1720 "Red Mendelssohn" Stradivarius

The historic 1720 "Red Mendelssohn" Stradivarius violin was crafted in 1720 by Antonio Stradivari, who lovingly made his instruments in his small shop in Cremona, Italy centuries ago, and remains the most famous violin maker of all time. Not long after its creation, the instrument appeared to vanish from the radar screen; no one knows where or to whom the violin belonged for more than 200 years, spawning any number of historians, writers, journalists, critics as well as Canadian filmmaker, Francois Girard, to speculate on the violin's mysterious history. Girard's imaginative speculations became the narrative for his beloved film, "The Red Violin."

The 1720 "Red Mendelssohn" Stradivarius would eventually surface in 1930s Berlin. It had been purchased by an heir to the great composer, Felix Mendelssohn. In 1956, it was purchased by a New York industrialist who kept the instrument in impeccable Red Violin performance condition. Much of its original burnished red varnish remains on the violin today, and it is thought to be one of the best sounding and most beautiful of Stradivari's remaining violins. Then on Thanksgiving Day in 1990, the instrument's fate would once again be triggered when the industrialist opted to put the Red Violin on the auction block anonymously at Christie's of London. While some of the worlds' most powerful sought to win the coveted instrument, it landed in the hands of ¨then sixteen year old American solo violinist, Elizabeth Pitcairn.

She wisely kept her new instrument secret as she continued to work on her technique and musicianship. The Red Mendelssohn Strad became her practice instrument in the security of her own home in rural Pennsylvania, while a more ordinary fiddle went with her to the University of Southern California. Even when she began to use her Strad in public, she did not yet reveal its true identity.

Only after winning acclaim completely on her own merits was she ready to announce the identity of her musical partner at her professional debut as a soloist with the New York String Orchestra at Lincoln Center in 2003. Ever since, as she says, the "buzz" was never just about the violin; it was about the girl and the violin.

Her repertoire? Since shortly after Girard's film came out, Pitcairn has been playing the Red Violin Chaconne, a piece for violin and orchestra which composer John Corigliano based on his award-winning film music. Now she's frequently in demand to perform that piece.

How does it feel to play that music on the specific instrument for which it it was written?

"It's kind of spooky," she has said. "When I'm playing that Chaconne, that's when the violin can tell its own story; that's when it can actually speak."

Pitcairn would come to view the violin as her life's most inspiring mentor and friend. Many have said that the violin has finally found its true soul mate in the gifted hands of the young violinist who is the first known solo artist to ever bring it to the great concert halls of the world, and who has made it her goal to share the violin's magical beauty of sound with people of all ages, professions and cultures. Today, Pitcairn and the "Red Mendelssohn" Stradivarius violin continue to foster one of classical music's most compelling partnerships.

Sources: Brandt Ford Expositor
Elizabeth Pitcairn

The Lady Blunt Stradivarius

The name Lady Blunt comes from a former owner and British aristocrat called Lady Anne Blunt who was a proficient violin player and contributed to the violins preservation per the Tarisio. The Lady Blunt violin has not been played for 50 years and that it is one the best preserved violins of its kind in the world.

Jean Baptiste Vuillaume, a Parisian violin dealer and maker, is the first documented owner of the 'Lady Blunt' Stradivarius and was in near perfect condition at the time he worked on it. Vuillaume sold it to Lady Anne Blunt in 1864.

Grand-daughter of Lord Byron, Lady Anne Blunt, whom the instrument is named after, was a British aristocrat and talented violinist who studied under Leopold Jansa. Jansa recommended to Vuillaume that he sell this Stradivarius to Lady Blunt. Lady Blunt played on the violin for thirty years before selling it.

The British traveler Lady Anne Blunt, right, was the first European woman known to have visited Arabia, in 1878–79. She traveled through the Arabian Desert with her husband, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, left.

This Stradivarius has been treasured by its previous 12 owners. Unlike the majority of existing Strads, it has been through very few wear-and-tear accidents. It is common for even the most careful musicians to still leave marks on their instrument. It is truly amazing this instrument has lived through 290 years and remains unflawed.

The violin is called the 'Lady Blunt' and was created by a renowned violin maker named Antonio Stradivari in 1721.

Along with Guareni violins, Stradivarius violins were first produced in the 17th century and are named after the family that crafted them during  a peak era for quality violin manufacturing. Stradivarius Violins dates this 'golden period' of violin creation between the early 1700s-1720 and states Stradivarius violins made during this time where the best made by Antonio Stradivari and consequently the most valuable.

(L) The tuning pegs by J.B. Vuillaume
(R)The tailpiece by Jean Baptiste Vuillaume depicting St. Cecil, patron-saint of music

Another reason the Lady Blunt is so expensive is because of the unique sound quality and precision it produces along with other golden age violins.  A 2005 research study published by the Violin Society of America verified the quality of these violins by comparing and analyzing sound pressure levels of Stradivari, Guareni and modern violins played by the same professional violinist. The study by Andres Buen determined older violins “have a higher response in the upper-low frequency” of sound and that “Stradivari violins have stronger notes on G-string and higher levels of overtones making them sound a bit more brilliant.”

The violin was acquired by the Tokyo-based Nippon Music Foundation in 2008. In June 2011 Tarisio conducted the sale of The Lady Blunt Stradivari, setting a world record of $15.9 million in the process. The Nippon Music Foundation made an extraordinary offer to assist in the recovery efforts of their native Japan. The Foundation pledged the entire proceeds of the sale to their Northeastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund.
The violin was one of 21 string instruments held by the foundation, which loans instruments free of charge to top class musicians around the world.

Around 600 violins made by Italian master craftsman Antonio Stradivari are still in existence.

Judee Sill the Flight of an Angel - Part Three

 The Turtles Cover Judee Sill's "Lady-O" (1969)

Judee was fond of Sunday brunches with the “crew”. Generally, these drunken verbal orgies took place at the El Coyote restaurant on Beverly Blvd. 

In the early seventies the crew consisted of Tom Peltier, Lynn Blessing, myself, Linda Ronstadt, J.D. Souther, and a host of hanger-oners and personal attendants that her “highness” loved to have around her. In some odd way, she had the status of a Queen, reminding me of Queen Elizabeth the 1st. Judee would have been right at home during the Renaissance.

She would always treat those who didn’t have enough money on them which  included almost everyone at the table from time to time.  Judee also adored downtown LA on Sundays.  One of her favorite haunts was Alavera Street and the Mexican market in the plaza.  The “crew” would wander around sucking on tacos at two in the afternoon taking in the sights.  One Sunday downtown on Alavera Street, we were all walking together in two and threes and suddenly we came upon two older Mexican men who had been drinking heavily, arguing loudly, and beginning to come to blows.  From out of nowhere, Judee broke from the rest of us and ran towards the two malcontents yelling at the top of her lungs, 

“...Hey, whoa! What in the hell do you think you guys are doing, it’s Sunday for Christ’s sake, you don’t fight on his day...” and on and on.

 I expected to have to run over and save her life but the two old drunkards actually looked embarrassed as if their school teacher Ms. Sill was scolding them out for not doing their homework. 

She had this kind of magic as well as many other displays of power. Judee was invested with magical powers, being that refined intelligence coupled with an educated imagination.

 It was not unusual for her to be talking with a group of friends with her guitar nearby and start receiving a “message” from the collective consciousness of the universe.  Sounds deep, I know, but it was true.  All of a sudden she would go off in a trance and pick up the guitar and sing and play a complete new song.  At the completion, she would look at all of us who sat bewildered and she would say, 

 “...What the hell was that all about?” and start laughing and then turn serious again to try to recapture what she had just created.  She always found it again.

I too had my powers of protection for this fragile creature.  One afternoon, I went to a gig with her in LA where she was opening up solo for God knows who, I’ve forgotten, though it may have been Randy Newman.  We were being driven in a limo and some “Manny-cigar-breath” type was begging her to listen to this new guy from England who was just now becoming exposed to America, Elton John.   She was straining to be courteous but the attitude was fading fast.  I jumped in and asked the aggressive agent if Elton John knew who Judee Sill was? 
“Gee, I don’t know to be honest,” replied the agent. 

“Then why is it important for Judee to know who he is?” I retorted. 

“Maybe someday they should meet in person just like human beings, what do you think?”

The agent now realizing I was fucking up his pitch handed Judee a cassette and said “...Yea, well, have a listen some time.”

 looked over at Judee and she mouthed the words, “thank you” and gave me a big smile.

There is a good deal of conjecture after the fact as to what hindered Judee from realizing a great career.  Yes, she was erratic, and a drug user, but so was everyone else who made the big time. She sang as well if not better than her contemporaries and of course her composing skills were way above average, and actually very inspired in both lyric and harmonic facets. 

David Geffen believed in her enough to sign her before he signed any other female artist.  But then along came Joni. 

It is a well known “rumor” in Hollywood that Joni was a tad jealous of Judee.  At least Joni was somewhat intimidated by having another woman around who wrote “ethereal” music which charmed the likes of David Geffen.

According to some unnamed sources, Joni had more than a little influence on how David Geffen handled the two of them on the same label and that Joni had told Geffen that there was only room for one superstar female on Asylum records.  Who knows?  One thing for sure that influenced the decline of Judee’s career would be her car accident in the mid-seventies.

One night in LA while driving around with friends, she was rear-ended by the actor Danny Kaye: some fate.  She survived the accident but her back didn’t.  She began to have heavy lower back pains that although were buffered by drugs and pills, wouldn’t go away.  Consulting doctors decided that she needed disc surgery and this actually marked the beginning of the end.  Although the surgery was considered a success, Judee was never physically stable for the rest of her life.  The pain and the constant lack of comfort, standing or sitting caused her to become more dependent on medication for relief.

During this period Judee was living with a woman named Judy Himmel, who was a scientist and oboist.  The house located in the Wilshire district became a meeting place for all of Judee’s “followers” at the time.  She was bed-ridden yet still possessed her powers of influence and a massive sense of humor.

She called me in the mid-seventies to see if I would cover a gig for her.  She was supposed to perform at the then, “Barnsdall Park Festival” that occurred every summer during the seventies.  She asked me if I would take her place and fingerpick and sing my own tunes.  It was quite a compliment indeed to have her think enough of my material and talent to take her place.  I covered the concert date for her, and on a video clip taken by Lynn Blessing’s wife at the time, you can watch me do a tribute to Sill.  I performed my own songs but I worked really hard to play one of my favorite tunes by Judee, “The Vigilante”, which, if I do say so myself, came off quite well.  I learned her guitar part, note for note.  Judee was as self-centered as any artist must be, but she shared all the warmth she had inside with others.  We took the video tape up to her room the day after my concert trying to fill her shoes.  She watched the whole set with her eyes half closed.  At the completion of the tape, she looked at me and held my hand.  With an intensity I have often seen in her eyes with others she said,

“...You deserve more than the best!”

Judee Sill is the eponymous debut album by the American singer-songwriter and musician Judee Sill. Released on September 15, 1971, it was the first album on David Geffen's Asylum label.[3] Backing musicians include John Beck and Jim Pons from The Leaves. While the majority of the album was produced by Henry Lewy, Graham Nash handled the duties for the single "Jesus Was a Cross Maker", with his production designed to aim for radio airplay.

This was one of the biggest thrills of my life. 

One day Bill Plummer called me to tell me that Judee wanted to go into the studio and record with her friends.  Marc McClure, Bill, Tom Peltier, myself, Kevin Kelly on drums, and Vicki McClure, Marc’s younger sister who is a sensational singer. Vicki McClure sang the National Anthem at the 1984 Olympics in LA.  Incredible!  

After I hung up the phone with Bill, I called Judee.  She sounded like her old self.  We joked around for awhile then got down to the essence of the project.  She was pain-free for the moment and wanted desperately to get some new songs down on tape.  I told her I would come and rehearse just the two of us to get our parts arranged.  She said in her usual mock-official voice,

“...yes indeed, you shall be my designated musical aaaaaaaranger!”

We both laughed and I headed for her house.

Memory fails me for many details of this project, but the posthumously released CD “Dreams Come True” on Runt records in 2005 tells the tale.  My guitar can be heard doubling her right hand on the piano for all her blues-gospel licks, and if I do say so myself, I played rather tastefully throughout the recording.  Inside my heart, I knew this might be the last go-around for Judee, her overall health was not that good at the time.  

It was 1974 and only a few more precious years of life were left for Judee.  We shifted in and out of each others lives until Thanksgiving day, 1979.

At the time I was married to my second wife and living in studio City.  Judee was living in a court style brick apartment complex around the corner near Lankersheim. Judee called my house late in the afternoon and said she was feeling very alone.  I didn’t hesitate to go pick her up and bring her to the house for dinner that night.  She had such a melancholy, forlorn look on her face when she got into my car.  I immediately started joking with her and telling her Lena Horne stories, for I was touring with Ms. Horne at the time.  She lightened up a little, but by the time we arrived at the house she was back into a dark mood.  All went fairly well for a couple of hours but I could sense that she was not at peace within herself.  She took me aside and asked me if I could take her back to her apartment, she had things to do.  I didn’t argue, just grabbed the car keys and headed out the door. 

The ride back was executed in total silence.  When we arrived she slowly opened the car door and gave me a brief kiss on my cheek before departing.

Lynn Blessing the the Art Johnson Trio - Tribute - For Judee

I will never forget the look on her face:  dismay, fatigue and also a peaceful acceptance of the things around her.  I watched her amble towards the door never looking back at me.  Two days later I got the call from Lynn Blessing: Judee was dead—unknown reasons, possibly a drug overdose.  What can I say?  Clarence White – Tim Buckley and now the queen of Hearts, Judee Sill.  I’m sure that her trip back to Heaven was a comfortable journey and hopefully, she resides to this day in an exalted state.

Judee Sill the Flight of an Angel - Part Two

This is my personal experiences with her and not an historical account of her life.  Her history has been, and continues to be mentioned in many books written on the pop music scene, as well as websites dedicated to her and about her from the thousands of fans that still remains true to her soul, and miss her very much. Judee Sill was truly unique.  In my over forty five years of experience in the music field I have never know anyone with more talent.  

She played the guitar really well in her own style of finger-picking which was carefully arranged and designed to accompany her original vocal music with counterpoint, both bass and treble which would offer the ear three part harmony on most of her songs.  This skill was directly derived from her studies of classical music, formally and informally.  Her piano playing was natural, highly influenced by gospel music and flowed out of her fingers.  She could make a bad piano sound good: the true mark of an artist. 

Her voice had wonderful range, and even now when I hear it on recordings, it still sounds like an angel from heaven.  Her vocals were always honest, never forced the way things are today. There was no “phony-baloney” show-biz attitude to her singing, it was straight from her heart to yours, whoever you may be.  Her lyrics were not just that.  She was a poetess whose constant revision or her “vision” was non-stop. 

Once I sat with her in her Mill Valley house that David Geffen had acquired for her and watched as she made a list of words.  She was looking for a very special rhyme.  She made lists of words long into the night searching for just the right symbol, the right moment in time and space. The intent of her lyrics and songs in general was cathartic—she wanted to change you, for better or worse, that was not the point, the point was all about change! 

Judee dug deep for her songs, taking in all life had to offer whether it was relationships, people’s sorrows, paintings in a museum, drugs, sex, the music of Gabriel Fauré which she was extremely fond of, or the simplest of life’s experiences. Her “radar” was always up.  The “receiver” was always tuned in. She lived to observe and write about what it meant to her, whether in journals, songs, poems or even in her sketches and paintings which were of a professional quality.  She was simply a creative machine with an enormous gift to entice people and make them laugh.  The world was basically her canvas, she could use it or abuse it—nothing mattered but the end result: Art.

For a brief time we were lovers. She had an insatiable hunger for experiences with others. Her life was full of incongruities. She was a dope addict, at one time a “hooker” and for a brief spell a criminal. She once told me laughing herself silly, that while in the midst of robbing a liquor store to get some drug money that she ran in with a gun in her hand and yelled at the owner, “...raise your hands mother sticker, this is a fuckup!!!”  Judee was something else!

Even the least sensitive of listeners can easily hear the spirituality in Judee’s music—she was always playing for God, hoping he was listening.  

Her song “Jesus was a Cross Maker” focused a lot of attention upon her when the English group the “Hollies” covered it in the early seventies.  Rock and roll gospel as heartfelt as it gets.  That’s what Sill was all about.  She aptly named her album for Geffen records, “Heart Food.”  

I remember being at A&M records when she recorded the tracks and had some of Hollywood’s finest on overdubs.  One of her spiritual and musical mentors Lynn Blessing, the vibraphonist talked about a lot in this book, played drums on some of the sessions.  Lynn and Jim Keltner, studio/tour drummer to the stars, often played the drums with towels draped over them to soften the sound.  Lynn used this technique on Judee’s album to be “....out of the way of the music!”

I think I sang a background part or two on the album, under Judee’s scrupulous direction, but the memory that sticks out the most is this: 

One day I arrived at A&M with Lynn Blessing to observe Judee conducting her own string parts for the album.

Yep, that’s right, she was so schooled that she could write a string arrangement for forty or more strings in counterpoint and also conduct it.  

We’re not talking your average “Hippie-sixties” guitar strummer and singer here. Judee was also a great electric bass player and along the way in her musical background she played the clarinet professionally.  But with all of her talents and the capacity to be one of the most outrageous people on the planet earth, I remember her most for her kindness and encouragement towards others.  

Everyone around her became an unofficial disciple. She, who was eager to learn, was always teaching in an open way, with a smile, just suggesting a melody, or a chord or a way to phrase a rhythm.  She was totally spontaneous. If you were driving around LA together and all of a sudden she saw someone or something you missed, boom!  She’d yell, 

     “...Hey, stop right here, right now!” 

Most of the time, you wouldn’t know what the hell it was all about until she pointed it out.  Maybe a painting barely visible in a window: a small church no one had noticed: a street person with a guitar playing out of tune and singing worse, but there you’d be, watching Judee observing, taking it all in with her eyes closed, listening to the moment, watching God in action.  She had a great saying that always stayed with you if you heard it. 

      “Upwards and onwards, fuck the odds!”