This is the story of Black Beauty. Not the horse, but a legendary guitar. And the people who possessed it. Or were possessed by it.
Black Beauty has been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It has been heard on such 1960s classics as Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.” And it spent 45 anonymous years in the Twin Cities, mostly in the hands of a musician who didn’t know he had an instrument that was stolen from guitar god Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin.
The saga of Page’s Black Beauty — a 1960 Les Paul Custom Gibson electric guitar — features a threatening thief, a cash-hungry widow, the occult, black-light forensics, a circumspect go-between and a whole lotta rock ’n’ roll. The tale has more twists and turns than “Stairway to Heaven.”
“Jimmy’s really into the occult. I don’t know if he put a curse on the guitar,” said Twin Cities vintage-guitar maven Nate Westgor, owner of Willie’s American Guitars, who twice had Black Beauty in his St. Paul shop. “I had it in my house for a couple of months, and it kind of freaked me out.”
The super-private Page has a reputation of being fascinated with black magic and the supernatural. He even purchased controversial occultist Aleister Crowley’s manor in 1971.
The reality is that Black Beauty is “Jimmy’s Rosebud,” said Westgor, referring to the mysteriously cherished sled in the classic movie “Citizen Kane.”
Page acquired his coveted Les Paul Custom when he was 18, in 1962, via layaway from a London music shop for a then princely sum of 185 pounds. Given its various features, this instrument offered more versatility for an in-demand studio guitarist who was often doing three different recording sessions per day, never knowing in advance what was expected of him. Page recorded with the Kinks, the Who, Marianne Faithfull, Them, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Lulu, Joe Cocker, Donovan, Petula Clark and even the Beatles.
Page also gigged in bands, notably the Yardbirds and, starting in 1968, Led Zeppelin, which regularly performed in the United States. In April 1970, the British heavyweights rocked the old Met Center in Bloomington, with Montreal as their next stop. That was the first U.S. tour on which Page brought his beloved Black Beauty.
Stolen at MSP?
As legend has it, the guitar was stolen by a baggage attendant at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
“That guy was a black belt and threatened to kill anybody,” Westgor said.
Desperate to find his prized guitar, Page ran ads in Rolling Stone, seeking its return “no questions asked.” Crickets. Whenever on tour in North America, he stopped by many a guitar shop looking for his lost instrument.
Apparently, the guitar — which had been remodeled to remove some of Page’s telltale customizations but not the serial number — remained under the thief’s bed until about 1992, when it showed up at Westgor’s then four-year-old shop.
“A guy walks in and says, ‘I have Jimmy Page’s guitar.’ I’d never seen this guy before.”
The mystery man said he paid $5,000 to the widow of the baggage carrier who stole it. Westgor acquired it for that same amount.
However, evaluations by Westgor and fellow St. Paul vintage-guitar dealer Pete Alenov (who reached out to Page’s people) determined that it wasn’t the purloined instrument. So Westgor sold it for $5,500 to one of his employees, Paul Claesgens, aka Bleem, of the Twin Cities power-pop trio Propeller.
“The thing sounded like the voice of God when you played it,” Claesgens said last week.
Not knowing he had a super-valuable guitar, Claesgens sometimes used the instrument to shield against beer bottles tossed at the stage, and he occasionally left his Les Paul overnight in Wisconsin clubs, fully expecting it to be there for the next night’s gig.
In 2014, Claesgens brought the guitar to Willie’s for repairs. And Westgor, being the guitar geek he is, put it under black light.
“People that do cars will use black light to see flaws. Same thing with guitars,” Westgor explained. “After lacquer sits for a while, it sinks. And the guitar began to show itself.”
That “sinking” enabled him to discover the screw holes for Page’s two extra toggle switches that had been removed and covered up. And, along with a particularly distinctive mother of pearl fret, Westgor confirmed that this was indeed the long-lost Black Beauty.
Even though Westgor knew that Claesgens, down on his luck because of extensive medical bills, could use the money if he sold the pre-eminent guitar, they agreed to do the right thing, and return Black Beauty to Page.
Negotiating the return
In the past 30 years, Westgor has done business with Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and some of the biggest names in rock, but he didn’t have a Page connection. So he reached out to his contacts in the Rolling Stones camp. They suggested a go-between.
Producer/musician Perry Margouleff, a friend of Page’s, collects vintage guitars and owns a recording studio in New York’s Long Island. Margouleff and Westgor hatched a solution: Page would give Claesgens a comparable Les Paul Custom — a 1959 model, value about $45,000 — in exchange for Black Beauty. (Guitar geeks: Only 189 of these 1960 Les Paul Customs were shipped, 246 for the ’59 version.)
In October 2015, Westgor drove Black Beauty — he didn’t dare fly with it — to Texas, where he met Margouleff at the Arlington Guitar Show for the swap. The go-between then delivered Black Beauty to Page in London.
“When I told Jimmy in 1987 that I’d make a mission to find his guitar, I thought the probability was very small,” Margouleff said last week. “I was astonished when I finally had it in my hands.
“When I brought the guitar to his home, he was just so happy. It was an incredibly emotional moment. We sat and had a cup of tea and discussed the events of getting the guitar back for a good 20 minutes before he opened the case. He just couldn’t believe it.”
Margouleff then called Westgor and handed the phone to Page.
“We talked a bit about old guitars,” Westgor recalled. “He said, ‘I can’t thank you and this Bleem fellow enough.’ I told him the guitar has a story to tell with a fairy-tale ending. Jimmy said, ‘Yes, exactly. Brilliant. It is a novel.’ ”
Claesgens — that Bleem fellow — never heard a word from Page, though he’s happy with his replacement guitar. He recorded with it this week with his band Brass Elephant.
No comments from Page
The ever-inscrutable Page made no public comments about the return of Black Beauty. In 2019, it finally resurfaced publicly as one of seven Page guitars in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
Page acknowledges the return of Black Beauty in his new book “The Anthology,” coming this fall, which is what prompted Westgor to finally share this saga.
The rock hero devotes an entire page to the mystery, with few details. He points out that his pal Margouleff was able to positively identify Black Beauty because the 12th fret has “an unusual mother of pearl inlay that had a stripe across it.”
Writes Page: “I found it hard to believe that I was going to get the guitar back after all those years.”
What is Black Beauty worth? If a guitar belonging to Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain went for a record $6 million at auction this summer, Westgor guesstimates Page’s prize is worth $10 million. Not that Page would ever part with his Rosebud.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719