10 Questions for Lowell Levinger
By Dan Beimborn - for the Mandolin Cafe
March 5, 2010 - 6:30 am
One of our favorite stopping points on the web for gazing at (and sometimes purchasing) great vintage instruments is the site Players Vintage Instruments, owned and operated by Lowell Levinger, or Banana, as he's known to the musical community.
Dan Beimborn of the Mandolin Archive put together this brief interview with Banana at our request, and we hope you enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at a 60s and 70s music icon turned vintage instrument dealer.
An Introduction to Lowell Levinger
Banana (aka Lowell Levinger) has been a good friend of mine for four decades. We first met during the "folk scare" of the 1960s, and had parallel careers in the folk rock industry.
Of course, he gained national prominence with The Youngbloods, while Peter Rowan and I found national obscurity in Earth Opera.
Following successful careers as banjo, guitar and keyboard player, hang-gliding instructor and software inventor, Banana stopped by one day in the '90s to talk about going into the "vintage" instrument trade. I sold him a '49 Gibson F12 for $1400 and, as they say, "the rest is history!"
Today Lowell is the sole proprietor of Players Vintage Instruments and we still hang out, play music and swap tenor guitars and odd-ball mandolins.
— David Grisman
Mandolin Cafe: Banana, please tell us how you originally got hooked on vintage instruments. Was there one particular instrument that set the whole avalanche in motion?
Banana: When I was a young lad growing up in Santa Rosa, California, I discovered the race station over in Berkeley which now has the call letters KDIA. In those days it was different call letters that I can't quite recall. Anyway it was through that station at age 9 or so that I discovered both urban and rural blues from B.B. King to Lightning Hopkins to John Lee Hooker to Big Bill Broonzy etc. etc. So that probably was my first introduction to the sound of old instruments.
I played the piano from about age 5 and didn't get sucked into the guitar until I was about 13. I discovered one at a friends house and realized I could play Raunchy (by Link Wray) right off the bat and also Jimmie Reed's main lick that in one form or another backs most of his songs. I got a really horrid Stella and continued learning chords and picking things out. I graduated to another horrible Gibson mahogany LG something or other I guess it was.
Towards the end of my Senior year in high school I had a 'born again' experience when I was introduced to the music of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys by my dorm master / history teacher. The first 15 seconds of that record changed my life forever.
I already had decided I wanted a banjo but I thought I'd get a long neck one like Pete Seeger played, but Earl Scruggs changed all that. I now had an inkling that he was playing an old banjo. Lester had an old guitar too. And Curly was playing that old F-4.
It didn't really sink in until I arrived at Boston University and become friends with Rick Turner and Michael Kane. They both had listened to the same stuff I had and they both played music and they both were realizing that the old instruments were way better than the new ones. We would travel around the outskirts of Boston (and in Boston also) going to old mom and pop music stores and repair places and antique stores ferreting out old guitars and banjos and mandolins. I can remember buying a ca. 1860 Martin New Yorker for $4.00 and a Vega Tubaphone 5 string banjo for about the same.
Our apartment in Cambridge became a hangout for folkies and visiting musicians playing at the local coffee houses. I remember doing a count of banjos one night and coming up with 40! We did a lot of trading of instruments and in the summer of 1964 we actually opened a shop... The Island String Shop in Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard. We had some old instruments and sold strings and capos and picks and 'such' to the visiting musicians who came to the island to play the local coffee houses there. That lasted the one summer.
Mandolin Cafe: And this continued on after college?
Banana: Right. By the time I moved to New York to join what was to become The Youngbloods I had a few nice old instruments, including my RB-1 "Mastertone" that I had bought from Winnie Winston. It was stolen out of my New York apartment, one of many lessons about life in the big city.
In 1971 we were playing Nashville and I spent an afternoon at GTR (now Gruhn Guitars) and I bought three quintessential instruments. He had about a half a dozen herringbone 000-28's hanging on the wall and this was the guitar I had wanted for a long time. I spent hours playing them and wound up choosing a slightly beat 1941 000-28 which was the one that sounded best when I played it. I also bought a Mastertone and ordered a 5 string wreath pattern neck made for it by Randy Wood and also ordered a Randy Wood copy of an F-5. I went home with the Martin and the banjo and mandolin arrived about a month later. I was in heaven.
Youngbloods - Joe Bauer, Banana (on the right), Jesse Colin Young (minus Jerry Corbitt) on the popular variety show The Hollywood Palace, November 22, 1969.
Mandolin Cafe: Are we correct that you recovered your stolen banjo many years later?
Banana: Yep, when it was stolen in 1966 I submitted a police report and started checking all the pawn shops and also all the Fretted Instrument Shops in the country (of which there were few in those days). I continued to check for a couple of years and then gave up. Then, 45 years later, after playing and owning many fine banjos, the thing shows up on eBay. I was pretty sure it was my banjo but not absolutely positive. The seller was a reasonable fellow who of course had no idea that the banjo might be stolen, and my story was a little hard to swallow. But he gave me 30 days to come up with some sort of proof that the banjo was actually mine. Well, the police in New York amazingly enough had other priorities that they felt were more important than finding a stolen banjo report from 45 years ago. Imagine that! And I didn't have any other way to prove it, and I wasn't really that sure that it was actually the same banjo. So I decided to pass on it because even though the seller was willing to sell it to me for what he had into it, that still was a pretty penny.
Then about two months later I was going through a drawer of old old stuff and I ran across a scrap of paper upon which I had written the serial numbers of the instruments I owned. This scrap of paper was from 1964 and the serial number of the banjo was right there and it matched the one on eBay.
So I got back in touch with the seller who still had the banjo and agreed to pay his price. When it arrived I couldn't believe how it was basically unchanged from when I had owned it with the exception of the serial number on the resonator being gouged out. They evidently didn't realize there's another stamped serial number inside the rim. It felt so familiar to play it and it sounded fantastic. An old friend re-united. So, that's the banjo I'm playing now at all my gigs and the Granada sits in the closet... for sale if anyone wants a great sounding Granada.
Mandolin Cafe: We see all sorts of great old Gibson mandolins on your web site and museum pages, but you also have all sorts of other rare pieces from Shutt, Howe-Orme, Dayton, etc. Can you describe some of the unique characteristics of these instruments?
Banana: The main focus has always been on Gibson and Martin ever since I became aware of the pleasure of vintage instruments. And, yes I have to admit that I play mostly Gibson and Martin instruments at gigs. There are also these amazing innovators who produced instruments of equal and often exceeding quality of the 'big guys'. These instruments are fascinating in their design and details and their history often made in one man shops and sometimes made for brief flurries in factories employing scores of people. Fortunately there are folks with a more scholarly bent than me doing research and publishing material on these more obscure makers and their instruments.
Shutt mandolins have features that pre-date the "Loar Innovations" by a dozen years or more. Bridge placement that allows longer necks, elevated fingerboards, elevated pickguards, f-holes, carved tops, adjustable bridges. Howe-Orme mandolin family instruments have cylinder tops and the guitar family has adjustable removable necks. Dayton instruments have in their middle a false back of very light resonant wood with cats eye sound holes in it. Pre Virzi! Then there's stuff like The Hammond harp mandolin with it's 5 fret 2nd fingerboard for the harp strings for which the method of playing is inscrutable. No two Knutsen instruments are alike. Old Chris must have gotten up each morning, finished his oatmeal and who know what he put in the bowl of his pipe before he designed his instrument for the day?
Mandolin Cafe: Over the years you've been involved in many different styles of music. What have been your favorite styles to perform recently? Can you tell us a bit about the sorts of gigs we can find you at nowadays, and what we might expect to hear?
Banana: As a lad age 10, I can remember desperately wanting two records for my birthday: Elvis Presley's new album (his first one) and The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company's recording of HMS Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan.
I also loved Broadway Musicals in my early pre-teen years, and knew most of the tunes from them. I took classical piano lessons from age 5 to about age 13, and can't say I really fell in love with the material- but I'm sure glad I studied it.
By age 13 I was playing piano for local doo wop groups who were imitating the multi-part harmony singing of The Penguins, The Platters, The Skyliners, The Dell Vikings, and all those great groups of the early fifties. I also fell in love with jazz around this time from white (Andre Previn, Shelly Manne, Gerry Mulligan, etc.) to black (Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, Thelonius Monk, etc.).
I've been a blues and rhythm and blues fanatic since I was a little kid, and that's the stuff I played when I first discovered the guitar. I moved on to folk and country and in high school discovered bluegrass. "Banana and The Bunch, old time music with appeal", was formed in my Freshman year at Boston University, with a mostly Bill Monroe / Stanley Brothers / Flat and Scruggs repertoire.
When the Stones and Butterfield and other white guys playing black music started to become popular, I decided to jump on the bandwagon since I knew the original music on which they were basing their success so well. We formed The Trols, and early rock / R+B band in Boston. When I moved to New York to form The Youngbloods with Joe Bauer and Jesse Colin Young and Jerry Corbitt, both Jerry and Jesse were folksingers with little ensemble experience. So we were pretty folkie at first but eventually embraced all kinds of music from jazz to country to rock.
I've played with my friend Michael Barclay in many blues bands since the seventies, and I love playing blues organ and also rhythm guitar in The Michael Barclay Blues Band. I also really enjoy playing in The Barry "The Fish" Melton Band, where we play psychedelic rock and roll mostly. My years with Zero were also a lot of fun with the brilliant Steve Kimock on lead guitar and the chance to do original jazz/rock instrumental compositions. We get together to play occasionally and it's always a pleasure.
These days my main focus though is on Grandpa Banana. When I play solo I can play any old tune I happen to think of (and I know a whole lot of songs), and I can change my arrangement if it strikes my fancy- or come up with a new one on the spot if I am so inspired. I like to bring my 5 string tenor guitar (tuned from the bottom up F C G D A), a six string guitar, and a banjo. I switch around which makes a nice variety. When I appear with Grandpa Banana's Band we'll have 4 or 5 musicians usually. We play our arrangements of great tunes I've learned, and new ones I continue to discover.
The new CD "Grandpa Banana - I'll Do Anything For You" is a good representation of this music.
Mandolin Cafe: Back to mandolins—it's hard to really pin anyone down to a list, but what would be your "top 5" list of favorite individual mandolins you have played?
Banana: I'm fortunate enough to be good friends with David Grisman and we live about 40 minutes away from each other. I've played about all of his mandolins and that old beat up 1925 Fern he has is certainly one of my favorites. Even though it is a bit brash, it has a great personality and seems to be easy for me to play. Some mandolins may sound fantastic when 'testing' them but for me personally they have to 'fit'... i.e. be comfortable for my hands and (limited) style.
I guess my favorite one right now has to be my Giacomel J-5. Dawg introduced me to the Giacomel when he returned from Italy with his first one and I was blown away. After playing it as his house (and then hearing him play it in concert and on record!) I couldn't resist. Now it's the mandolin that sounds best when I play it. I also have a Giacomel octave mandolin that I have converted to a 5 string tenor guitar (all it took was replacing the bridge top and the nut) - it is also one of my very favorite instruments.
Then there's my old Randy Wood F-5 copy that he made for me in 1971. Very comfortable and a 'hoss' for sure.
I have a 1924 Loar mandola with a Virzi that is sweet as can be but for power and punch my Kimble A style mandola blows it away. And of course there's old #73723 which I love dearly and has 'that certain thing' that is so hard do duplicate.
And a mandolin I play a lot around the house and have traveled with also is "The Dayton". It plays nicely, has a great tone ... couldn't call it a hoss ... but just for playing 'in the room' or at the airport or whenever ya just gotta play some mandolin, it's a great instrument and an unusual one at that.
Mandolin Cafe: Anything in the electric realm?
Banana: On rare occasions when I am asked to bring an electric mandolin to a gig I choose the old EM-150 with the Charlie Christian pickup in it. Feels good and sounds fantastic through an old Fender amp.
I lost count... that might be six.
Mandolin Cafe: When an instrument arrives in your hands for the first time, what is your "once over" process to test it out? What do you look for in terms of set-up and playability? Do you see any commonly recurring setup issues with older instruments?
Banana: Lets assume it is supposedly a playable piece and not a restoration project. So first I look it over for any obvious visual flaws and then I feel it all over for anything that might show up by running ones hands all over the instrument.
Then I 'knock about' on it (rap on the top and back) to see if I can hear any rattling that would be a sign of loose braces. The strings are often ancient so I change them and in the process put a drop of Tri Flo (available at many bicycle shops) on each spider gear of the tuning pegs. Then I tune it up and if it is a movable bridge adjust the intonation. Then I check to see if every note on the fingerboard plays true and clear.
The recurring setup issues are adjusting for intonation and many old guitars need a neck re-set. I guess that is not really set up but repair- but they need it nevertheless to play comfortably and in tune and with the best tone and volume possible for them.
Mandolin Cafe: Let's talk about 5-course instruments. There are sure a lot of different types of mandolin-family 5 or 10-string instruments. We share your fascination with them. We understand you frequently perform on a 5-string tenor guitar. Have you ever tried any other 5-course instruments? What is it about the tenor scale and tuning you use that keeps bringing you back to it?
Banana: I have tried 10 string double-course instruments, and I currently have a nice Vega "lute mandola" with a 15 inch scale length. The scale length on 5 course instruments is important- with a normal mandolin scale length the low string tends to be floppy, with too long a scale length the high strings tend to sound thin or break, one or the other.
I've settled on a 21" scale length for my five string conversions because it is comfortable for my small hands, and seems to work out nicely for string tension when using .011 .016 .024 .038 .049 which is what I call my Medium set. To go lighter on a more delicate instrument I'll use .010 .016 .024 .036 .048, and to go heavier (like on the resonator models) I'll use .011 .017 .026 .038 .049.
The .049 requires a lot of compensation on the bridge saddle to get the intonation correct.
I fell in love with tenor guitars about 10 years ago and after playing them for a few years decided that a low F string would be a wonderful addition. It would allow access to the tonic in the often used keys of G A Bb and B. When accompanying myself singing songs, having access to those low tonic notes makes for a much more satisfying accompaniment while still retaining the distinctive voicings one gets from a tenor guitar tuned in fifths.
So, I've been playing it for a few years now and getting better and better at it, and enjoying it more and more as the learning process continues. I promote it everywhere, but so far it seems that I'm the only one actually playing one on gigs and records. I just don't understand why everybody doesn't jump on the bandwagon. I guess there's just no accounting for taste.
Mandolin Cafe: We understand from Dawg that you've put in some time as a hang gliding instructor and as a software inventor. Is that a story you can tell us in more detail?
That question comes with two different stories.
One starts in about 1969 or so, when I started taking sailplane / glider flying lessons. I eventually got my glider pilot's license. I would go to Calistoga, get a tow up, and then go look for thermals or ridge lift or whatever. But always I needed to be back at the start point of my landing approach pattern at 700 feet. In order to effect a perfectly safe standard approach and landing, I had to be at that place and at that altitude! It was very important.
700 feet and below is just where things start to look really great, but who can appreciate the beauty of it all when they are concentrating so hard on executing the perfect downwind, crosswind and final upwind legs of the landing approach? Not me. And you're going 40 to 50 miles an hour. It would be nice to slow down and take it easy and enjoy the view.
In 1973 I heard about some folks demonstrating and giving lessons in hang gliders, which they were selling in kit form. They were doing it at the mouth of Tomales Bay on the sand dunes of Dillon Beach. Some buddies and I went out there to check it out. When I saw a glider lift off from the top of the hill, do a couple of 180 degree turns then land at the bottom—my life changed.
I became friends with the folks at Manta Wings in Oakland, who were manufacturing the wings and were the folks doing the demos at Dillon Beach. Their teaching techniques left a lot to be desired. If a student didn't "get it," then they just yelled the same thing again, but louder. I caught on pretty quickly. With my sailplane experience I knew a lot about flying, aerodynamics, and weather, etc. I offered to help out with the teaching so they could do more demo'ing. Soon a friend and I had taken over the classes, and we were storing the trainer gliders at our houses. We were exploring new flying sites during the week.
Eventually we opened a shop, and I went through a few partners over about a 12-year period. I'm proud of teaching over 5000 students to fly—none of them ever being seriously injured.
I helped in the initial stages of the United States Hang Gliding Association to craft the Instructor Certification System and the system of Examiners, Observers and Instructors who administer the Pilot Rating system. We negotiated with the California State Parks and the National Parks to get legalized regulated flying at sites like Mt. Tamalpais and Yosemite. As the years rolled by, hang gliders became safer with greatly improved performance and structural certification guidelines.
In the 80s when Ultralight Powered Gliders were becoming more and more popular, I sold out my share of the business to my partner. At that time I was spending more time on the road as a musician anyway.
Then there's the music software. I guess it was about 1979 or 80 that I got interested in computers. I started reading Byte magazine, only understanding a fraction of what I read. That fraction gradually grew. I had a friend who worked at an electronics repair place. He had a friend who was a computer guru who had an Apple II and an eprom reader/burner. We ordered blank renegade Apple II motherboards from Taiwan, and also all the parts needed and used the ROMs from the Apple II to make EPROMS. We built our own bootleg Apple II computers.
I had also just gotten into synthesizers. It was obvious when you opened the lid of the synthesizer that there was a computer inside it, and so the logical next thought was there should be a way to make the computer talk to the synthesizer. My computer buddy (who really knew how to write code) and I designed, and he coded a simple patch librarian to work with the Apple II and my KORG synthsizer.
Meanwhile, MIDI sprang onto the scene, and the whole thing became much simpler and wide open to the world. I had been bugging a company called Passport Designs (they made a sequencer for the Apple II) about how their product could be better, and that there were lots of bugs in it. One day I got a letter from them asking if I wanted to come down and apply for a testing/demo'ing position. I went down there and they asked if I could use their sequencer to make a demo of a hit record that sounded just like the record (without vocals of course) if they gave me all the synthesizers and drum machines I needed to do it. "Of course I can," I replied never having done it.
So I started out as a "demo guy" and wound up being the Vice President of Development, managing the Engineering Department, Customer Support, Testing, and Documentation. Then vulture capitalists were foolishly enlisted, and they eventually kicked out the founder (my beloved boss) and the whole thing turned into a financial debacle! But we did pioneer some great notation software and sequencing software.
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I've got a CD with the "Peppermill Creek Rounders" (or so) that I like quite a bit. Banana Levinger surely has a good musical thing going. More power to people like him and may you enjoy being a grandpa for a long healthy time to come.
Banana, Michael Kane, and I all met at the Boston University freshman rally in the fall of 1962. We were the three guys who refused to wear those incredibly dumb freshman beanies, and we found one another almost instantly. Me, with my 1926 Martin 2-17 or my Fairbanks and Cole five string banjo on my back...to which I'd attached an early 1950s Plymouth hub cap as a resonator, Michael, on a music scholarship...hating marching with his French horn at football games, and Banana, then known as Lonnie, in the theater department. We discovered that all one had to do to take over a rehearsal room at the BU music school was to show up and occupy the room. Simple as that. And so we became...Banana and the Bunch, Old Time Music with...A-Peel... That upon discovering that Lowell/Lonnie's "real name" was Harmon N. Banana.
We wound up being sort of the mascots of the previous generation of Boston/Cambridge folkies...Keith and Rooney, the Charles River Valley Boys, and the Kweskin Jug Band. We were a few years younger and definitely a bit more psychedelic, but they, and the very generous Betsy Siggins, took to us as the next generation of folk weirdos. Our heroes were more the likes of the Holy Modal Rounders...and then the Stones and Beatles hit. I wound up going out on the road and recording with Ian and Sylvia, and Banana and Jesse, Jerry, Joe, and Jim (!) founded the Youngbloods.
Banana and I are still best of friends...
And every few years, there's an original Banana and the Bunch reunion. We're overdue...
There is no thrill...absolutely no thrill that beats ducking under a velvet rope at a museum, a pair of scissors or a knife in your hand, and liberating some precious instruments from right off the wall of a beautifully presented exhibit. We're talking dropping from a rope into Topcapi here.
Banana and I got to do that on the night Bob references..
Of course the irony was that we were liberating our own instruments!
Jesse Colin Young Interview Series by LivingLegendsMusic