USA TODAY NETWORK Tim Evans, The Indianapolis Star 10:21 p.m. EST December 7, 2015
INDIANAPOLIS -- Music store owner Amos Arthur took a chance in 1958 and ordered a new, odd-shaped electric guitar.
Photo by: Joe Bonamassa
The instrument made by Gibson didn’t have the gently rounded body that had been the industry standard for more than a century. Instead, playing off a post-war design trend that borrowed heavily from the world of aviation, the angular slab of the guitar’s body was more akin to a rocket or the jutting tail fins of a new Cadillac.
Gibson dubbed it the Flying V. But it landed with a thud.
The new guitar was immediately lambasted as ugly. Even laughable.
Arthur ordered one in spite of the initial negative reaction. If nothing else, the shrewd businessman thought, the futuristic-looking guitar would be a fun conversation piece and draw customers to the Fountain Square music store he'd opened with his wife, Leola, in 1952.
The Flying V that Gibson sent to Arthur’s store — serial number 8-2857 — was among the first made in a run of only 81 the company shipped to dealers in 1958. Fewer than 100 would be made before production stopped in 1959.
The newfangled guitar proved to be just the “talker” and marketing tool Arthur envisioned — a legacy that, through a remarkable series of recent events, has taken on a new life nearly 60 years later.
Arthur featured his new Flying V in newspaper ads for the store. One showed the store owner playing the Gibson. He's dressed in a cardigan sweater, white shirt, neck tie and dress slacks. Holding the pointy guitar, which years later would become synonymous with heavy metal music, Arthur looked more like Ozzie Nelson than Ozzy Osbourne.
The guitar also played a role in another promotion aimed at attracting people to Fountain Square and Arthur's small business. In the summer of 1959, Arthur's employee Kenny Si was photographed after climbing onto the music store roof with the Flying V to give a guitar lesson to a young woman in the midst of a pole-sitting stunt sponsored by the store and a local radio station.
Despite the Flying V's less-than-stellar reception from the guitar-buying public, someone snatched up Arthur's angular six-string in 1959. It was an unceremonious event. Just another in a long line of guitars sold. Life and business went on.
All that remained of the odd-shaped guitar over the next six decades were memories and a few fading black-and-white photographs.
Lost in time
Arthur continued selling guitars and other musical equipment from his small store until his retirement in 1978. When he stepped away from the business, his daughter, Linda Osborne, took the reins. Later, her daughter, Amy England, joined the business.
Interest in the Flying V that Arthur had sold in 1959 was rekindled a few years ago when England began posting old photos — including the pictures of her grandfather and Kenny Si — on the store's Facebook page. That coincided with a booming collector market in which original Flying Vs became highly coveted vintage electric guitars.
But no one knew what happened to it. The store didn’t have a record of who purchased the guitar. Over the years, however, there were rumors about its fate.
Photo Caption: Former Indianapolis music Store owner Amos Arthur plays a 1958 Gibson Flying V guitar in a photograph taken for a store advertisement.
One story had it owned by Eric Clapton.
Another had it tossed in a Fountain Square dumpster by a man after his son broke the guitar’s headstock.
No one really knew, though — not for sure.
That is, not until September.
The story of the journey of Amos Arthur’s Flying V is as fantastical as any of the rumors it displaced. And last month, that amazing tale came full circle.
Star's new guitar
Joe Bonamassa, a Grammy nominated blues-rock guitarist and singer known as a guitar player's guitar player, got the itch to own an original Flying V after doing a series of concerts last summer he called the "Three Kings Tour." The show was a tribute to blues guitarists Albert King, B.B. King and Freddie King.
Bonamassa, who began his musical career as a 12-year-old opening for B.B. King, is a self-proclaimed "guitar geek" who has amassed a large collection of vintage instruments and amplifiers. But he didn't have an original Flying V.
"A friend of mine was nice enough to loan me not one but two of his original Flying Vs for the tour to do the Albert (King) stuff," he explained. "The Flying V just had such a great sound. Much different. I normally play a sunburst Les Paul and I thought it would cover all the bases. But when I plugged the V in, it was just incredible."
Bonamassa knew Norman Harris, owner of Norman's Rare Guitars in Los Angeles, had an original Flying V.
"So I rang him up and I said, ‘Hey Norm, I know you just saw me play at the Greek Theatre and I had the Flying V … would you ever think about selling the one you’ve had for 40 years?’" the guitarist recalled.
"I expected him to either say no or maybe in a couple years. But he goes 'yeah, 'I’ve had it for 40 years and it’s kind of fun but, you know, I want to see it go to a good guy and somebody who’s going to play it and enjoy it.'"
Bonamassa jumped at the opening.
"I’m your guy," he told Harris.
Photo Caption: A friend had given Bonamassa copies of historic photographs of the 1958 Flying V years before he purchased the guitar. The musician had used them for screen savers.
In September, he added it to his collection.
The musician-collector didn't know the guitar's history when he purchased it, but it didn't take long for Bonamassa and his guitar technician to figure out the vintage instrument's Hoosier pedigree once they saw the serial number.
And when they did, Bonamassa said, he did a double-take.
It was the same guitar in pictures he had used as a computer screen saver and on his cell phone — images a friend shared with Bonamassa years earlier. They were copies of the historic photographs of Amos Arthur and Kenny Si with the unique guitar. The images England had posted on the store's Facebook page.
"I’d had those pictures in my phone and as my screen saver for many years," Bonamassa said. "I was like 'you’ve got to be kidding me.'"
The return flight
Bonamassa wouldn't divulge what he paid Harris for the guitar, which was advertised in a 1958 Gibson catalog at a price of $247.50. But he did say it's value today would be in the half-million dollar range.
Harris had purchased the Flying V in about 1975, but said he didn't recall who he got it from. Nor did he know anything about its whereabouts from the day it left Arthur's Music in 1959 until it landed in his shop.
"I had it for years," Harris said. "It was an integral part of my collection. It was a major guitar. Gibson only made about 91 of them."
The 1958 Flying V is a rare vestige, Harris said, "of the Golden Age of guitar making." Despite technological advances, he explained, the aged wood and original electronic components used in those guitars created a sound aficionados believe surpasses anything made today.
"When they got this design down," he said, "they nailed it."
During the time he owned the guitar, Harris said, it was photographed and featured in numerous collector books and magazines in the U.S. and abroad. And next summer, it will be among guitars featured in a new book Harris is writing.
The Flying V from Arthur's Music also had a role in the 1984 mocumentary This Is Spinal Tap. It was among fictional guitarist Nigel Tufnel's large collection of rare guitars.
Harris wasn't actively trying to sell the guitar, but decided to part with it at the request of Bonamassa, his longtime friend and customer.
To Bonamassa, there's more to collecting than just acquiring a rare guitar.
"You collect history and stories," he explained, "just as much as you collect instruments."
The quest to gather stories and the history of his new Flying V brought Bonamassa to Indianapolis last month.
“I said, ‘why don’t we take the guitar back?'" Bonamassa recalled telling his manager and guitar tech. "This would be one hell of a guitar safari, one hell of a story, to have this very rare guitar that’s been kind of lost for over 40 years or more, you know, return in 2015, almost 56 years later.’”
So Bonamassa, his guitar tech and manager climbed onto a plane and flew to Indianapolis. Befitting a guitar of its name and value, the Flying V also traveled first class.
"We were laughing because we’re such guitar nerds, we’re so into it," Bonamassa said. "I bought a seat for the guitar. The guitar’s on a seat on the plane. It’s just crazy."
(Photo: Joe Bonamassa)
The 1958 Flying V landed back on the counter at Arthur's Music Store last month along with a photo of store founder Amos Arthur playing the guitar in 1958.
It was a Friday afternoon when Bonamassa and his friends walked through the front door of Arthur's Music. They were there to document the history and stories about the guitar Bonamassa has dubbed "Amos" — and to share a mutual appreciation of the rare instrument with Osborne, England and store employees.
The guitar-crazy rock star was just as unassuming as the small music store, Osborne said. He showed up wearing jeans, sneakers and a "Duff" beer baseball cap. Bonamassa graciously posed for a photo with a stunned customer, and gave the man's young daughter a personalized guitar pick.
When Bonamassa opened the Flying V's original case — which, alone, is valued at $30,000-$40,000 — to reveal the aging guitar, it was like Christmas morning.
"I love the fact that Arthur’s Music is still open. I love the fact that we brought it back," he said. "Just to see the look on Amy and Linda’s face when that guitar was put back on the counter ... It was just one of those things where you end up going 'wow this is what collecting is all about.'"
"Amazing," is how England recalled the unveiling.
"We all got cold chills," Osborne added. "Amy was just touch, touch, touch. She couldn't keep her hands off it."
"We didn't get to play it," England said, "but we all got to hold it and have a picture taken."
Bonamassa also made sure he got plenty of pictures — including one he had in mind long before he climbed onto the plane for the flight to Indiana.
One of his goals for the trip, he said, was to recreate the 1959 image of Kenny Si standing on the store roof with the Flying V. That is, as long as the roof was safe enough for him and his new half-million-dollar guitar. And it was.
"There’s no way I wasn’t getting on the roof," he explained. "The shot on top of Arthur’s Music is one of my favorite photos of me ever."
Back in time
After ogling the Flying V and taking pictures, Osborne and England showed Bonamassa and his friends around the 63-year-old music store Arthur cobbled together from three small houses on South Shelby Street. The place doesn't look all that much different than it did when Bonamassa's guitar was new in the late 1950s. They even took him into Amos Arthur's studio, where Bonamassa spent several minutes playing Arthur's 1960 Gibson l4-CES guitar, and then to the store's basement.
"They were digging through everything," Osborne said. "It was just like American Pickers."
The guitarheads bought a few items, and Osborne and England gave them a few others, including Arthur's T-shirts and a "legacy" guitar strap emblazoned with images of Amos Arthur with the 1958 Flying V.
"It was great to walk into Arthur's and see that history," Bonamassa said. "You walk into that shop and you go, man, this is a direct link to see ... what a music store in the '50s would have been like. It was totally inspirational. It was a great trip for everybody."
Bonamassa added it was great to see the third generation of the Arthur family keeping the store going.
(Photo: Joe Bonamassa)
Bonamassa plays his 1958 Flying V during a recent concert.
"Mom-and-pop music shops are rapidly going away," he said. "I applaud the Arthur family for sticking it out through the lean times and the great times. Brick-and-mortar retail is coming to a rapid close. It’s very, very difficult to keep a shop open and customers happy."
The business — the oldest, continually running with the same owners, music store in Indiana — was honored by the National Association of Music Merchants in 2013 and again this year as one of the top 100 music dealers in America.
Publicity about Bonamassa's trip back to Indianapolis with his Flying V created a buzz in vintage guitar collecting circles — thanks to the Internet and the musician's savvy and far-reaching social media presence.
Nearly 60 years after Arthur took a chance on the strange-looking guitar he hoped would be a "talker" and draw attention to his family business, his hunch is paying off again. This time, though, it is attracting international attention. Since Bonamassa started sharing his "new" guitar's history on social media, the store has been contacted by vintage guitar fans from as far away as Germany and Australia.
"Mostly they just want to talk to us and make a connection," Osborne said. "Another lady from the northside of Indianapolis drove down here just to be in the store — and she brought us Famous Amos cookies, which was nice."
Now, England and Osborne are hoping, that notoriety will also lead to even more talk — specifically information that will help them and Bonamassa fill the gap in the guitar's history that spans 1959 to 1975.
In the meantime, Bonamassa said "Amos" won't be hidden away in its case or displayed on a wall.
"It’s 50 feet away in a rack, ready to rock tonight," he said during an interview before a recent concert. "It’s been played every night. I wouldn’t have forked out that kind of money to have it sit at home and look at it."