other venues around Providence. Here is where he learned to show up and be prepared to play his guitar — if he wanted to get paid. He was on his way to being a working musician. A few years later at the Surf Hotel, Vallee sported long curly hair and bellbottoms — de rigueur for the day — as he shredded the fret board of his Les Paul. He played with assurance and precision then, as he still does today. He still has long hair, but no bellbottoms — that ship had sailed.

These days Ed Vallee can be seen plying his trade with “Steve Smith and the Nakeds,” who still play gigs on Block Island. When not working as a guitar man, Vallee works his day job as an Uber driver around Providence and the south coast. (It would be fun just to ride around with him when he’s Ubering, simply to talk with this likeable and very talented guy. Just sayin’.) To further his knowledge of his instrument, Vallee practices and gives private lessons. “I’m working on deconstructing 'Giant Steps' by John Coltrane, it’s good for me to figure out what he was doing,” he says. While discussing music theory our conversation veered off into the realm of quantum mechanics, and artificial intelligence. Vallee did course work at MIT and learned how to wire circuit boards. He than went to work for Dr. An Wang. Wang was a Chinese computer engineer and inventor, and Vallee worked for him learning about and manufacturing word processing machines. “I had to learn a skill to be employable, so I learned about computers,” he said, “I found them interesting.” 

Ed Vallee was recently inducted into the Rhode Island Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was a member of the infamous Rhode Island Art Rock band known as the “Young Adults.” This wild collection of characters was fronted by Bruce McCrae, a.k.a. “Rudy Cheeks,” and was a staple of the Providence and Boston music scene during the 70s and 80s. Their song, “It’s a Complex World,” (Google this) was prominently featured in a movie aptly titled “Complex World,” shot in Providence at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel. Ed fit right in with this cast of musical characters — the band wore wild getups and their music was tightly performed. 

A chance meeting one night in Newport with Vallee led to the best set of music I’ve ever experienced. I was on my way out to flop on my sailboat for the night when I saw Ed heading to a waterfront bar called Christies. He invited me along to see The Nakeds. That night, saxophone player Clarence Clemons, of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, was doing a set with the band — Clemons had just released a great solo album. For one solid set these guys simply knocked those in attendance senseless. Another time, by happenstance, we ended up at Lupo’s and saw Bo Diddley perform with his backing band from the Vineyard called Entrain. Our mutual friend, Klem, was playing sax and percussion with the band at that time. We watched Bo from the pit, as he and his band brought the house down. Moreover, I recently saw a video of Ed and Bruce Springsteen’s sidekick, Miami Steve Van Zandt, going toe to toe with their guitars. Ed’s like Forrest Gump. He’s everywhere!

The guitar man looked forlornly as the ferry left the dock that day, and with good reason. “Ken Lyon’s son told me the main cabin became a vomitorium, barf bags were breaking. It was awful,” he said “I stayed on the freight deck and when I saw the breaking seas, I realized I had no business being out there.” On the freight deck that day, a hot tub was being shipped, and it ended up being used as a bucket by a very seasick couple. “It was the worst day of my life,” said the guitar man, “But, you know, it was a gig. A guy's gotta do what he’s gotta do.”