Eric Henderson - Early Memories of the Guitar

 Eric Henderson at a young age wearing a "Beatles Wig"

Eric Henderson at a young age wearing a "Beatles Wig"

My first memory of noticing and being fascinated with the guitar was in 1962 when I was four years old.   At the end of each ‘Ozzie and Harriet Show’, Ricky Nelson would perform and his guitar, with these paisley-looking marks on the front, fascinated me.  Anything that remotely looked like a guitar or reminded me of a guitar I held and carried around with me.  My first toy that I adored was a full-sized plastic guitar; black on the back and sides and white on the face. I loved to play that guitar but ended up destroying it bit by bit until there was nothing left but pieces of broken plastic. I’m not positive about the significance of this psychologically but I have my suspicions.

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Another strong memory is the belief that I could be like Superman and fly.  I loved the Superman series with Jim Reeves.  Whenever my parents heard me singing that theme song from the original black and white Superman show they knew that I was jumping off something dangerously high with a makeshift cape tied around my neck.  I was in and out of the hospital so often that my parents started being suspected of child abuse.   God bless my dad.  He was gifted with his hands, but foolishly built our wooden swing set with a ladder that allowed me to climb up to the top and balance myself walking on the beam that ran across the top of the frame.  My mom would hear me singing  “dadada daaa dadadada!” and she would come running out in time to see me, cape and all, diving off of the top of the swing set.  How I didn’t kill myself or crack my skull or even break any bones is a miracle. 

At that time we were living in Arcadia, CA.  This is the earliest and as far back as I can remember things in detail.   One more thing I had that I treasured was a green cast-iron John Deere tractor with pedals on the side.  I would see somebody walking on the sidewalk towards our house and I would maniacally pedal that toy tractor – which had to weigh 80 pounds -- directly at them and whenever possible crash right into them.  To this day that memory is embarrassingly disturbing.

We then moved to Claremont, CA a small college town at the base of the foothills of Mt. Baldy.  Right in back of our house were enormous orange groves where we would play.  We built forts, had orange fights and would spend our weekends walking through the groves that went on for miles.  I remember this wonderful hike my older brother, Tony, and his friends took me on from our backyard to the foothills of the mountains.  It was magical.  Then within about a year and a half, they cut all the orange groves down to start preparing lots for development.  During this same period, I saw something that gave me great pain and a feeling of loss.  My mother, father, my brothers and I went on the same hike that Tony had taken me on only a short time before but this time everything, starting with the orange groves, was cut down, leveled and graded.  Where there had been beautiful green rolling hills with pine trees and olive trees and a narrow path that led to this lovely stream coming out of the mountains there were now graded lots and all of the green and mystery was gone.   I was experiencing for the first time the sight of evil and the loss of the magic that is nature’s gift to an innocent boy.  I had lost the greatest playground of my life. That day was a day of such confusion and grief and loss that to this day I still ache with the memory of it.

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Then came 1964; I was six years old and something was to happen that changed everything. Ed Sullivan hosted the Beatles.  All I saw when I looked at them were their guitars.  One, which was Paul McCartney’s bass, was held in the opposite direction of the other two.  ‘I Wanna Hold your Hand’ was the first song I really remember grabbing my guts.  From then on I was going to play guitar.  Of course like many kids I dreamed of being a Beatle.  I would stand on top of the fireplace hearth pretending it was a stage, singing into the top of the handle of my mother’s Hoover vacuum cleaner pretending it was a microphone, wearing a Beatle wig and my Dad’s oversized black shoes as ‘Beatle boots’.  I even donned a phony English accent and told all of my friends in first grade that I was from England. My mom had studied piano and was then learning to play the guitar.  Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ and other folk music songs such as ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ were really popular at the time, and this music used the acoustic guitar which was probably what attracted my mother to want to learn to play the guitar.  She lent me her full-size acoustic nylon string guitar and I carried it everywhere.  The guitar was inseparable from me and I couldn’t stop touching it.  The feel of the strings on my fingers seemed to scratch a delicious itch and I could feel the vibration of the strings resonating through the wood to my chest and into my heart.  As I describe this, even now, the joy of these sensations has never diminished.

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The first guitar that was given to me for my own was a Christmas present.  It was procured by an infamous character, ‘Fat Bobby’ Andrist, who would in a few years become one of the most powerful and influential drug smugglers and dealers of the Laguna Beach group called ’The Brotherhood of Eternal Love.’  They were responsible for most of the pot and hash and LSD in the southern half of California, at the very least.  Bobby had gotten the guitar in Mexico and gave it to my Dad, who was his college English professor, to give to me.  Shortly after that, I was taking guitar lessons with a guitarist from Tennessee who played Chet Atkins’ finger-style guitar.  He literally taught me every chord he knew.  Even though I was only six, I could with ease play bar chords or any other chords he showed me – and this was on a full-sized guitar as smaller guitars for kids had not yet been produced.  My lessons with this teacher were to be the first time that I was praised to the point of being thrilled at having a teacher say that I had a great gift for the guitar.  I overheard him say to my parents, “This kid has something special and rare.”   This was to become a double-edged sword, the genesis of devotion to practicing with intense fervor while at the same time feeling that my whole identity was the guitar and my sense of self-worth was based on the level to which I could perform to impress family and friends.

The 1964-65 school year was the first time that I really became aware of all of the bands that were practicing and playing in garages up and down the street and all over the community.  To this day I believe the level of playing and quality of the musicians was incredible.  Remember that there were no more orange groves or wild foothills to play in.  Instead of hiking and playing kids were forming bands and playing music everywhere. On the radio, I could hear the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys, the Animals, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Yardbirds and Johnny Cash.  In those days you could hear on the same AM station rock, blues, country western, surf music, folk music – you name it.  I probably learned half of the songs sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car listening to the radio on the way back and forth to Laguna Beach, where my family would spend every weekend and vacation we could.  I was gifted with a very good ear and could imitate almost anything I heard. By the time I was eight I was playing lead guitar in a high school band and hanging out with people over twice my age.  This was also the beginning of a not-so-positive influence of hanging out with older people and trying to fit in.  I was introduced to smoking cigarettes before third grade was over and pot soon followed.  I remember sitting in the drummer’s garage with the rest of the band and he was passing around those cheesy black and white porno magazines with pictures of girls with very large breasts and nipples that, to me, looked the size of the Empire State Building.  I had never seen anything like that, and when one of the guys would say how ‘stacked’ a girl was, I misunderstood and thought that it was a put down about something looking ugly instead of something sexy. 

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When I was in the first grade at Condit Elementary School in Claremont, CA,  I  brought my guitar to school.  That would be the first and last time my teacher let me come to school with my guitar.  I couldn’t keep my hands off of it all that day.  Whenever I could get away with it, even during class I was playing.  I never understood why the teacher never took it out of my hands or made me put it away.    I had a little group of these girls during recess that was following me around as if I were the Pied Piper. Maybe they were imitating some scene out of the Beatles ‘Hard Day’s Night,’ which had just come out.  In my mind, I had imagined that I was one of the Beatles anyway.  Since I was a very precocious boy who noticed and loved girls as far back as I can remember, this experience solidly encouraged my idea that playing guitar meant being popular with girls.  What a motivation!

Concerning the guitar, the last event I remember just before my family moved to Laguna Beach was the end of the third grade.  The high school band I played lead guitar for was in this talent show contest for their high school.  We played “As Tears Go By’ which was a song made popular by the Rolling Stones at the time, and a song by the Monkees called ‘Valerie”.  I liked the guitar on ‘Valerie‘ so I learned every note of the solo as well as I could. My older brother Tony was a lead singer and tambourine player in a rival band with this hot-shot lead guitarist that went to the same school and was determined to show me up. They sang ‘Pushing too Hard.’ and ‘Paint it Black’.   In my band, I was supposedly the lead singer as well as the lead guitarist.  At 8-years-old I must have sounded like a tone-deaf castrato.  By the way, I never bothered or had any interest in learning the lyrics to anything that I sang, so I just made them up as I went along.  It must have been horrible; I can’t imagine how bad this must have sounded.  For some reason, we still won the talent show.  This very cute high school girl that I couldn’t help but notice – she was a knockout  -- came up to me after the show and said that she thought I was cute.  I felt that I was on top of the world.  I think that comment did more to make me to stick to the guitar - no matter what -- than any single event that I can remember as a boy. That was to be the last band that I was part of until I was in my thirties and was signed to JVC records.  But I will tell you about that later.

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