Sometime in the early ’70s, probably after 1972 when Motown pulled up its Detroit stakes and decamped to Los Angeles, Ted Lucas, a guitar wizard who’d studied with Ravi Shankar and played in psych rock bands around Detroit, went up into his attic to record an album. Lucas, who had decided to mostly swear off any attempt at fame, content to pay his bills playing on Motown sessions (he was the label’s in-house “Indian instrument expert”) and working out a new mode of playing guitar by himself and for himself, multi-tracked his voice — somewhere between Nick Drake and any other number of haunted presences like Skip Spence and Syd Barrett — and laid down Ted Lucas, intending to self-distribute it. He got some records made in 1975, and sold enough to finance a repress in 1977. Lucas would swear off recording for anyone else other than himself, and fade in obscurity, before dying in 1992 of unspecified causes.
The story might have ended there but, luckily for us, it did not.
In the years between 1975, and 2010, when the album was reissued by Yoga Records, it took on a talismanic-like quality, with the people who were able to find a copy — today it still goes for as much as $350 on Discogs — considering it something approaching a masterpiece. And now, with another reissue out — this one a more deluxe offering than the 2010 edition, and remastered — and all of Ted Lucas making its way to YouTube (we’re carrying a brown edition in the Vinyl Me, Please store), it’s a perfect time to revisit an album that, though it is virtually unknown, feels like it predicted whole branches of singer-songwriter music, and still sounds ahead of its time, 43 years after it was first released.
The first side of Ted Lucas is a six-song cycle consisting of mostly layered acoustic guitars, Lucas’ evocative vocals, and lyrics about trying to find enlightenment, any way you can. “Plain And Sane And Simple Melody” finds Lucas asking the world what they want the song of their enlightenment to sound like, while “It’s So Easy (When You Know What You’re Doing)” addresses a lover who didn’t face hard times, and instead relied on their money to go on vacation whenever things got too tough.
Ted Lucas predates the music of Bon Iver and Iron and Wine by a full 30 years, but when you hear “I’ll Find A Way (To Carry It All)”, you realize he predicted sonically adventurous singer-songwriter music before those artists even existed. Hear the way his voice soars here, and you can trace its outline over “Holocene.”
The album’s first side peaks with its final song, “It’s So Nice (To Get Stoned),” a song that deserves to be in the pantheon of weed epics. Describing nature and beautiful vistas, Lucas strums his guitar and layers his vocals to the point where this becomes the sonic equivalent of hitting that third bowl on a Sunday and tucking under a blanket on your couch.
Side two of Ted Lucas is where things get even more left-field; Lucas was a technically explosive and wide-ranging guitar player, and on the album’s three final songs — all instrumentals — he lets his acoustic guitar do all the work for him. This is where you can tell that Lucas has more training than most people recording in their attics: “Sonny Boy Blues” is like Ravi Shankar playing a blues guitar soundtrack for a 1971 road movie.
Lucas performed live intermittently, and also self-recorded more music, but none of it has ever come out in a meaningful way. He mostly swore-off trying to be famous — his bands in Detroit pre-Ted Lucas got close — and releasing music would have affected that. But when the one album you do release is as peerless and stunning as Ted Lucas, there’s not much of a point in trying to follow it up anyway.
Andrew Winistorfer is Vinyl Me, Please’s Classics and Country Director, and an editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.