Despite passing away at the age of just 25 in 1976, the influence that Paul Kossoff continues to have on guitar players the world over cannot be overstated. His inventive take on blues-rock and that legendary vibrato have inspired countless guitarists to strap on a Les Paul and hit the stage. Though he played several Lesters during his all-too-brief career, one of the most instantly recognisable is the ’59 that suffered a broken neck the night before Free split in 1973.
The guitar was repaired and later ended up in the hands of Arthur Ramm – who had been playing on the bill the night Koss snapped the neck – after being swapped for the ’68 Goldtop that Ramm had been playing that night. In the intervening years however, that Burst would take on an almost spiritual significance to fans of Kossoff and of 1959 Les Pauls in general.
Fast forward to 2012, and Gibson Custom announced plans to pay tribute to Kossoff and his iconic guitar by creating a limited edition run of 100 meticulously hand-aged replicas of the Burst, giving fans the chance to get as close as they were likely to get to Koss’s original.
But for one fan, this wasn’t nearly close enough. Kris Blakely is a man who knows a thing or two about buying beautiful guitars. The man known on Instagram and the Les Paul Forum as ‘Fried Okra’ has a wonderful collection of vintage instruments, which featured on Guitar.com back in 2018. Among a stunning array of vintage electrics and even acoustic guitars that saw action in WWII, one guitar stands out – the aforementioned ’59 Les Paul, once owned by none other than Paul Kossoff himself.
So how did Kris Blakely end up owning his dream guitar? Well, it started with an email…
“In 2016 David Plues [co-author of the Burst Believers series and fellow Les Paul Forumite – Ed] emailed me and asked if I was interested in the Kossoff Burst. I first thought, yeah right. Me? I’m not worthy of Kossoff’s Burst!” Blakely recalls.
But, despite his initial reservations, the Mississippi native found himself thinning his herd of guitars and arriving in Newcastle, England ready to become the proud owner of Paul Kossoff’s broke-neck Les Paul.
“Upon arrival at the station we met David and Arthur Ramm, from where they drove us to Arthur’s home. Arthur said, ‘Well, let’s see what you travelled all this way for.’ Those are the words I will remember for the rest of my life.”
Taking possession of an iconic instrument – particularly one that you’ve venerated your entire life – is surely exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. The temptation must surely be to keep this irreplaceable guitar under lock and key, maybe tucking it away a glass coffin, much like Mickey Mouse on the cover of Free’s debut album, Tons of Sobs. Kris, however, had other ideas.
After becoming the caretaker of one of the most important guitars in the development of British blues-rock, he took it upon himself to reunite the instrument with its former bandmates, Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke, most recently in May 2019.
When we speak to Rodgers about the reunion, he immediately begins to reminisce, the Les Paul acting as an emotional trigger for his memories of his long-lost friend.
“I have a lot of memories of dear Koss. When we first met back in what would have been about ’67, at the famous Fickle Pickle in Finsbury Park, he came up with a Les Paul to the front of the stage between sets and simply said, ‘I’d like to come up and jam,’” Rodgers enthuses. “I said ‘Absolutely, have you got a guitar?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a Les Paul, it’s in the car.’ I said, ‘It’s Finsbury Park, you better bring it in anyway, sharpish!’
“I wish I knew which guitar it was [when we met] because he had at least two. I don’t know whether he had the ’58 or the ’59 that night we met. But the night that it broke I didn’t see that, it happened behind me. There was an audible gasp from the audience, and Koss was gone!”
Meanwhile, Kirke’s reaction to being reunited with the instrument threw up a range of emotions. “I had mixed feelings really, anything connected with Paul Kossoff invokes different types of feelings,” he admits. “He took me under his wing when I came down to London from the countryside back in ‘68. He was a good friend to me and of course I witnessed his descent into drug addiction over the next five years, which was very painful. But the first couple of years were really wonderful playing with him.”
Indeed, Kossoff’s mesmerising ability to convey such emotion in his playing was a direct result of his passionate personality. His devotion to the blues was deep rooted, as Rodgers remembers.
“I visited him in his house, he sat and played acoustic guitar and played classical. I said, ‘That’s fantastic. I had no idea you could play classical guitar.’ But he said, ‘No, it’s crap all that. It’s not blues.’”
Kossoff possessed a vibrato technique that is as distinctive and musical as anyone in the history of the electric guitar. The way he attacked a note with both intensity and elegance could turn the head of even the most conservative of listeners. It was this lead playing ability that really stood out for Kirke.
“He had such passion and feel, and an amazing vibrato. His rhythm playing was quite economical and one of the reasons Free had such a sparse sound on stage. By his own admission he was not a great rhythm player, – like Keith Richards or Lennon – of course he made up for it with his lead playing.”
Rodgers agrees, but also thinks that in some cases the identity of the guitar and player are interwoven. “The spirit of Koss and the spirit of a ’59, they sort of merge. And together, they go on this incredible journey. I think that that he rode it like one might drive a Maserati or something. He kind of flew with it.
“It was an amazing guitar, kind of hummed with power. I played it and I could hear Koss. It was almost eerie. One did wonder how much is it the player and how much is it the guitar? There’s definitely a spirit in those guitars.”
Songs of yesterday
Guitarist Pete Bullick had the responsibility of replicating Kossoff’s style on Rodgers’ Free Spirit tour, with the singer adamant that Bullick’s approach to guitar playing almost mirrors Koss – especially when he had that special guitar in his hands.
“I know that Koss and I took a lot from Eric Clapton and Peter Green’s performances. You would go to the Marquee and see Peter Green and time did stand still,” Rodgers recalls. “He could take it down to where you could hear a pin drop. When we played at the Albert Hall, Pete Bullick took it right down so that you could literally hear breathing.
“I think Pete did a fantastic job with Free Spirit. The audience was just so amazing, because you could feel the love for the music. He comes very close to Koss’s feel. He was the only guy I would have done that tour with.”
The genius of Kossoff’s guitar playing is of course evident across the gamut of Free’s back catalogue, but it’s All Right Now that remains the band and Kossoff’s most famous and beloved song. That said, the question of which guitar was used for that iconic recording has long been a matter of some debate.
“As to the truth that it might’ve been used on All Right Now? It’s possible. Certainly not out of the question,” says Kirke. “I believe he only owned two or three Les Pauls and it certainly wasn’t the black one that he traded with Eric Clapton, which leaves two left. So, it’s a 50/50 chance!”
Rodgers only adds fuel to the fire: “Probably. He owned it through that time, but it’s hard to say really. It was one or the other. Definitely.”
Whether it was used on the studio version of All Right Now or not, this 1959 Burst remains a truly iconic instrument and a piece of bona fide rock history. And as we’re sure Kris Blakely will agree, it’s a worthy centrepiece to anyone’s collection…
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