Reflecting on my birthday this year found me remembering my favorite of them all. In 1996, for my fortieth birthday, I was surprised by my wonderful wife, Gail, and friends with the gift of the cherry-red Gibson ES-335 electric guitar I play to this day. The surprise of the thing is a tribute to Gail’s ability to keep a secret and ensure that a lot of my friends would, too.
The first decent guitar I ever owned was an Epiphone knock-off of the Gibson ES-335. It, too, was cherry-red and had a vibrato tailpiece that caused me to be out of tune more than in. I played it in talent shows, at school pep rallies and wherever my high school group, Les Kerr and The Blue Suede Band, could corral anyone into listening to us. For our first paying show, we made twenty dollars. For the whole band, not per person. We immediately spent our initial professional earnings on chili-cheese dogs at Edd’s Drive In in our hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi (Edd’s is correctly spelled with two “d”s, incidentally).
During that period, I imitated Elvis Presley and the band focused on his music and that of other gutsy rockers, including Chuck Berry. Berry was famous for his guitar wizardry and wielded a “335.” During the 1970s he was experiencing a career comeback with hits that included Reelin’ and Rockin’, among others. While my friend Garry Downs took the lead parts as we belted out Johnny B. Goode, I still felt proud to play my imitation 335 and sing, “Go…Go…Go, Johnny Go!”
As time went on and I went to college, I traded my electric Epiphone for an acoustic guitar and got into the singer/songwriters who were popular then – Jim Croce, Mac Davis, John Denver, Dan Fogelberg and others. I was also the youngest member of a bluegrass band at Ole Miss, the only freshman in the group whose other members were graduate students. So my interest in playing electric guitar lay dormant for many years.
However, by the 1980s, I had begun to really listen to the blues, especially to B.B. King. He was not only “King of the Blues,” but “King of Guitars” to me. In his early career, the guitar most associated with him was, you guessed it, the Gibson ES-335. He later used the ES-355 and eventually designed the “Lucille” model, his pet name for all of his guitars and the one he still plays.
When Gail and I married in 1993, she noticed that every time I saw King or anyone else
playing a Gibson ES-335, I would say, “I would sure like to have one, cherry red, like my first little Epiphone.” As I was about to turn forty, she got the idea to surprise me with one. She enlisted many friends to contribute to the purchase of the guitar, swearing them all to secrecy so it would be a surprise to me. With the help of Tommy Goldsmith, journalist and guitarist extraordinaire, she searched high and low, eventually locating one within budget at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville. She and Tommy purchased the guitar with money she had collected, hid it at the home of some friends, and then presented it to me at a party we had planned to celebrate my birthday.
I was overwhelmed that night and still remember the tender loving care shown by Gail and everyone involved who made my fortieth birthday so memorable. Until she died this year, we often laughed about how much better that was than a bunch of “Lordy, Lordy, look who’s Forty,” gag gifts she successfully prevented from coming into our home. I do not step on stage with that guitar without thinking of her and the nice friends who made that all happen, and will be forever grateful for this gift that continues to give. Thanks to everyone who helped in this dream of mine that is still coming true.
Text and photos copyright 2014 by Les Kerr.