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October 6, 2005

Blues Guitarist Paul Pena

Written by
cindy mcleod

San Francisco blues guitarist Paul Pena, who wrote one of the Steve Miller Band’s greatest hits, died Saturday of complications from diabetes and pancreatitis. He was 55. Pena is perhaps best known for penning Jet Airliner, a top ten hit in 1977 for Miller.

Born in Hyannis, Mass, Pena was almost completely blind and suffered various illnesses throughout his short life. He was a self-taught musician who learned to play guitar and several other instruments in his youth. During the 70’s, he moved to San Francisco, where his band opened for the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, and Merle Saunders, among others. He also played guitar for such blues greats as T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, and Bonnie Raitt, who says of Pena, “He’s like having my very own Jimi Hendrix. There’s simply nothing he can’t play well.”

In 1999, Pena was the subject of the Academy Award nominated documentary Genghis Blues, which tells the story of how he took up Tuvan throat singing (producing distinct vocal chord sounds simultaneously) after hearing the art form on shortwave radio broadcast. He so impressed Kongar-ol Ondar, a Tuvan master of the artform, he bestowed upon Pena the nickname ‘Earthquake’, and invited him to participate in the competition held annually in Tuva. In 1995 Pena won several awards in the competition, and captured the hearts of the locals. The story is recounted in the film.

Pena is survived by his parents, Jack and Virginia Pena of Harwich, Mass., and two brothers, Jim of Lynnfield, Mass., and Peter of Bridgewater, Mass.

Memorial services are to be announced.

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