The Style, Story and Songs of Toledo’s Patrick Lewandowski

Back at the old Ottawa Tavern on Bancroft. It’s mid-summer in Toledo, probably ’87 or ‘88, the AC is cranking, rattling hard at the O.T. The Tuesday night crowd has snapped up most of the tables on the right side of the club; the bar to the left is packed, chatter fills the room, a sweaty, aromatic funk permeates, whiskey and beer glasses clank and an unassuming, bespeckled figure picks up a battered, but beautiful Guild six-string, held up by — What’s that? A shoe-string?

I’m 21-years-old, a student at the University of Toledo, and a guitar player myself. Tonight I’m here to hear my favorite guitarist in the whole wide world: Patrick Lewandowski. Having first picked up the instrument in the early ‘80s, I’d been enamored with Eddie Van Halen — and, in turn, Eric Clapton (in large part because of Eddie’s insistence that Eric was his only guitar hero). Yet, in Patrick, I’d heard something different, something entirely unique in the way he played, something all his own. The way he would “imply” the chord changes as he played single note “solo” guitar lines just knocked me out.

Sitting back with a glass of whiskey and a beer chaser, I close my eyes and swear I can hear those changes levitating in the ether as the pentatonic phrases, diminished scales, double-stops, riffs, and licks cascade over the ledge. In my mind, I could follow the song that was there even when it wasn’t. Almost like sonic pantomime, an impressionist painter without a canvas—lead work that builds the bridge while he’s walking on it—just throwing bricks out ahead of his feet. I’d never heard anybody at any level of fame or fortune pull-off the same thing in the same way.

And, I still haven’t.

A Bit ‘Foreword’ of Me

In this piece — partly based on talking with Patrick; and, I guess, partly a short-story disguised as a gushing fan letter — I’m going to try to get at what makes Pat’s guitar playing so inventive and extraordinary. If you hang with me, I’ll do my best to put into words what Patrick puts into notes without leaning into too much musical jargon. You’ll get the gist of it even if you don’t get theory behind it.

The technique he’s mastered is really a jazz, Charlie Parker-ish, solo saxophone, kind of thing. Commonly heard in movies or TV shows like Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. That’s very different than keeping a walking bass line going on the lower strings while playing melodies over-the-top on an archtop guitar, ala, Chet Atkins (although Patrick can play that style as well). And, it’s also very different from a player alternating between playing rhythm and lead guitar—one or the other takes a back seat at any given time. These days, many guitarists who play solos commonly use a form of a “Looper” pedal for a little extra help in the background.

From Back to ‘Blue’ Front: A Toledo Treasure for More than Six Decades

For the record, Patrick has been active in the Toledo music scene since the mid ’70s. His shows at the legendary Coach House in Cricket West as a solo performer and with pals Don Binkley, Dave Browning and Don Coats, among many others, are fondly remembered by anyone lucky enough to have heard them.

He was part of the Blue Front Persuaders through most of ‘80s and the early part of the ‘90s, a big band with even BIGGER horns and a travel itinerary that ran from Detroit, Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo to Chicago, over to Cleveland, down to Columbus and back again, performing regularly at Bedard’s Longhorn Saloon in Toledo.

Together with another Toledo treasure, guitarist Bobby May, he formed the incomparable Two Big Guitars, a duo that tore open the possibilities of what a couple of great players could do with just the right amount of “watering.” Together, they held court a little more than 10 years. It was a prolific period that saw Pat and Bobby play regularly across the city and around the region, laying it down weekly at Frankie’s every Tuesday night for several years. At the top end, they competed in an early Black Swamp Blues Society event, earning the chance to represent the community at the annual national blues contest in Memphis.

In total, as a solo performer and with other duos, Pat says he likely “had been down to the competition, maybe seven times.” His solo album, Shades of Grace, came out around 1993, followed by the local release of a live Two Big Guitars performance recorded at Mickey Finn’s. He also recorded and released a CD featuring Irish folk songs entitled Paddy Lie Back.

Saturday Night Do You Right!

The original Ottawa Tavern on Bancroft St. in Toledo, Ohio.

Snap, crackle, pop. The PA comes to life. Channel one, “Check,” OK, works. Pat sets the level. Channel two, guitar, a quick phrase, slide-up to a pull-off on the top string, resolving to an E chord, briefly changing tone and volume with a quick stomp on a compressor pedal— the only effect he’ll use — basically for solos only. Soundcheck complete.

“Here’s a little bit from one of my favorite guitar players, Freddie King.

Patrick Lewandowski
Photo provided via Patrick Lewandowski.

Pat confidently announces in a gravely, bar-worn voice reminiscent of unfiltered cigarettes and scotch whiskey. And away he goes. For the next hour, Pat plays inspired, sometimes speedy, delightfully intricate versions of blues classics, barrelhouse R&B numbers, show tunes, folk- and jazz-flavored standards and originals that go over like nobody’s business.

I particularly look forward to hearing his versions of Tom Waits’ “Mr. Siegal” and Johnny Mercer’s “Serve the Bones to Henry Jones (Cause Henry Don’t Eat No Meat),” along with Patrick’s own songs, “It Wasn’t Me,” “Holding Cell,” “Because Don’t Mean” and “Saturday Night Do You Right,” among many others. But, on this night, Patrick’s reading the crowd. The crafty, uptempo tunes have got the place buzzing, but it’s time for a change of pace and let the folks catch their breath. Don’t remember the exact title of the song, but I’ll never forget what happened next.

Pat launches into a slow blues.

Many couples take the cue and the dance floor is packed for the first time. Then, for the next two minutes, Pat does what I had thought to be impossible—he plays lead guitar lines, unaccompanied by anything other than the chord changes he implies tonally—and doesn’t lose a beat or a couple the entire time. Patrick brings the song to a dramatic end; and, the house itself, down to thunderous applause.

My mind is blown … again.

Now any number of nine-year-old virtuosos on YouTube may have more impressive chops; and yes, it’s easy to name dozens of truly exceptional, singularly original and more widely known players at the drop of a hat, but I’ve never seen any guitarist do that.

So … How’d He Do That?

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself; and honestly, have been wanting to ask Patrick for many years. Even though I have had a fair number of chances to trade thoughts and licks with him, and tried to emulate the way he plays from time-to-time, I’ve remained largely in the same state of wonder from the beginning.

Best I can figure is that I’ve only caught a glimpse of it. So, I feel quite thankful to Pat for indulging my questions and taking some time to share his thoughts on how he does what he does.

Take One: Patrick Talks About His Early Influences and the Development of His Signature Style

One of the first things you learn when you start playing guitar is just how much work it takes to even be mediocre. But, everybody crawls before they walk and walks before they run. In that sense, I asked Patrick to talk about his early days as a musician:

Patrick: “I was playing bass in a folk trio in ’68-’69, and the guy who played lead guitar, left-handed guitar player, absolutely marvelous. He played jazz, folk music-y things, show tunes if you wanted. And he was such a good player that I decided I wanted to play like him. So, I picked up an acoustic guitar and started out in 1969 and started doing solo gigs. A lot of the stuff I did used different chord structures. That was the music that appealed to me, the songwriting that I liked to cover, whether it was Gordon Lightfoot or John Prine or Hoagy Carmichael. If I liked it, I was gonna learn it, and if I played it well enough I could work.

Freddie King, in his slow blues playing, I thought, he was very melodic. Whereas like Johnny Copeland, who was just fast all the time. I found a lot of expression in Freddie King’s solos. Then the other thing is listening to horn players. Listening to Dexter Gordon, listening to Sonny Rollins, because they have that chord structure going on behind them and then they play these absolutely marvelous solos that opens up so much melody and so much expression.”

That approach held true for Patrick across the board, regardless of what genre of music he was listening to or playing along with, but he always dug deeper than what you might hear on the surface. B.B. King, for example, was always highly regarded for what he could say on the guitar with one note, but there was also that band of his that gave that note the context it needed to sting-in and swing with such force.

I reasoned that Pat’s way of implying the chord changes in his own playing does both — at the same time — letting the minds of listeners fill in the blanks of the missing accompaniment on the melodic strength of the notes he plays. If that sounds hard, that’s because it is: But to Patrick, it’s simply become a natural part of the way he plays.

Patrick: “The power in [B.B. King’s] voice and guitar tones was one thing, but the arrangements, the horn arrangements, and the piano playing arrangements really to me opened up [to even more] melodic space. So the more chords, the more I could noodle I guess. But keeping the structure of the tune, but sort of expanding it, to make it my own.”

At times, I sense the notes you play hang in the air a little bit, but without losing the feel of the song or your place within it:

Patrick: “I always thought in terms of doing the solo leads as a solo act, like I said, implying the chord changes, so that people would know where the hell I was going. But it was always … I don’t know if was like a Zen thing where you’re in the moment. You hit a note and that goes a long way to determining what your next note is. So, it’s hit the note, react to that note, do the next note, but all in like one thought bubble. And it was always a lot of fun for me.”

Take Two: Patrick Picks Up a Nickname, “Mr. Inside,” and Shares the Story Behind It

Pat will be the first to tell you that he’s not a “jazz” player, but the sophisticated chord structures of that genre do inform what he does over more simple progressions. As he recalls, the skill itself was born out of necessity:

Patrick: “Playing with Blue Front, where you’d have a baritone player playing the root, a bass player playing the root, piano player playing the root, I couldn’t see the sense of myself playing the root as well, otherwise it’s just a wall of b-flat,” Pat laughs. “So, I started teaching myself ‘inside chords’ … half-diminished, diminished, and then, if we went from a one to a four to a four-minor, like in the song, ‘Tired of Sneaking Around’ or something like that, I found you could play an F9 instead of a C-minor and that just opened up a little more melodic space.

Patrick Lewandowski
Photo provided via Patrick Lewandowski.

I pretty much found it myself because I had to in the situation I was in with Blue Front. I had done that kind of stuff before but I had never pursued it much until I was in the band. I used to sit in with some jazz guys years ago, old farts, great fun and they used to call me Mr. Inside, and the other guitar player, Mr. Outside, because he played more standard chords, the bar chords [on the lower strings] and I was always playing the more interior chords, the III-bVs (three, flat-fives) and that kind of stuff.

What I got from listening to the jazz guys and the horn players that I played with over the years is the blue note group … the flat 3, the flat 5, the flat 9 and sometimes the sharp 1, so that sort of discordance compared to the diatonic scale is the fun part because it gives it a little tension, a little dynamic, because it’s going to need to be resolved. If you hear something that sounds a little discordant, you’ve got to make it flow into something else so that people won’t go, ‘What the f*@& is that?'”

Take Three: Original Music in Memphis, Happily Fishing Back Home Again

Asking Patrick about his experiences in blues competitions and what he learned from taking part of them, I was curious as to how his playing was received by the judges. Did he find any contemporaries that played along the same lines as himself or his duo, Two Big Guitars, with Bobby May?

Patrick: “Down in Memphis, you wouldn’t have. They like their blues competition stuff. But they like it to be a very traditional thing. They want you take something that everybody knows and play it different. When they say they want originality, they don’t mean original tunes. I found that out. What they mean is an original approach to a [familiar] song that everybody knows and recognizes. So, you don’t hear anybody doing those kinds of approaches like Bobby and I did.

If you went out later in the evening when there’s jams going on, you’d hear a lot more interesting guitar work, when people were not under the pressure of performing for judges. [In terms of the competition], the response to my playing was kind of half-and-half. Some judges would come up after my set and they’d be blown away by what I did; and the other judges were like, ‘Well if he’s gonna play like that he should have a full band behind him.’”

“Unbelievable,” I thought. “The whole damn point is that Pat can play like that without the backing band!”

Patrick: “The stuff I played was probably not something that other guys would be making money at, so basically people are telling you as a musician what they want to hear, the self-fulfillment of like … FM radio. It wasn’t all bad, the sound guys would go bat-shit over what I was playing … mostly, two out of six judges would think I was absolutely marvelous. That would be that. And, I’d take my pole and go fishing.”

The last round is on me. The evening is flying by, but I make sure to grab beers and shots for me and Patrick. “Ought to settle my nerves a little bit,” I think to myself, being that Pat has invited me up to play a couple songs at the start of his last set, so I take a second to make sure I’m in tune and ready. I play a lick.

“Crap, my guitar plays like a sidewalk,” I mutter under my breath, but still within earshot.

“It’s too late to worry about that now,” he says. “You got the intro.”

And, away we go into “Before You Accuse Me,” a standard written by Bo Diddley; but back then, recently re-recorded and released on Eric Clapton’s latest record, so it’s almost like playing a hit … on FM radio. A couple songs later, we toast, and I return to my seat to enjoy the rest of my beer and Patrick’s set.

I’m walking on sunshine and drinking in the last rays. After the show, one of the O.T. staff comes up says, “That was killer, you’ve got to do that again.”

I thank him for his “exceptional taste in music.” My ear-to-ear smile says the rest.

Still Making Music, Fishing, Gigging – Not Necessarily in That Order

Patrick and Bobby (the other “Big” guitar) still jam together on occasion. Pat chuckles a bit recalling their “one and only rehearsal during the major league baseball all-star game in July 1987.” Although Pat has largely focused on managing the surveying side of his family’s business for quite some time, he’s continued to play and perform whenever opportunity presents itself.

He recently collaborated with songwriter Adrian John Szozda on his first recordings. And, although he shrugs a bit to admit that “the cyclical nature of music in Toledo has swung back to classic rock,” he nevertheless fronted a version of a power trio harkening back to his “Blue Front” days called The Last Persuaders just last summer.

The future from here? Well, on that front, there are a few chapters and verses to go.

“I’m just thinking music. All of the stuff that pounded its way through my thick skull is still in there trying to get out,” Patrick said.

Should you get the chance to hear it, don’t miss it. Click below to see a classic solo performance from Patrick Lewandowski, or visit his Facebook to learn more. For booking information, Pat would gladly take your call at 419-467-0109; or, send him a direct message through Facebook. 

Gerald Northup
Gerald Northup
Professional writer for more than three decades. The first two as a staffer in Toledo. The last as a freelancer in Tampa. The only way I’ve made my living. Expressing ideas. Elevating ideals. A little bit of everything, just short of all things.

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