Beginning Excerpt from the Guitar Player article - September 1979 issue
WHAT’S IN A NAME “Bill Lawrence by Don Menn




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Bill Lawrence - legally known as Willi Lorenz Stich, professionally know as Billy Lorento, and once almost known as Bela Lorentowsky - runs Bill Lawrence Products which manufactures pickups and strings. That doesn’t tell all. He was probably the first well-known, single-string jazz guitarist in Germany. He is, as well - literally and figuratively - a towering legend in the pickup field, having served as a consultant for companies foreign-based ( Framus) and domestic
( Gibson) where he helped to revolutionize the design of pickups, be they magnetic, single - or double-coil, standard or humbucking. As an instrument customizer, he and Dan Armstrong once even had a go at rewiring Jimi Hendrix’s guitars ( though they both remain mum to this day about what exactly they did [ see "Guitars, Amps and Devices," GP, Sept. '75] ).

Lawrence was born March 24, 1931, in Wahn-Heide, eight miles southeast of Cologne, West Germany. Hitler came into power when Bill was two. War came into his neighborhood when Bill was eight. You would not think him to be especially sensitive to subaudible vibrations. The most impressionable chunk of Lawrence's life was spent with Germany's largest artillery range in his backyard. "Quite noisy," he says. "Germany became an army camp. There were streets blocked off for troop training with 88mm antiaircraft guns. When the military had maneuvers, they lost ammunition and equipment all the time. It was quite common for a kid to walk into school and say, "Look, I found a machine gun." Or, if it were only part of a machine gun, the other kids would bring out their fragments and try to piece together an entire weapon together.

Such was Bill's early experience with things mechanical. It also included removing pins from grenades, hoarding gunpowder and spent shells, building rockets, and digging detonation devices out of 1,000-lb bombs. The youngsters even played darts on a grand scale with homemade rockets 40" long and 4" in diameter, with a five mile range. "The boys would say," Bill says, "Look! You see that tree over there? Let's see if we can hit it." There was little margin for error in his days, any of which could turn out to be a Fourth of July or twelfth of never for someone. Still, even when one friend was killed, Bill recalls, "The kids didn't take it seriously. They just said, 'He was careless; this cannot happen to us.'" This did not happen to Bill, but "it" tried. Lawrence shot himself through the leg with a homemade gun when he was eight. And today, his hands are etched with scars - the thin, white, reminders of explosions in his paws.

Given the environment and times, this was all normal boyhood behavior, and, as is normal, it soon gave way to greater variety. At age eight, Bill began supplementing his rocketry with violin lessons and the study of counterpoint. But it was he and not his concert violin career that was launched one fine day five years later. Bill had attached rockets to the rear of his bicycle for extra umph. But at blast-off he coursed a more erratic trajectory than planned. He rolled, pitched, and yawed his flesh and bones down, through and under a haystack. At least it hadn't been a wall. At least he was alive. He sat in a hospital and raised arms like fishhooks with surprises. From his right hung a hand with a single break. From his left dangled a mitt with seven fractures. A specialist did his best, and Bill tried his hardest for several more years, but he just could never could hold that violin right again, ever.

When Lawrence was 14 years and one week old, the Americans occupied Cologne, and, for the residents there, the war was over. With high marks in English, Lawrence became an interpreter for the American Army stationed in Cologne. After four months the American forces were moved to the south, and northwest Germany became British occupied territory. Bill then worked as an interpreter for the British military and half a year later for the Royal Air Force. During this time he first heard recordings of the King Cole Trio, the Les Paul Trio, and the big bands led by Glen Miller, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Artie Shaw, and others.

Particularly struck with the playing of guitar innovators Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel, Oscar Moore and Les Paul, Bill abandoned violin and embraced guitar. He began thumping out single-string lines of his own. Soon his was proficient. Soon he was the best in Germany. " I switched to the guitar in 1946, " Lawrence says. "With six others I started a group, and we played successfully in British and Belgian military clubs. The radio we listened to was AFN {American Forces Network}. That's where we first heard Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. We started to play bebop. I had an English 20-watt military amp with a big, metal outdoor speaker. I mounted a record player cartridge into the bridge of my guitar to amplify it. The sound was horrible, loud, and distorted. The first gig I got playing electric was at a dinner party in a Belgian officers club. We started with 'Cherokee' fast and loud, and before the tune was ended, we found ourselves with our instruments in the street. We had no penny in our pockets and had to walk eight miles to get home. With the help of an engineer in a tape recorder company I built my first magnetic pickup. Now I sounded nice - still distorted, but nice."

After the War, money had no value. There was little food, and the currency in the streets was American or English cigarettes. Star salary for a musician was 50 cigarettes a night. With cigarettes one could buy butter, bread or meat. For two cartons of Lucky Stripes one could buy a Leica camera. By 1947, Lawrence started to perform in Cologne at the Hot Club '47. He also played and jammed in the Cafe Arnold. Still, his growing preemminence as a musician did not ensure the safety of his flesh. Bill and his "dirty American music" kept attracting bricks from the hands of irate locals. "Such people were a part of a low-clan mob that still lived in a time where books had been burned if the author was not Aryan," Bill explained. "Any kind of Gypsy, Black or Jewish music had been forbidden. It's poor situation when culture is defined by its Aryan or non-Aryan origin. And that's just what happened. It was absurd. Goebbels, the German Minister of Propaganda, had even gone so far as to ask Richard Strauss to write a new theme for Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream since the original music had been written by Felix Mendelssohn, who was Jewish, the same Felix Mendelssohn who rediscovered and performed the works of Joahnn Sebastian Bach which had been forgotten. Strauss refused Goebbel's order. Strauss asked, "How can anyone write a piece of music that is more perfectly suited to this play?" That took courage. Musicians, composers and conductors, not to mention great inventors teachers, writers, scholars and sciencists - Albert Einstein, for instance - had been forced to leave Germany or were thrown into concentration camps. To even read a poem by Heinrich Heine could have led you to imprisonment or death. Musicians had found a way around some of this. If you wanted to play something by someone like Gershwin, you just wrote some phony, dumb title in German on top of the printed lead sheet. 'Tiger Rag" they'd call 'Tiger Jagd.'" Clever but not funny. Lawrence says the memory of that era still makes him feel sick.

By 1948, the center of jazz in Germany had shifted to Frankfurt. Lawrence moved there. Still a pile of rubble, the town was aswarm with American and German jazz players, scurrying like rats at four in the morning to the next jam session. Nazi racism gradually lifted. Forbidden styles came back into vogue. Jazz became acceptable, in some quarters, even popular.

By 1951, Bill was established as the best known of the emerging crop of German guitarists.

More to come.....

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