A Visit with Fred Walecki

Does everyone know Fred?  It seems so, and he seems to know everyone in the music biz.  The famous “Walecki dynasty” of Westwood Music started when his father Hermann opened the rare instrument store in 1947.  (His father also had the Los Angeles Lyon & Healy harp salon, which if I’d had known before now, I would have been all over for Fred about Harpo, whom his dad, of course, knew).

Fred took over the store in 1966 and gradually segued into guitars and a full service store for professional west coast musicians.  Back in 1979, when I first came to L.A., I pretty quickly discovered McCabes, with rare harp guitars and zithers hanging all over the walls.  I silently vowed to have a collection like that some day (who knew I’d surpass it).  I also remember my first visit to Fred’s store (then on Westwood, south of UCLA) where I was greeted by the Wall of Gibsons.  This was a wall about 2 stories tall where hung two of everything I coveted.  Not just two round-bodied mandocellos, but two Florentine K4s.  In other words, most models with most duplicated (yes, two Style U harp guitars).  There may have been just one mando-bass, but then, they are pretty large.  There were also endless old European instruments – all sorts of ancient guitars, lutes and theorbos.  When I saw that place, I silently thought “OK, even I’m not that obsessed” (words that would come back to haunt me).

It was at the next Westwood Music location, just off the 405, where I walked in one day to ask Fred about my new harp mandolin, which – while, unmarked, I was certain was a Knutsen (almost no one knew about this stuff back then).  Fred went and stood to the side of the repair shop entrance, where he simply thrust the harp mando into the open doorway, as I heard a voice bellow out “Larson brothers!  Or maybe Knutsen…”  That was my introduction to the legendary Rick Turner, who would prove be a kindred aficionado of weird and special instruments to this day (it was Rick who instigated our harp guitar exhibit at Carlsbad’s Museum of Making Music…where, incidentally, two of my harps are on loan for the latest exhibit – go see it!).

It was also Fred who recognized the wood and provided the quote about my Kiendl mermaid zither that I used in my original Christmas Collection booklets: “Tannenbaum!” (“Christmas tree wood”…).

Fred also stocked (and sold!) those CDs in his store, via our mutual friend John O’Kennedy (my old L.A. Mandolin Orchestra pal).

Since those heady days, I would run into Fred only infrequently (Frank and I went to his store 2 years ago for that Candyrat guitar tour).  I would always urge him at these impromptu run-intos to come see the museum, as his was slowly liquidated, while mine has grown to rather interesting proportions.

And he finally did.  At NAMM in January, I ran into Isaac Jang, who apprentices with Kathy Wingert 2 days a week and has also been doing repairs at Westwood music for a couple years now.  It turns out that Fred just recently sold the store (the end of an era, to be sure), but not before Isaac had prodded him to set up a night for a visit here.  And so the pair stopped by for a couple hours last week.

I don’t know who had more fun: Fred (who has seen a lot of amazing instruments in his long career), getting to discover still more new instruments, or Jaci and I, who were regaled with Fred stories all evening (poor Isaac couldn’t get a word in edgewise).

My head was spinning, so I don’t recall the bulk of these vignettes: David Crosby taking Fred to see some amazing new player named Michael Hedges (and in the dark, Graham Nash plopping into the opposite seat with his own amazed-reaction comment).  Or toddler Fred’s housemate who slept in the next bedroom (premier French-American harpist Marcel Grandjany, whom his dad sponsored in L.A. for three years…).  He even had a scoop for Jaci about the recent Debbie Reynolds Hollywood collection auction, as her son (Todd Fisher) was Fred’s best man.  And on and on.  Seriously, this guy needs to write his autobiography.

He gave me a gift of the new Spider Capo (the maker is yet another friend of his) after we played with it for awhile (on the Carruth HG) – pretty wild!  It can even do some wide Scruggs-like hammers/pulloffs.

It was great to catch up with the Southern California icon, hope to do it sooner next time!

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