Blind San Francisco bluesman Paul Pena penned "Jet Airliner", which Steve Miller re-jiggered for a huge hit. The royalties from that alone probably kept Pena alive for years longer than his fragile constitution might otherwise have been able to hold out. He finally achieved long-overdue recognition as an artist in 1999 with the release of Genghis Blues, a fascinating documentary relating how Paul was introduced to the exotic Tuvan throat-singing technique in the wake of his wife's death, and improbably, learned it almost instantly as a vehicle for expressing his grief. He mastered it so completely that he traveled halfway around the world to Tuva itself -- no small feat in itself for an ill and disabled man -- and went on to win an international competition. If you haven't seen the film, you must if you care about music. The soundtrack album is great too, featuring Paul melding his newfound throat-singing chops with his natural, acoustic blues-rock style, with plainspoken, personal lyrics just like "Airliner"'s.
Once Pena had some buzz upon the film's release, his never-released album New Train was issued in 2000, and was a revelation. The album was produced by Steve Miller Band member Ben Sidran -- who turned Miller on to Pena's tune; the contrast between Pena's organic original and Miller's juggernaut is fascinating -- and features guest spots from Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders. Pena's soulful songwriting, singing, and picking cast a spell here. It's simply a classic '70s album, reminiscent of nothing so much as Van Morrison's Moondance. Get it and impress your friends.
Far more obscure is Pena's self-titled first album, released by Capitol in 1972, which is long out of print and has never been reissued on CD or LP. It's not quite the masterpiece that is New Train, but it satisfyingly introduces Pena's gifts of straightforward folk-blues songwriting and soulful vocals. This album's hard to find online. I'm frankly not sure where I got this 250Kbps rip of it; if you recognize it as yours, thank you VERY much, and please credit yourself in the comments! On this terrific post from a blog called Music Maven, the album's tracks stream individually, along with New Train and Genghis Blues tracks and video clips. While it once had a home on the great Time Has Told Me blog, it seems to be currently unavailable for download anywhere on the web, so The Rare Stuff it is! Enjoy, and remember, comments, clicks, Amazon purchases through the above links, or donations are always appreciated.
Paul Pena passed away in 2005. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet him a few years prior to that, and he was a remarkably gentle soul in a remarkably fragile body. He was no monk though, and his other senses were sharp indeed -- he grabbed my lovely young then-girlfriend and pulled her in for a very snug hug before she knew what hit her! Rest in peace, Paul, and I'm glad to help share your music.