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Artist: Paul Pena (Covered by Steve Miller Band)
Album: New Train
Writer: Paul Pena
Think of the Steve Miller Band. Are you thinking,”big old jet airliner, don’t carry me too far away?” Chances are many of you are. It is one of Steve Miller Band’s most popular songs. Believe it or not, there were very few top ten hits. Abracadabra was a number one hit in 1982 and The Joker was number one in 1974. In between was Jet Airliner, in 1977 at number eight, off the Book of Dreams album.
It is a great song. Steve Miller’s version was good, and the success was deserved. But, in fact, it is not a Steve Miller song. Another fellow should have had his career take off because of the song. His name was Paul Sena. And, while the cover version was upbeat and infectious, Sena’s version was more soul-rock. It was heartfelt and real, played slower and with a pronounced blues feel.
When I was in the Air Force, my buddy and I used to walk around singing Jet Airliner at the top of our lungs, complete with some pretty good harmonies. It means a bit more when you’re overseas, far away from home.
I thought I knew the song. But when I first heard Paul Pena sing it, I’ll admit, I got shivers up my spine. I didn’t know the song.
A lot of blues and soul aficionados, or music experts in general, will know that it is a Paul Pena song. But very few casual fans will have heard of him. That is, unless, you’ve seen the Oscar-nominated documentary Genghis Blues, but we’ll get to that.
Pena, blind by the age of 20, worked with such legends as T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Bonnie Raitt during the 1960s and ”70s. His first album didn’t do so well. But his next album, for which he called Jerry Garcia and Merle Saunders, among others, would probably have been a classic, to be called New Train released in 1973. Only it wasn’t released until the year 2000. That’s right, 27 years later, apparently due to mismanagement by famous manager Alber Grossman and some tired ears at Capital Records. Hybrid Recordings finally released the album which, according to Pena “was reportedly lost for several years.”
Steve Miller was given a tape of the unreleased album by drummer Gary Malabar, who, by the way, had also played on Van Morrison’s soul-folk classic Moondance. Steve Miller recorded his version and the rest is history. Now, before you get upset with Miller for stealing Pena’s thunder, the writer himself will tell you that the royalties he collected, for almost 30 years, from the Miller version, are what kept him going: “I was getting by on royalties of that song,” he told CMJ Music Monthly, “It’s just about everything, because I wasn’t getting a lot of bookings.”
Pena wrote the song about his trip on a plane from Boston to Montreal to play his first show with T-Bone Walker.
As for Genghis Blues, it’s about throat singing, which Pena first discovered by chance while listening tuning a short-wave radio, searching for a language program. He came upon Tuvan throat-singing but, at first, did not know what he was hearing. It was seven years before he was able to find out what it was he had heard, and he was able to teach himself the technique. He recalled similar techniques used by famous blues singers: “In the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, blues singers like Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson were doing things similar to throat-singing but weren’t setting it this way, they were just doing it as a guttural growl to accent the lyrics.” By ‘setting’ he was referring to the position of the tongue during throat-singing, which sits at the roof of the mouth as if pronouncing an “L.”
The 1999 movie Genghis Blues followed Pena’s journey to Tuva, a country that is near Mongolia but is part of Russia, for a throat-singing competition. He won in two categories. His sound was so deep he earned the nickname, “Earthquake.” He also played Flamenco guitar, which he studied in Spain and Portugal, and was versed in several languages, including Cape Verda Creole, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and, of course, a smattering of Tuvan.
Only five years after his album was finally released, Paul Pena tragically passed away. He had been battling pancreatitis.
Listen to Jet Airliner by Paul Pena
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