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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.’ ”
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.
Willie’s American Guitars owner Nate Westgor and Paul “Bleem” Claesgens at Westgor’s shop in St. Paul. Westgor held a reissued copy of a 1958 Gibson Les Paul Custom guitar. Claesgens returned Jimmy Page’s missing guitar and got this 1959 Gibson Les Paul Custom in a trade.
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.\
Courtesy of the Star Tribune