Guitarist Ron English met Lyman Woodard at a gig in the early ’60s. And not just any gig. The two young bucks found themselves performing at a Michigan strip club called Amadeo’s. From that titillating beginning Ron English began traveling from his native Lansing to the town of Flint to visit Lyman Woodard, poet-activist John Sinclair, and drummer Danny Spencer at their communal apartment. All parties migrated to Detroit in the mid-’60s.
As a member of the Lyman Woodard Organization, English’s masterful playing is immortalized on Saturday Night Special. The album includes two of his own compositions: the straight-ahead “On Your Mind” and the guitar-torching “Help Me Get Away.” A multi-instrumentalist, English alternated between guitar and bass depending on which rig Woodard was piloting at any given moment—Hammond or Rhodes (when playing the Hammond organ, it is customary to provide bass with the left hand/pedal board). Although rumor has remained rampant for decades over the existence of Fish Feet, the English solo album advertised on the back cover of Saturday Night Special, Strata ran out of financial steam before the album could go to press.
The peculiar, America-shaped guitar built by the Chicago-based National Company was Ron English’s instrument of choice for much of his early career. English’s father Norman, also a guitar player, was friends with National owner Al Frost, likely an influence on the younger English’s decision to buy this now-legendary model. Although often mistaken for humbuckers, the pickups on the 98 are of the single-coil variety, with a third pick-up under the bridge. The bulky tone switch offers a variety of pick up combinations. This, along with the unusual number of knobs (most guitars top out at three), allowed English a surprising tonal range. Even the bass that English played on Saturday Night Special was a Supro—a budget offshoot of National.
The memorable guitar was in English’s arsenal until the early ’80s, when it, not to mention the car it was located in, was stolen. (Although the car was later recovered, the guitar was not.) Ron has since purchased a replacement, a black National without the “So Cal” cut-away. He most frequently plays a traditional Godin, fashioned after the classic Gibsons played by jazz guitar gods like Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery. Having toured with The Four Tops and recorded with Gladys Knight and the Pips, English remains active in fostering grassroots organizations in the Motor City. As president of the Allied Artists Association of America, he was responsible for the “Jazz in Detroit” series, which hosted a smattering of national acts at the Strata Gallery. English still lives in Michigan, where he teaches guitar and gigs regularly.
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