The story of Paul Pena is one of sadness and tragedy. As there is very little public information about his story, I will do my best to put the details together.
In 1950, a black boy named Paul Pena was born in Massachusetts. Paul was born with congenital glaucoma. Although it took until the age of 20 for Paul to lose his complete sense of sight, Paul in practice was blind for his entire life. This did not deter Paul from matriculating at Clark University and becoming a local musical legend. While still in school, Paul was opening for the likes of Frank Zappa and The Grateful Dead while recording with famed musicians such as T-Bone Walker and Bonnie Raitt.
At the age of 22, Paul won a local radio talent competition and was given the ability to record his first short eponymous record, Paul Pena. 5000 copies were released on vinyl and the album quickly became out of print (the studio claimed they lost the masters but there are a lot of hazy details about this). No problem because Paul had reached an agreement to record all his future albums at Bearsville Studio under the notorious record label exec Albert Grossman. The very next year, Paul Pena was in the studio again recording his follow up record, New Train. This time, legendary musicians such as Jerry Garcia, Merl Saunders and the Persuasions surrounded Paul while the accompanying producer was famed Ben Sidran.
The album with its blistering guitar licks and soulful blues was going to be a hit; everybody knew it except the person who owned the rights to it, Albert Grossman. Grossman was the man in charge of such icons including Bob Dylan, The Band, Janis Joplin and many others. Simply put, Grossman was a lunatic. At the time, the industry standard was to charge 15% commission from your clients; this did not stop Grossman from charging 25% from his with the reasoning “Every time you talk to me you’re ten percent smarter than before. So I just add ten percent on to what all the dummies charge for nothing”.
It’s not entirely clear what Grossman wanted out of Pena but a feud sparked between him and Pena’s management. The fight became so intense that Grossman kicked Pena out of the studio, cancelled the album’s release and ensured that Pena could never record at any other studio ever again. Shortly after this, Paul’s wife Babe suffered from kidney failure and Paul decided to retire from music in order to take care of her.
At the time the album was being recorded, the album’s producer Ben Sidran was also in a band with some guy named Steve Miller. Sidran showed Miller the unreleased album, which simply blew him away. After hearing the story and knowing that Paul Pena could never release another album, they decided that they wanted to share his music and spread his name by covering their favourite Paul Pena song. As a tribute to Paul Pena, the Steve Miller Band released their classic rendition of “Jet Airliner” which became one of the biggest hits of the 1970’s. Paul and his family supported themselves and lived off of these royalties for the rest of his life.
Paul’s wife passed away in 1991, allowing his retirement from music to expire. However this time, Paul was interested in a very different type of music. Paul became infatuated with Tuvan throat singing leading him to becoming the 1995 Tuvan throat singing champion in the style of Kargyraa. Paul’s journey into throat singing became the basis of the Sundance award winning documentary Genghis Blues.
Unfortunately, already in bad health from his diabetes, Paul was misdiagnosed with pancreatic cancer where he underwent chemotherapy and was given 6 months to live. Only slightly better than this, Paul was then correctly diagnosed with pancreatitis but was already well on his way to the end. Due to his newfound fame from the documentary, declining health and the death of Albert Grossman, a new effort was made to release New Train. In the year 2000, Paul’s lawyer and former producer Jon Waxman was finally able to negotiate a the release of New Train, 27 years after its recording. Paul died in 2005.
New Train is one of the best albums I have ever heard. Had it come out in the 1970’s, it would have been a classic rock staple that everybody knows all the words to. I am not talented enough as a writer to describe the album in a way to do it justice. Its funky, soulful, catchy and fun; eclectic to the point where within the span of the album, one might think they are listening to The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix or CSNY. Normally when people describe the best album nobody has ever heard, they are referring to an album they particular like, but does not appeal to others. People do not know New Train not because it does not appeal to the mainstream or is only for a niche audience, but simply because his music was never available to be heard. Had New Train came out in 1973, Paul Pena would be a name just like Van Morrison, David Bowie, Neil Young or Levon Helm.
If you like good music, I strongly encourage you to check it out.