I miss my little title puns…gotta find a way to do more of those…

I received this great new Lester Payne image awhile back from my friend in mandolin & HG historical research, Jim Garber.  Actually, I already had the image on the site, but from a different piece of ultra-rare sheet music than this one, amazingly enough.  It was also very low resolution, and I wasn’t aware that the person standing at the harp was Payne!  I took this opportunity to ask for a better image of that as well, which I got just now from the original submitter Barry Trott (included below) – thanks, both of you!

Reminded of how Mr. Payne keeps sprouting up here and there on Harpguitars.net, but still with no single page where all the images and info appear in one place, I decided to do this quick blog re-cap…which of course turned into a whole new elaborate 2800-word piece!  Lester Payne wasn’t a harp guitarist, so we can’t feature him as a player anywhere.  Nor was he a builder, so no entry there.  Yet he has multiple direct and indirect links to harp guitars, specifically three brands associated with his various ensembles: Harwood (Jenkins & Sons), Washburn (Lyon & Healy) and Chris Knutsen’s harp guitars.

Lester Payne (born in California in 1867) was very active in the turn-of-the-last-century BMG movement (Banjo, Mandolin & Guitar), perhaps one of the earliest to lead small, then larger, then really large groups of mandolin and guitar players.  From all the evidence, for at least a decade Payne’s forte was as a roving independent organizer of mandolin and guitar groups.  He would perform with the group, provide musical instruction as needed, and share his repertoire which included his own compositions.  Being in an obvious position to also help with procuring instruments for his students and group members, forming a relationship with a suitable manufacturer or distributor such as the Jenkins company was only natural.  In fact, his seemed to be the very business model that the Gibson company would eventually follow with their aggressive, infamous Teacher-Dealer program.

His travels are still unclear but appear to have taken him back and forth between Southern California and Arizona before  making his way to Washington state (Seattle, then Spokane, or back and forth), and finally back to Los Angeles for good.

Lester Payne’s original timeline highlights were put together by Jean Cammon Findlay, Darrell Urbien and Paul Ruppa for my 2008-updated Knutsen Archives article Lester Payne’s Mandolin and Guitar Orchestra, but I’ve now made a few additional updates after combing through my digital Cadenza archives and taking another look at the clues and images (with recent help from the above three, plus Jim Feroe.  My favorite new piece of information (recently uncovered by Paul) is the “famous ‘Baby Payne’ story” that took place in the summer of 1890, in which Payne kidnapped his own 2-1/2 year old daughter (from his wife), with his parents as accomplices.  Though it made news in several states, Payne got off (as did his folks) since kidnapping one’s own child was then not considered a crime.  He did get beat up by his wife’s brother, but then pulled a gun and shot the poor guy a few times (since the brother A) lived, and B) started the fight, Payne got out of that one too!).  And before you could say “upstanding citizen,” Payne was soon gaining notice as a top mandolin & guitar teacher/group organizer & leader/composer/ instrument supplier.

From newspaper notices, we know that Payne-led mandolin clubs are known to have existed in Redlands, California as early as 1892, and again in 1898.  He also led a group of mandolinists in the Salvation Army sometime in this period.  Many other mandolin and guitar clubs of his appeared in Los Angeles and Arizona during the 1890s.  At least one of these was specifically named “The Harwood Guitar and Mandolin” club, but in actuality, every Payne group we’ve seen images of contained Harwood instruments almost exclusively.

While we don’t know the details, it is clear that Payne must have had an arrangement with the Kansas City, Missouri Jenkins company to promote and supply their “Harwood” guitars and mandolins to his many groups and students.  These instruments are easily identifiable by the bone or celluloid rectangle marker in the last fret position (they are believed to be the only instruments with this feature at the turn of the previous century) or the occasional engraved “Harwood” headstock marker.  Presumably Payne received Harwood instruments directly from the Jenkins company.  Jenkins had recently expanded their own production facilities after terminating a contract with the John C. Haynes & Co. of Boston, who was apparently building the majority of them prior to January, 1889.  From an article titled “In All Countries: Mandolins and Guitars Made by J.W. Jenkins’ Sons Are Used: Wonders of the Make: Music in Distant Lands From Kansas City Instruments” appearing in the December 13, 1898 Kansas City Journal:

“Twenty-five men are constantly employed, who annually use up 50,000 feet of lumber which goes into the frames of mandolins and guitars.  This consists of rosewood from South America, mahogany from Central America, spruce from Norway and Sweden and oak and maple from New York.  The capacity of the factory is 500 mandolins and guitars a month, while the annual output is 5,000 instruments, which are sent to all parts of the world.  J. W. Jenkins’ Sons’ mandolins and guitars, made in Kansas City, are played in Mexico, South and Central America, the Sandwich Islands, Cuba and Porto Rico. They can be found in almost every town and city in the Union and the “Harwood” guitar has attained a celebrity among musicians that places it at the head of that class of musical instruments.”

Curiously, while we see Harwood mandolins and guitars in every single Payne-led group we know of (6 images so far), we never see any of the Harwood harp guitars, which is especially surprising since nearly every one of Payne’s pictured groups utilized harp guitars.

The Harwood Club of Los Angeles, Lester Payne seated at left
(from The Cadenza, May-June, 1896)

The above photograph, taken sometime between 1894 and early 1896, is the earliest image of Lester Payne that we know of, showing him with his Harwood Club of Los Angeles.  Note that Payne does not yet wear his distinctive moustache.  The short accompanying text states that the “group was organized on May 7, 1895.”  They were also featured on two pieces of sheet music listed in the online International Guitar Research Archives.  The pieces, from 1894 (earlier than the announced formation above?) and 1896, were written by F. O. Gutman, and “performed by the Harwood Guitar and Mandolin Club, Los Angeles, Cal., Lester Payne, Director.”

All the members save one are playing Harwood mandolins and guitars.  Note the Lyon & Healy-built “Washburn Lyre Guitar.”  Unlike its catalog listing and the two surviving specimens, this is the even rarer harp guitar version, with three sub-bass strings.

I found the original published image while photographing the BMG magazine collection at IGRA several years back, but it was unfortunately in one of their bound copies, so I couldn’t flatten it out, but it does show some better details than the small halftone we originally had.

The La Harmonia Orchestra, with Lester Payne at the harp, appears on the cover of sheet music “Capriccio,” published by F.O Gutman in Cleveland, Ohio in 1896.

Our next image (from the sheet music I showed at the start) was also published in 1896.  As I mentioned at the start, it also appears on a second sheet music title, but that one was undated.  Payne now has his trademark mustache and stands at the harp (did he play this in addition to mandolin and guitar?).  He looks deliberately “off stage,” rather than towards the camera, an “artist’s pose” we see him strike often.  Note that the distinctive Washburn lyre harp guitar is again present.  I suspect that Payne owned it himself, as we see it in California, Arizona and finally Washington.  The rest of the group again plays Harwood mandolins and guitars.  We at first thought that this photo was taken in Los Angeles, and fairly soon after the session above (time at least to grow and groom that spectacular mustache).  I now think there was some additional months between photo sessions, and that this group was from Arizona.  First, it is listed among Payne’s Arizona groups (below), and second, the same woman here playing the Washburn lyre HG is seen (I think) in his Prescott, AZ group (seen next).

The Manzanita Mandolin Club, of Prescott, Arizona. Lester Payne, Director
(from The Cadenza, May-June, 1897)

We next find Payne in Prescott, Arizona.  Here his picture accompanies the Ladies Manzanita Mandolin Club, as seen in the May-June, 1897 issue of The Cadenza.  Again, I believe the woman standing on the left is the same seen holding the Washburn lyre HG above.  Some of the other women could also be from the La Harmonia group, but hard to tell.  The accompanying article mentions Payne having just completed “his second winter season at Phoenix,” implying that he had spent a few winter months there in both 1895-96 and 1896-97.  Note the mention of the 70-piece mandolin orchestra that played in his closing concert!  The article proves most helpful in providing a list (undoubtedly supplied by Payne) of the specific ensembles he had organized up to that point.  The names (and their locations) are quite helpful in piecing together his activities (italics means State was not given).  They appear to be organized by area (if not consecutively) and include:

  • The Harwood Mandolin and Guitar Club (of Los Angeles, CA, pictured above)
  • The Ladies’ Guitar Club (Los Angeles)
  • The Riverside Mandolin Orchestra (Riverside, CA)
  • The Y. M. C. A. Mandolin Orchestra (Redlands, CA)
  • The Manzanita Mandolin Club (Prescott, AZ, pictured here)
  • La Harmonia Mandolin Orchestra (no town given, but I believe AZ, group pictured below)
  • The Tempe Guitar Club (AZ)
  • The Juvenile and Lilliputian Orchestras (Phoenix, AZ)

The article concludes with the announcement that Payne is “about to leave for Denver, Colo., where he will probably locate.”  No further evidence of Payne activities in Colorado have turned up.

If indeed he ever went to Denver, he probably came right back to Phoenix, Arizona when, two issues later, the Sep-Oct,1897 Cadenza mentions in their “Personal” column that Payne has been engaged as a teacher in the city’s Academy of Music.

After a likely third and final winter season in Phoenix, Payne returned to Los Angeles, as described in his next Cadenza appearance in their Mar-Apr, 1898 issue.

Lester Payne, with a top-of-the-line Harwood guitar
(from The Cadenza, Mar-Apr,1898)

About a year later, Payne moved to Seattle, Washington, where he opened his Mandolin and Guitar School (c.1899).  In 1900, he was living in Seattle at 805 Madrona St.  He had married again in 1898 (his wife Janie may have been a member of one of his many ensembles, as there is an 1898 Los Angeles newspaper notice of her  performing with him), had a daughter, Paloma (born in Washington in 1900), and his occupation was “music teacher.”

The Cadenza Mandolin Orchestra (from The Cadenza, May-June, 1900)

We originally presumed this studio portrait above was taken in Seattle, but now see that it was undoubtedly from Spokane.  It appeared (under the name “The Cadenza Mandolin Orchestra”) in The Cadenza’s May-June, 1900 issue, and again on a piece of 1901 sheet music (“Suwanee River”) discovered by Paul Ruppa, the group then titled simply “Prof Lester Payne’s Orchestra.”  Perhaps the “Cadenza” tribute appellation was just a temporary unofficial name meant to butter up the Cadenza editor…?  If so, the accompanying text shows that the ruse worked!

In this photograph, Payne is seated just left and above the center bassist.  Once again we see the Washburn lyre harp guitar (in fact, could that be the same woman, barely four years later?).  Besides the usual Harwoods, there is also a large Waldo mandocello in front (though we highly doubt the little girl played it!).

The re-use of the image a year later on the sheet music demonstrates how photos may pop up months or even years after they were taken, making Timeline research difficult!  By the way, pay particular attention to the backdrop…

We’re now up to 1901, with Lester Payne still promoting Harwood guitars and mandolins, but curiously still no Harwood harp guitars.  And then a new member showed up at Payne’s Mandolin and Guitar School to join his Orchestra and put the kibosh on that idea for good!

Class of 1902 – Payne’s Mandolin and Guitar School
(from The Cadenza, August, 1902)

I’m sure everyone has seen this…the prize of Knutsen fans everywhere and still arguably the most impressive historical harp guitar photograph ever found.  For, in fact, it’s not actually a photograph, but four approximately 8”x12” original photographs meticulously hand-cut around the players’ heads and glued together to form one huge composite image.  This was so that they could include all 75 players, shooting them 15 to 24 at a time on the small risers in the studio.  It is this cleverly created super-photo that was printed in The Cadenza journal in August, 1902 (accompanying a short piece about the group’s June 17 concert in Spokane, WA).  We figured all this out after a years-long “search and rescue” operation (initially discovered by my friend and restorer Kerry Char) of what, impossibly, turned out to be the original (related in our exhaustive Knutsen/Payne article).

Once the 4-part composite trick was identified, Paul Ruppa immediately noticed that the painted curtain backdrop was the same studio used for the 1900 “Cadenza Orchestra” photo!  In our detailed Knutsen article we go on at some length trying to figure out if the studio sessions took place in Seattle or Spokane, and now that it looks to be Spokane, it still leaves questions unanswered (mainly how – and why – did nearly a dozen Knutsen harp guitars show up in Spokane).

Paul also spotted that same Washburn lyre HG woman, (but now with a Knutsen), along with additional members from the previous shoot – including the mandocello soloist, and of course Payne himself.  But the real stars for us are Chris and Anna Knutsen themselves!

The original Cadenza caption describes an elaborate concert with 75 instrumentalists and a light show!  The Cadenza piece starts out quoting a review in the Spokesman Review, then segues into obvious commentary from Cadenza.  Nowhere is Knutsen mentioned.  It’s hard to believe Cadenza would single out the mandocello soloist but leave out any mention of the nearly dozen bizarre new harp guitars and that the wacky inventor/builder himself was onstage!  Of course, there is the possibility that the instrumentation and personal of the photo shoot and the Spokane concert are completely different, but I don’t think so.

By the way, the mandocello was the same Waldo from the previous photo. Undoubtedly, Payne had acquired the recent instrument to help keep his group “cutting edge” (Jenkins not having anything but standard mandolin sizes available).  Speaking of which…what was the status of Payne the “Harwood teacher/dealer”?  Apparently still going strong for at least eight years now.  The Harwood mandolins and guitars are still present – at least 21 in fact – but he still has nary a Harwood harp guitar.  Instead, his members are now playing 10 or 11 brand new Knutsen harp guitars (or, I should say, “posing with”).  Darrell Urbien suggested that this was an attempt at a new distribution deal between Chris Knutsen and Lester Payne.  It certainly would have been an ideal situation for both Payne and Knutsen.  Coincidentally, Knutsen’s distribution deal with Dyer (“in all states except Washington and California”) likely ended c.1902, when Dyer licensed the design and formed a new association with the Larson brothers in Chicago.  So the time frame might fit.  And the sudden appearance of almost a dozen new Knutsen instruments in Payne’s orchestra strongly hints at something more than a casual get-together.  However, no other evidence has surfaced involving either Knutsen or Payne to suggest that this potential partnership went any further.  Perhaps it was simply something innocuous…like Chris and his wife deciding to join this large new music school guitar ensemble, and then bringing a batch of his harp guitars for the several dozen students and players (and captive audience) to try out…or maybe Payne said “Hey, Knutsen – you’ve got all those crazy guitars – why don’t we use some for the photo shoot?…”  Whatever it was must have been an elaborate plan, as Knutsen was then in Tacoma, and Payne’s school and orchestra was almost certainly in Spokane.  We may never know the details, but it sure is fun to imagine all the “historical possibilities.”

Again, I think that Payne must have permanently relocated to Spokane sometime in 1900 (previously, we only had his 1910 census address: 209 Post St).  The 1902 “Knutsen concert” was not his largest, but seems to be the last time he was mentioned in the BMG magazines (Cadenza, then Crescendo).  After 1902, there are a few Spokane Press notices of small entertainments given by “Payne’s Mandolin and Harp Orchestra” (Jan 17, 1903), “Payne’s mandolin club” (May 5, 1904) and “Payne’s Mandolin Club, composed of 8 young ladies” (December 12, 1908), and I assume many others yet unknown.  One of his largest concerts may have been that of June 2, 1904 (see advertisement), when combined participants of the “Georgie Stone academy and Payne’s Mandolin club of 150 members” rendered a program at the Spokane Theater, with “300 musicians and players taking part.”  Payne definitely seems to have had some success with his Mandolin and Guitar School activities for almost two more decades in Spokane.

By 1920 he was out of the music business and back in Los Angeles (though a 1920 college directory still lists “Payne’s Mandolin and Guitar School, Lester Payne, Principal” in Spokane).  He moved through several occupations until his death in 1944 at age 76 or 77.  The occupations include: Milling company salesman, reed dealer, food manufacturer, chicken farmer (“poultry expert”), and finally, four more years as a musician, then four years of retirement.

From Kidnapper to Harwood Club Organizer to Knutsen Kollaborator to Poultry Farmer, with well known harp guitars included in at least half of those activities, Lester Payne will always hold a special place in the annals of Harpguitars.net and our hearts.

And that’s about as Payne-full a blog as I can make.