Blessed with perfect pitch, Hyannis, MA native Paul Pena combined the disparate sounds of Delta blues, jazz, flamenco, folk and rock into his distinctive style. Best known for writing the Steve Miller mega-hit “Jet Airliner,” Pena became an unlikely throat-singing icon in the Central Asian Republic of Tuva. From his early days jamming at Clark University in Worcester, MA, he quickly transitioned to opening concerts for Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead, and showcasing his incredibly deep voice along side James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Kris Kristofferson at a 1969 Newport Folk Festival workshop. He subsequently performed with blues greats T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, ‘Big Bones,’ as well as providing bass guitar and backup vocals on Bonnie Raitt’s first record.
His well-regarded album Paul Pena on Capital Records in 1972 was followed the next year by New Train, produced by Ben Sidran, keyboardist for the Miller band. The album featured Jerry Garcia, Merl Saunders and The Persuasions. Due to a dispute with the owner of Bearsville Records, the mercurial Albert Grossman, the album release was delayed 27 years, and Pena was contractually blocked from further recording. Eventually, Sidran gave a tape of New Train to Miller, who recorded “Jet Airliner” for his band’s 1977 multi-platinum album Book of Dreams. The song detailed Pena’s airplane trip from Boston to Montreal to begin touring with T-Bone Walker. Royalties from the song supported Pena during his later years.
In 1984, intrigued by a fragment of harmonic throat-singing heard on a shortwave Radio Moscow broadcast, Pena began an 8-year journey teaching himself the vocal techniques of Tuvan music from a CD, not to mention simultaneously teaching himself the Tuvan language using a combination of English-Russian and Russian-Tuvan dictionaries. Paul’s impromptu audition for the famous Tuvan throat-singer Kongar-ol Ondar prompted an invitation for him to perform at the second international Khoomei Symposium in 1995 in Kyzyl, Tuva, where he was affectionately nicknamed ‘Earthquake’. The award winning film Genghis Blues documents him taking first place in the Kargyraa division of the contest. What makes this impressive career more astonishing is the fact Pena was born with congenital glaucoma and completely blind by age 20. Sadly, he died in 2005 due to complications from diabetes and pancreatitis.
(by Michael Bialek)