Featured Harp Guitar of the Month

The Behee Lyric Harp Guitar
by Gregg Miner, July, 2012

“Wait a minute!” you’re saying – “where are the extra strings?”

There aren’t any.  As seen in my recent blog, this is really a type of lyre guitar.  The name comes from the inventor, Joseph H. Behee, and/or his brother Frank, who either got their harp and lyre shapes confused (This is actually not an uncommon problem among laypeople), or maybe just decided that “harp” was a better choice for the tone they were going for.  Alas, their reasoning is lost to time.

These are certainly noticeable instruments, due to their distinctive “horns,” and they seem to crop up from time to time, so I thought it would be nice to investigate this unique “non-harp Harp Guitar.”  As every single owner or player of them naturally refers to each as a “harp guitar,” it might be good to also point out the proper understanding of the “harp” and “lyre” concepts regarding guitars (the uninitiated can see the many different harp guitar forms along with non-harp guitar “relatives” in the Photo Reference Galleries).  But beyond the confusing terminology, an additional reason to explore them is that they represent a rare case of a single instrument (or at least, the concept) covering several decades and literally bridging the centuries.

There are now a several specimens known, and each seems to be quintessentially “late 1950’s” instruments.  Yet we find that they match a patent from 1900…what gives?!


The Origin

Well, the story is still not known, but I have been slowly piecing together bits of it from a variety of sources.

First, and most obvious, is the design patent issued to young Joseph Henderson Behee of Leavenworth, Kansas in 1900 for his new “Design for a Guitar-Body.”  It is a simple drawing, but appears to match the known instruments exactly, other than having dual soundholes and split headstock (the holes and head echoing the dual arms?).  The text doesn’t allude to its tonal benefits or any other supposed improvements, but simply describes the new guitar shape Behee is wanting to protect.  It is not yet named in any way.

It had been assumed (by Mugwumps’ Michael Holmes, and probably others) that Behee established The Lyric Guitar Company in 1907 (seven years after the patent) in order to manufacture his lyre-shaped guitar.  Holmes says that the firm was located in Kansas City, Missouri, and later moved to Independence, Missouri.

But I’ve seen exactly zero instruments that look like they could have been built back then, nor have I seen any ads or other references to these instruments whatsoever.  Instead, I found several clues that make me think the Lyric Guitar Company was created to manufacture general wholesale instruments or perhaps mostly parts for same.


Joseph Behee

For it seems Joseph was really an inventor.  Most sources give his year of birth as 1879, but this more detailed site gives 1877, which I am going to assume for the moment is correct.  (The same site says that Joseph married May Dagenfelder and had 5 children.)  Why the earlier year?  Because even with this date, Joseph would have been just eleven years old when he filed for his first U.S. patent on May 19, 1888.  #417,465, a patent for a new type of furnace, was then granted on Dec 17, 1889.  This kid had spunk!  

11 years later, Joseph was barely in his early twenties when he designed his unusual guitar (above), which was patented in 1900.  Again, this looks like an “invention” of a simple new guitar design, not a functioning instrument.

Next, the year 1905 saw what is perhaps Joseph’s most pertinent patent, an elaborate stringed instrument carving machine (#799,825).  What’s the young man playing at now?  It seems that his father was a violin builder, so that’s where the music side of the family must have come from.  Dad was said to have taught Joseph and his younger brother Frank the violin building trade.  It looks to me like his clever inventor son then looked for ways to streamline or productionize the building of these violins. He even had the notice of the big weekly Music Trade Review, who announced that “a well-known Leavenworth patternmaker and all-around genius” had been granted patent rights “on a wonderful new machine, which simplifies the manufacture of violins, mandolins and guitars.”

behee-mtr,1905,Dec2.jpg (135450 bytes)

Right, from The Music Trade Review, December 2, 1905

behee-mtr,1917,Nov10.jpg (66131 bytes) I suspect that it is no coincidence that two years later in 1907 Joseph Behee formed his Lyric Guitar Company, and that this company was intended for any instrument that could take advantage of his new machines (assuming that they worked).  Note that his patent also referred to the streamlined production of tops and back of all three instruments - violins, mandolins and guitars.  But if the company was indeed churning out these instruments (or portions of same), it does seems strange that it only had “guitar” in the name.  One could certainly imagine that Joseph would at least experiment with his old 1900 lyre-guitar instrument.  The Lyric Guitar Company – whatever its purpose – was apparently dissolved by 1917, at which time Joseph formed a new company, the Behee Violin Mfg. Co., with this brother Franklin Benjamin Behee (1883-1971).  This was also in Independence, MO.

Left, from The Music Trade Review, November 10, 1917; Below, from November 17, 1917

Nothing more is known about this enterprise either.  Presumably they used Joseph’s machines and ideas with equipment to exclusively produce violins for the wholesale trade, as the 1917 Music Trade Review announcement and ad suggest.  I don’t know how long they might have pursued this, but by 1928 Joseph was on to new inventions.  He was now granted a patent for “lettering on stone,” something he apparently stuck with, as he received another patent in 1940 for a stone sandblasting process.   Joseph Behee apparently lived his entire life in Independence, Missouri, where he passed away on August 12, 1953.

Enter Frank

Meanwhile, what of the lesser-known Frank Behee?  After the venture with his brother in their violin business, he seems lost to time.  We know that he ultimately ended up in South San Gabriel, California, because this is what we see on the label of his later “Lyric Harp Guitar.”  Talk about a long development process!  Some fifty-plus years after his brother drew up his patent design, and a few decades since the Lyric Guitar Company existed (which may or may not have ever actually built these instruments), Frank appears to have brought the idea out of mothballs.

According to Behee guitar owner Scotty Turner, Frank had been working as a cabinet maker, and was now retired.  Perhaps that career retirement coincided with the start of a new guitar-building hobby?  The cabinetmaker reference is certainly an interesting one as we examine an instrument at the close.  The exact date of the first Frank Behee Lyric Harp Guitar is not known, but it just may have coincided with the death of his older brother in 1953.  There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Joseph had any involvement in these instruments before his death in 1953 – and the brothers were living in different states; could his death have inspired his brother Frank to re-visit “the legacy”?  We don’t know if Frank was involved in the Lyric Guitar Company, though it is more than likely, as he joined his brother as full partner for the next violin-building enterprise.  It is certainly interesting that Frank labeled these creations the “Lyric Harp Guitar.”  That’s what the known labels read, followed by “F. B. Behee, 7612 Marshall, South San Gabriel, California.”  Was Frank then the first and only builder of these instruments?  My suspicions are that there was at least an original prototype instrument from back in the brothers’ heyday, but we haven’t yet found it.  Once Frank started building (by the late ‘fifties), he apparently later involved at least one or two of his grandchildren.

Customers

It’s hard to know exactly who bought the first new 1950’s Lyric Harp Guitar, and under what circumstances.  It may have been popular singer/songwriter Wayne Shanklin, seen on his LP cover with his small 12-string Behee.  

I had several communications with Wayne’s grandson Larry seven years ago, and according to his mother, Frank Behee was in his 60’s when he built four different lyre-shaped instruments for Shanklin.  At least one of these was a 12-string (the type Larry remembers seeing), and according to Scotty Turner, one was a 4-string tenor.  Three of these instruments are in the possession of various uncles, and one was stolen from a car long ago.  Larry recalls that his uncles played them all the time, and that they were “great sounding.”  The LP is not dated anywhere.  The author of the liner notes presumably got his information on the instrument from Shanklin, who would’ve gotten it from Frank Behee.  It reads “…like the Lyric Harp Guitar, made by a master of an almost lost art, Frank Beehee (sic), who learned the art from his father in Missouri.”

Or was the first customer Jerry Wallace, another popular singer that played a 50’s Behee?  

Wallace is seen on the cover of this 1958 sheet music with a small 12-string Lyric seemingly identical to Shanklin’s pictured instrument.  Note the names of Primrose’s composers.  So Shanklin and Wallace had a connection here as well.  Did they meet through their mutual membership in the new “Behee owners club”?  Or were they professional peers with one inspiring the other to obtain his own distinctive Behee lyre-shaped guitar?  Wallace may have owned at least two, as we learn from Ron Behee, grandson of builder Frank.  Ron recently mentioned on a blog (more on this thread later) that he owns Jerry’s first guitar (presumably also a Lyric HG) and a matching mandolin.  This came about from a trade-in when Jerry replaced that one with a shorter fingerboard.

Who else owned one?  

Well, despite the striking LP cover, not John Adomono.  This fascinating guitarist, called by some the inventor of “tiki surf music” warrants his own blog – which he got (the blog I mentioned just above).  It’s worth perusing this interesting “forgotten icon” a bit when you have the chance.  On this Waxidermy blog, you can listen to his version of “Flight of the Bumblebee” from one of his three now-rare albums.  You’ll also read an eyewitness Adomono fan’s story of how the Lyric was just borrowed from a local shop for the album cover shoot.  Indeed, one can see many guitars in the background, as if they went to a guitar store to shoot the pics.  

Curiously though, one of Adomono’s great-grandsons recently mentioned owning a similar one!

And now we come to perhaps the most famous Lyric Harp Guitar of all.  This one even as a name – “the Animal,” christened by none other than Phil Spector.  In a September, 2006 article for Music Morsels, guitarist Mark Paul Smith tells “The Legend of the Lyric Harp Guitar.”  At right, Smith plays the instrument alongside its owner, ‘sixties session player Scotty Turner (Hollywood, Nashville).  The story provides a seemingly endless list of famous recordings that this unusual small amplified 12-string guitar appeared on, including many Spector “wall of sound” recordings.  Spector named it “The Animal” partly because of its sound and partly because “of its beastly appearance. The sound chamber of the guitar extends up both sides of the neck in hollow swoops that look like the horns of an antelope.”

behee-turner,smith.jpg (83955 bytes)

As for the sound, Spector was immediately drawn to “the amazingly clean ringing” of it, and the fact that “the resulting sound cuts through without the predominant overtones of almost all other 12-string guitars.”  Turner attributed this to the wooden rod connecting the neck to the tips of the hollow arms, explaining that “String vibrations are transferred to the horns by way of the rod and resonate down to the string vibrations from the body of the guitar.”  Smith noted that the best example of “this unique tone” can be heard in the four-note lick that opens the 1963 song “Then He Kissed Me” by the Crystals.  Here’s a representative YouTube clip.

Turner explains how the instrument came about: 

“I really can’t remember if it was 1958 or 1959 that I asked a retired cabinet maker in California to build me a 12-string version of a guitar that I had seen – a tenor, four-string version that he had made for Wayne Shanklin, an accomplished songwriter in Hollywood.  I do know that it took over five months to build it as he had to let the wood ‘age’ before he started to work on it.  I did have to ‘borrow’ it before the final sunburst finish was applied because I was asked by the director of a film titled ‘Hootenanny Hoot’ to use it in a scene in the movie.  Upon completion, I started to use it on many sixties recording sessions because of its unique sound.”  Smith then describes it further: “The guitar itself is 37 inches long, 13-1/2 inches wide, 3 inches deep, with a sound hole diameter of 3 inches. It has 19 frets with seven mother of pearl circular inlays. The nineteenth fret has six, screw-top pickups as “The Animal” is an electric instrument.  Its inside label reads, “Lyric Harp Guitar, Made By, F. B. Behee, 7612 Marshall, South San Gabriel, California. There is no date of manufacture nor any serial number.”

I’m just surprised that the striking instrument never appeared on a ‘sixties album cover!

behee_hootenanny.jpg (104756 bytes)

By the way – curious about The Animal’s nude film appearance (pre-sunburst), I found this blog on the film (including a great clip of a baby-face Johnny Cash) – which actually came out in 1963, somewhat later than Turner’s testimony would indicate – along with these two decidedly groovy photos.

Yet another film appearance of a Behee - this photo (an eBay offering)  is labelled on the back "1960" and "George Hamilton."  It doesn't seem to be the George Hamilton actor I know....

 


Specimens

All told, I have counted a possible 12 Behee Harp (Lyre) Guitars built, 9 of them with whereabouts known.  Besides those mentioned above, Ron Behee said he also had a “matching mandolin.”  (I have been unable to reach Ron or any other of these old web sources, by the way…if you’re out there and find this story, please let me know!)  And as you remember, I closed my other blog with this unusual 8-string (double-course) tenor Lyric (at left).  Could that have been one of Shanklin’s original instruments, as he was said to have played a 4-string tenor?

Similarly, could this specimen – the only one I have ever personally seen – been one of Shanklin’s or Wallace’s?  I saw this in mid-2003, before the days of Harpguitars.net, when I had The Knutsen Archives going.  Perhaps that was how a woman named Carol, from Hollywood, found me.  I remember meeting her at the Denny’s on the 101’s Sunset Blvd exit to look it over, taking these poor photos out in the parking lot.  Alas, my original photos were lost on an old computer, but judging from my original entry in my Archives, I suspect that there was no label – only the “LYRIC BEHEE HARP” headstock lettering.  With the center “Behee” word being much larger, this was perhaps meant to be read as “Behee Lyric Harp.”

lyric_behee_harp-2.jpg (22465 bytes)

Though the owner’s late husband thought that “the Lyric Guitar Company made these between 1907 and 1917. His understanding is that there are only 5 of these in the U.S.,” that hardly seems likely.  It looked like it was from the same late 1950’s/early 1960’s period as the others, and I remember that my first thought was that it had been made by a cabinet maker – and a c.1960 Formica-using handyman, at that.  Bluntly put, it was nowhere near a professional guitar.  So reading all the glowing comments about the others gives me pause.  All have said that these instruments were “great” or “unique sounding,” and in a complimentary way.  Their matter-of-taste aesthetics aside, the instruments were well-employed by various professional guitar players.  Perhaps this was one built by Frank Behee’s grandkids?  From Ron Behee on the Adomono blog: “Franklin Behee who made the guitars had two sons, Harold (my dad) and Russel.  Russel had two sons, Carl and Russel Jr.  Carl, my cousin, actually made one or maybe two of the guitars under my grandfather’s guidance.  Russel Jr. may have helped and ended up with a guitar that I was told he sold or pawned while in the Navy.”  Regardless of its provenance, it seems to match the others in most respects – the large dowel rod anchoring the head to the arms, the crude, oversize rosette, and the large, somewhat gaudy inlays.  The others appear to have plain wood headstocks, unlike this curious laminate experiment (again, making me think of an additional garage experiment by the grandkids).  Upon close inspection, I realized that the intricate multi-ply-bordered tuner grooves in the headstock, along with “Lyric Behee Harp,” were created quite simply by gluing a piece of faux wood grain melamine laminate onto the headstock, then routing out the letters at an angle (and when I just recently saw the Joseph Behee patent illustrations of his stone lettering, I did a double-take!).  The top and/or body, though heavily constructed, must have warped a bit over time, and of course the wooden yoke on the arms had taken the neck with it, making it almost unplayable.  Though the strings were old, I could still imagine what the tone would’ve been like, and it wasn’t good.  If I had to sum up in one word the instrument I saw then and remember now, it would be “cheesy.”

But maybe I’m being unfair.  I really couldn’t judge the instrument without being able to properly string and play it.  And I have no way to know how it compares with all the other well-loved Behee Lyrics above.  And after all, Chris Knutsen wasn’t much of a luthier himself – and look how coveted his instruments are.

Who knows – perhaps in its prime, this instrument sounded as unique as Turner’s Animal, the perfect custom irreplaceable guitar tone that could cut through a wall of sound to help create a decade of hit records.

Now I want one.


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