Having a ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ with passionate Paul McCartney lead guitarist Laurence Juber

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Laurence Juber, a finger-style acoustic guitar titan, shoots the breeze on jamming with Paul McCartney and Wings, Elvis Presley’s Sun Records tenure, being influenced by the Beatles and Telecaster-driven instrumentalists the Shadows, playing Kermit the Frog’s banjo licks in various Muppet films, why he became an American citizen, and the onstage mishap that nearly scuttled “Wonderful Christmastime’s” live debut. Clockwise from top center: Season’s greetings from the mischievous Wings lead guitarist, drummer Steve Holley, rhythm guitarist Denny Laine, keyboardist Linda McCartney, and bassist-lead singer Paul McCartney, Christmas 1979. Image Credit: Beatles Magazine / MPL Communications

Paul McCartney’s former lead guitarist Laurence Juber dropped his debut Christmas album, the solo acoustic finger style-laced Winter Guitar, in 1997. Fast forward nineteen years later, and the multi-hyphenate artist embellished his musical presentation with a jazz bassist and drummer for the 11-track acoustic instrumental set Holidays & Hollynights, significantly rearranging such Yuletide chestnuts as “Sleighride,” Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song [Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire],” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Juber was a member of Wings — the third most successful act of the 1970s — during their final iteration from 1978 thru 1981. In the course of the talented guitar virtuoso’s tenure, Wings tore up the airwaves with “Goodnight Tonight,” “Arrow Through Me,” “Getting Closer,” and the ubiquitously bouncy “Coming Up.”

Juber is not one to sit idly by resting on his laurels, instead contributing annual solo albums, supplying tasty lead guitar licks to studio and soundtrack sessions, and touring up close and in person. Visit his official website for all the latest details.

In the exclusive first installment of an expansive interview, the driven Scorpio musician speaks affectionately about growing up in London’s poor East End as a Jewish kid, eating Christmas dinner and jamming with Wings, the unexpected mishap that nearly scuttled “Wonderful Christmastime’s” live debut, digging Elvis Presley’s trailblazing tenure on Sun Records, being influenced by the Beatles and Telecaster-driven instrumentalists the Shadows, expertly playing Kermit the Frog’s banjo licks in various Muppet films, and why he chose American citizenship.

The Laurence Juber Interview, Part One

Did Wings celebrate Christmas together?

Oh sure — there was always some recognition of the holiday. Paul’s office at MPL [McCartney Productions Ltd.] would always have a Christmas lunch. You know, just eating around a table with a certain kind of seasonal conviviality to it. On Christmas Day, obviously everybody was with their own family.

No one would get up and sing any songs. The time when there was cool performance stuff going on was, for example, when we were doing videos. I distinctly remember when we did the video for “Goodnight Tonight” [a No. 5 pop hit on both sides of the Atlantic].

In between takes, we were jamming all kinds of stuff. A lot of fun, kind of a Wings jam session when the cameras weren’t rolling. That would often happen when we were in a situation where we had instruments and there was some time to kill.

Although “Wonderful Christmastime” was a solo McCartney single, Wings appeared in the official music video and performed the song during their final tour.

When we did the video, it was our way of celebrating the Christmas season with everybody else. The band was only in the video — Paul played all the instruments on the studio version.

Wings performed the song during our November — December 1979 UK tour, since it was Paul’s new single. During that tour we also recorded our own version of “Coming Up,” which was quite different than the studio version Paul put on McCartney II [Wings’ live version became a No. 1 record in the USA].

The line between what Paul was doing solo and the band was not hard and fast. We were aware of the fact he was doing his solo project, so it wasn’t really much of an issue. That was right around the time I was working on my first solo project, Standard Time, so I was also busy doing my own thing.

It was a little crazy the first time Wings did “Wonderful Christmastime” live. They hadn’t told me there was going to be fake snow falling down. So I opened my mouth to sing the “choir of angels” backing vocals, and I got a mouthful of fake snow [laughs]. I don’t think any of my band mates noticed, but I’m sure some of the audience did.

I did notice on the Wikipedia page for “Wonderful Christmastime” that Paul has apparently said he doesn’t much like it. I couldn’t tell you how he currently feels about it [McCartney added the tune to his encore at Liverpool’s Echo Arena on December 20, 2011, tackled a new studio rendition in 2013 with a cappella group Straight No Chaser, and performed the song on the December 20, 2016, episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, albeit in a pre-taped bit with multiple guest actors and singing each line].

“Wonderful Christmastime” is, I think, a better song than Paul gives himself credit for. Given the fact that last time I looked, it was in the Top 25 Christmas songs of all-time, that is something certainly to be proud of.

I can’t say that I was much of a fan of it to begin with. It’s not one of my favorite Christmas songs. I like the song better than I like the actual record. In terms of the kind of record making that it was, the fact that there’s a fun video for it, and it still gets played on the radio, you can’t argue with that.

“Wonderful Christmastime” is going on my Christmas list of songs to arrange and record someday — it definitely has possibilities. I’ll have to come up with a solo guitar arrangement for it, since I’ve never done an arrangement of it to perform at one of my solo shows.

Born in London’s East End, how did you celebrate Christmas?

While I was growing up, we didn’t really do Christmas in my family. I was raised Jewish, so on Christmas Day I would go with my dad to his liquor store in Stepney Green. It was an “off license” supplying some “bottled seasonal liquidity” to a lot of old East London dockland-area sailors, many of whom looked suspiciously like Santa Claus.

There was no drinking on the premises, just a retailer of wines, beers and spirits that had been in our family for a few generations. It was the only one of its kind that was open in the East End of London on Christmas morning.

When things were quiet, I would sit in Dad’s office and play guitar for him. It’s the reason that my version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” on Winter Guitar [1997] was taken as a blues.

After my kids were born, we would have a Christmas tree and exchange gifts, stuff like that. To me, sometimes holidays are really celebratory, and other times they are low-key and private. We’re not doing much this Christmas, but we will get together with our kids and have a celebratory lunch.

Actually, I always enjoy Thanksgiving, because I never grew up with the holiday. Thanksgiving here is almost more of the same kind of holiday that Christmas was in England. Of course, in England you have turkey at Christmas, since there’s no Thanksgiving.

My perspective on the holiday season is a little different. I celebrate every day in a sense. I’ve lived in California for over 30 years. I became a U.S. citizen in 1988, largely because I wanted to vote. You know, you pay taxes, and you want to have a say in things. I’ve never regretted doing that. America is my adopted home, and I’ve lived here longer than I lived in England.

Who were your musical influences growing up, and where did the Beatles fit into that grand scheme?

You know, the Beatles weren’t really the first — the Shadows were. They were an English band similar to the Ventures in America. They played Fender Stratocasters and had this great twangy instrumental thing. And they influenced the Beatles. The first official Beatle composition was an instrumental tune called “Cry for a Shadow”, written by John Lennon and George Harrison. It was their tribute to the Shadows.

There were all kinds of other music I enjoyed. I heard Elvis, I heard Buddy Holly. What happened was — in 1963 the Beatles really started coming into people’s consciousness in England. During the course of that year, there was just a buildup in intensity to the point that when I got my first guitar at age 11 in November 1963, a week or so later With the Beatles was released.

And I started guitar lessons that week. Then the following week “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” dropped. When I got the guitar, I realized I loved the sound of it, and it was just so much fun to play. That became the focus of my creative attention and fairly quickly, my career attention.

The Beatles certainly were a part of that, but it wasn’t just the Beatles. In fact, just the other day I found a picture of my bedroom when I was 14 or 15. I zoomed in and I realized all the pictures on the wall were the Rolling Stones [laughs]. I didn’t put up pictures of the Beatles — I put up pictures of the Stones, the Animals…

My influences were very much along the lines of the guitar players. Beyond George Harrison, most especially was Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck. But also jazz guitar players like Barney Kessel, Joe Pass, and Howard Roberts. Folk guitarists including early Bob Dylan and early Paul Simon.

I got into ragtime guitar through Stefan Grossman. English folk guitar players such as Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. Django Reinhardt was a big influence, too. Whatever kind of guitar, it didn’t matter.

But you see, there were many levels to this. On one hand, I was taking whatever I could from all the different guitar players I was hearing. In the classical world — Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream, and John Williams.

Also, I was listening to pop records and deconstructing them. I would listen to records on the radio and listen to what the bass was doing, or what the drums were doing. Trying to understand how music was put together.

In England we had a lot of folky pop bands. We had a group called the Springfields, which was Dusty Springfield and her brothers. Then there was the Seekers, just a lot of melodic pop folk artists. I was just very eclectic in my musical tastes. I’d listen to anything.

Actually, that paid off, because I had to be able to play almost anything as a studio musician. I think that was really part of what got me into Wings. My versatility was something that I think appealed to Paul and Denny Laine. Paul himself is very versatile. I can play lots of different styles but also strap on the Gibson SG and play rock and roll lead guitar, too. It all kind of just worked for me.

Which Elvis Presley musical era piques your interest?

The early Elvis stuff — I love the Sun Sessions. Not so much the later stuff. I had a cousin who played me “Jailhouse Rock.” I loved the fact that what Elvis was doing was just so cool and hip. The fact is, when Elvis first started putting out records in 1955, I was three years old. I was a little too young to be kind of catching the first wave of it.

Of course, later Linda McCartney purchased Bill Black’s original stand-up bass — a Kay Maestro M-1 — used on “Mystery Train,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “All Shook Up,” and many more Elvis classics. I got to admire and play it a bit, and it’s featured in the “Baby’s Request” music video from Wings’ Back to the Egg.

The only Elvis song I’ve played at my live shows is “Suspicious Minds,” but only once or twice [a Juber studio version appears on the 2010 compilation, A Guitar for Elvis]. For me, outside of the Beatle realm — and that’s a special case — it’s really about songs.

I’ll choose songs, not necessarily because of the artist, but because I really like the song. It’s challenging for me as a musical exercise and as a guitaristic exercise. I won’t perform a song unless it appeals to the audience in a productive way.

Which Muppet did you prefer working with?

Not many people may realize that I’ve worked on various occasions with Muppets. On the soundtrack to The Muppets, the 2011 Walt Disney theatrical revival starring Jason Segel and Amy Adams, I played some of Kermit’s banjo parts. When you see Kermit onscreen, I’m the one who’s playing the banjo. But not always — there are various people who contributed parts. Having not seen the movie, I’m not even sure how my stuff got used there. I also discovered I played on The Muppet Christmas Carol soundtrack [1992].

However, my favorite Muppet experience wasn’t with Kermit. I did a DVD session with composer Paul Williams, and the Muppet in question was the Great Gonzo. It was Paul Williams, the Great Gonzo, and Willie Nelson doing “Rainbow Connection” [available on 2003’s Paul Williams: I’m Going Back There Someday]. I was the tallest guy there. Paul’s not very tall, and Willie’s not very tall. You kind of forgot that the Great Gonzo was a puppet.

It’s so well done. You interact with these puppets as though they are real people. You stop paying attention to the puppeteer and get into the personality of the puppet. You accept the reality. Plus, it’s fun.

It’s like being on a theatre stage — you accept the reality of the character. If they’re convincing, then you go with that. You don’t turn around and say, “Well, you’re just a puppet. I’m not talking to you. I’m gonna talk to the puppeteer.”

© Jeremy Roberts, 2011, 2017. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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