During the mid-1970s, the Steve Miller Band reliably delivered some of the most radio-friendly rock hits. I was surprised to learn yesterday that one of the most characteristic Steve Miller Band songs, “Jet Airliner” (recorded in 1975 and released in 1977), was not written by Miller. Instead, it was a cover version of an unreleased song composed by a blind black(ish) guy from Massachusetts of Cape Verdean descent named Paul Pena.
I had never heard of Pena until now, even though the names of blind musicians tend to stick in my mind. In 1973 Pena recorded an album entitled New Train with top talent such as Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead as session musicians.
Unfortunately, Pena’s management got into a huge feud with Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s difficult manager, who owned the rights to the album. Out of spite, Grossman sat on the album so it went unreleased for 27 years. Frustrated, Pena retired from touring to take care of his sick wife. (I’m guessing his own health wasn’t too good either.)
Fortunately, one of Pena’s session musicians, Ben Sidran, was in the Steve Miller Band. Sidran played Pena’s legally blocked album for Miller, and they decided to record Pena’s “Jet Airliner.” Pena’s royalties from the endless radio play of SMB’s hit was the blind man’s chief source of income for the rest of his life. (Pena died in 2005.)
As far as I can tell from skimming what little is in writing about Pena, everybody who knew him liked him. (Except Albert Grossman, who owned the rights to his record.)
Here’s Pena’s original version:
This guy was good. He might have been a star if his album had been released in 1973. On the other hand, perhaps his style was a little old hat by then. It kind of sounds like it would have been a huge hit in 1968, but perhaps by 1973, styles had changed. Talent alone isn’t enough, you have to have the right sound at the right time. It’s also possible that his versions of his songs weren’t hook-filled enough to break through on the radio. He might have been more suited to be a live jam-band performer, like the Grateful Dead. (Here’s Pena’s “Venutian Lady” with a nice solo by Jerry Garcia.)
Here’s SMB’s well-known catchier, hookier cover version
You could complain that the Steve Miller version is too on the nose compared to the loose-jointed original. On the other hand, the Steve Miller guys definitely knew what they were doing when it came to making a catchy record that would leap from the car radio into your head. Pena’s bank account benefited nicely over the years from the Steve Miller mid-70s genius for hits.
The Steve Miller Band wasn’t super-prestigious in the mid-1970s, when progressive and other ambitious forms of rock were in style. But in some ways they were doing before the Ramones and Blondie what punk and new wave bands later said they wanted to do: make catchy rock singles that the kids could dance to.
… Okay, now I’ve listened to some more tracks from Paul Pena’s long-lost 1973 album New Train, and wow this guy might be the lost star of the 1970s. There’s a whole alternate timeline where when people talk about blind musicians, instead of saying, “Besides Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, of course, there are also …” In this other universe they say, “Besides Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Pena, of course, there are also …”
Here’s another Pena song, in a Van Morrison style, a tune that’s even catchier than “Jet Airliner:”
And here’s another song from Pena’s long lost New Train album, this one in the style of Jimi Hendrix meets Sly Stone that anticipates Macy Gray‘s “Sexual Revolution” 28 years later:
Daniel Frank writes:
Normally when people describe the best album nobody has ever heard, they are referring to an album they particularly 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.
Speaking of niche audiences … Late in life, Pena taught himself Tuvan throat singing:
Tuvan music is basically Siberian cowboy music. Tuvans are obsessed with horses and they like Western styles with a clippity-clop horseyback riding beat like American Country & Western and some Irish folksongs.
To visit Tuva, which is north of Mongolia, was the last ambition of physicist Richard Feynman, but he died before he could get there. Pena taught himself Tuvan throat singing by listening to Radio Moscow on his short wave. Eventually he got to Tuva. His trip was recorded in the Oscar nominated documentary Genghis Blues by the Belic brothers (with some help from their friend Christopher Nolan):