Flying Without Wings: Laurence Juber on the Guitar, the Beatles, and How He Got the Gig of a Lifetime

Studio musician, composer, classical musician, educator, photographer, producer — these are just some of the many roles guitarist Laurence Juber has played over his long and prolific career. He was also, notably, the final lead guitarist for Paul McCartney’s band Wings, playing on 1980’s Back to the Egg — winning his first Grammy for the band’s “Rockestra Theme” — and the UK tour that followed, out of which came the live hit version of “Coming Up.” 

A longtime favorite among Beatles fans, Juber is a featured guest at the 2017 New York Metro Fest for Beatles Fans, where he’ll be premiering his new album, LJ Can’t Stop Playing the Beatles. REBEAT recently spoke with him from his home in Los Angeles about his beginnings, his distinctive guitar style, his time with Wings, and his current solo work. 

REBEAT: How did you begin playing the guitar?
LAURENCE JUBER: I started playing in November 1963, which coincided with the crest of Beatlemania in England. Remember, we had it before America did, and we didn’t really have an Ed Sullivan moment, but the whole of 1963 was a steady drumbeat of Beatlemania building up.

In August of ’63, “She Loves You” came out. And of all of the Beatle records, that was the first one that really grabbed me. I turned 11 in November, a week after the Beatles had been on the Royal Command Performance — the show where John Lennon made the wisecrack about clapping your hands and rattling your jewelry.

My dad wanted me to play the saxophone, but because the Beatles were becoming so legitimate, my parents got me a guitar for my 11th birthday. I think to stop me nagging them more than anything else. I just fell in love with it, and the guitar and I became inseparable.

When I was 13, there was a local bandleader who started using me on gigs like weddings. So I learned early that I could make money playing guitar, and then it was only a short step to the ambition of becoming a studio musician, which became my overriding career goal from that time onwards.

Eventually, I went to London University and I got a degree in music. I went straight into studio work from there, having in the interim played with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. I got a lot of very broad musical experience, whether it was playing in Top 40 bands or jazz ensembles, and even a little classical, too. I just wanted to be a professional guitarist, and that was what always motivated me — still does.

How did you get interested in the fingerstyle technique and classical guitar?
It was always a parallel interest along with my ambition to be a studio musician, from the early days of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Donovan, and all the finger-picking folk players, but especially because of what was known as “folk baroque” in England.

A band called Pentangle with John Redbourn and Bert Jansch was a big motivation because I loved the self-sufficiency of the folk guitar player. You can just go into a folk club and see somebody using no amplification, playing something that was complete and didn’t need any other instruments to be satisfying.

I needed to study classical guitar in high school because I wanted to study music theory and you couldn’t do that without having certain grade levels of classical music. I studied what I look at as the Segovia paradigm, the Spanish classical guitar that was established in the concert hall. I’ve since discovered that the roots of fingerstyle guitar are very similar to what we call classical guitar, the difference being that in America, it became absorbed into popular and folk culture.

What I do as a finger stylist covers aspects of classical guitar with a similar sound and technique, and I try and draw my inspiration from the early 19th century, the founding fathers of fingerstyle/classical guitar.

I think that shows on my new album, LJ Can’t Stop Playing the Beatles, which comes out on March 3 to coincide with the Fest. I do “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and really, I don’t see very much difference between playing something like that and playing a classical piece — except for the fact that I’m doing it on steel strings without fingernails and that it has a pop sensibility.

Was it this style that attracted Paul McCartney to you when he was looking for a new guitarist for Wings?
I actually got there through being a studio musician. I was playing guitar in a house band on a TV show with David Essex, who was a big pop star in England at the time. Denny Laine was a guest on the show and Denny was, of course, the third core member of Wings at the time, along with Paul and Linda. And we did “Go Now,” Denny’s hit with the Moody Blues.

That went really well — he liked my playing and recommended me to Paul. Wings had been looking for a lead guitar player and one of the main criteria was that they wanted somebody who was versatile, and I fit the bill.

At that point the fingerstyle guitar playing was more a hobby. It wasn’t until I got into Wings and I started really composing for myself that I started to develop a real vision for it.

Cover art for Wings’ Back to the Egg

Wings’ 1980 album Back to the Egg is one of their most diverse albums, so it seems like a perfect fit. Tell me about your experience recording the album and working with Wings.
It was a great experience — I look at it as getting my Master’s degree from “McCartney University.” It was a great education — it was inspiring, it was challenging, and it was cool.

Being part of that era of Wings, you are also part of the band’s breakup. What was that time was like?
I describe that particular period as the “Indian Summer” of Wings. After the “Wings Over the World” period, Linda had James so now there were four kids in the McCartney brood, including Linda’s daughter Heather, of course. And they were starting to realize that raising a family and spending a lot of time on the road was not terribly compatible.

They had moved out of London, the kids were in school, it was clear there was not going to be nonstop touring. When Paul got busted in Japan, that was another issue because of the vulnerability aspect. And of course by the time John was assassinated, it really didn’t make a lot of sense for them to be going out on the road, and they didn’t again until the late 1980s. So that was part of it — it was starting to become incompatible with the family.

The other side was that Paul’s musical direction was tending to go more toward pop music, whereas our incarnation of Wings had developed into quite a strong rock band, as you can hear from the live Wings stuff like the live Glasgow concert that “Coming Up” came from.

So there was a bit of competition which was most exemplified by the fact that when “Coming Up” came out. Paul had done the video to his solo version, but it was the live Wings version that became the hit. And so clearly there was a tug of war going on, as it were, between the band and Paul’s artistic progression.

Once that became clear to me, I actually moved to New York, because I didn’t see the same kind of future for myself as a studio musician in London as I had prior to Wings. Steve Holley [Wings’ drummer during this time] was beginning to get involved in other projects too. Denny [Laine] was still hanging in there, but eventually there was no reason for Wings to exist anymore.

[Working with Wings] was a great experience — I look at it as getting my Master’s degree from “McCartney University.” It was a great education — it was inspiring, it was challenging, and it was cool.

What sort of work did you do after Wings, and how did your time with McCartney influence your next move?
It was influential on a few different levels. One, of course, just in terms of burnishing my resume. I was able to go into New York and, subsequently, to Los Angeles, and have a reputation that opened some doors for me.

I had met Hope, who became my wife, in New York, ironically, on April 28, 1981, and the official breakup of wings is April 27, 1981. Hope is from LA, so I ended up moving out here later that year and started getting into studio work.

An LJ Signature Martin Guitar

Over that period of about 30 years or so I played on hundreds of TV shows, like Roseanne, Home Improvement, and 7th Heaven, as well as movies — the opening credits of Splash, the soundtrack of The Big Chill, Dirty Dancing, Good Will HuntingPocahontas. I got into writing music for movies too. Hope’s dad was a TV producer and so I did some work on shows that he produced, including the score for A Very Brady Christmas.

Because we had little kids and I didn’t want to travel, studio work made a lot of sense. But as the kids get older and I started getting into fingerstyle guitar a lot more, I started doing some touring and recording at the end of the ’80s.

Over the years, I’ve been involved with different guitar companies as a clinician and as a spokesperson and developed a signature guitar with Martin guitars. I’ll also occasionally do electric guitar projects and get together with other Wing-men — Steve Holley or Denny Seiwell.

Talk about your most recent studio album, LJ Can’t Stop Playing the Beatles, which is your third album of Beatles music, in addition to your Wings-only album, One Wing. What can listeners expect from it?
It’s a collection of Beatles songs — some favorites, some of that just fell on to the guitar in a very pleasing way. It’s hard to get away from that music because it’s so good, and it’s so familiar to audiences. And it’s true that I can’t stop playing it!

My wife, Hope, produces these records, and when I recorded the first one, LJ Plays the Beatles, I wasn’t really that motivated to do an album of Beatle tunes, but people had been requesting it. Then Hope said, “If you don’t do it for anyone else, please do it for me so I can listen to something in the car.” And I said, “Well, okay, I’ll do the album but I want you to produce it.”

We love working together. And that was one of the other lessons I learned from being in Wings: a husband and wife actually working together creatively and successfully.

The new album, I think, is a progression from the others. I try and constantly add new ideas to what I do, and over the course of the last couple of years I’ve been dipping into the early-Romantic, 19th-Century classical guitar, so it’s using that kind of fingerstyle consciousness with a different kind of repertoire.

Will Fest-goers get to hear a live preview?
Oh, yes. I have two solo concerts at the Fest: a full concert on the mainstage at 6:15 on Saturday, and on Sunday at 2:10, I’m on the Apple Jam stage. Both will be focusing on the new release. And at 6:45 on Friday we’ll be doing a tribute to George in the Ashram.

Hope has a good story about when I was working with him, and I’ll play a couple of tunes and maybe we’ll do a little meditation. And on Saturday and Sunday nights I’ll be playing electric guitar with Steve Holley, Denny Seiwell, and some of the members of Liverpool (the Fest house band), doing a set of Wings tunes.

Another project of interest to Fest-goers is the 2014 book you published about your time with Wings, Guitar with Wings. Will you be doing book signings as well?
Yes, I’ll have a table where I’ll be selling the new CD and the book. This is the book has all the pictures I took when I was in the band, so a lot of fly-on-the-wall pictures from the Back to the Egg sessions, along with my brother’s pictures from one of the Wembley shows in December of ’79 on the UK tour. And all within the context of my own story and history. So you can get more details on my career. It’s a fun book. It was a lot of work, but I was very pleased with the outcome.

What else is coming up for you?
I’m working on what I think will be a jazz record. Hope and I started our own record label last year so we’ve got some archival stuff we’re going to release. She used to have a comedy rock ‘n’ roll band called the Housewives, and we have an album of theirs that was never digitally released.

We’ve been working on some protest-rock songs in light of the current political era — the Nasty Housewives. Their latest is “The Ballad of the Massacre of Bowling Green.”

I’ve also been getting deeper and deeper into music education, advising the Los Angeles school district on developing a curriculum that bridges the gap between the classical and rock side. I encourage kids to learn guitar because, of all the musical instruments, the guitar is the most portable, versatile, affordable, and capable of a complete musical statement.

I have a lecture/recital, “Guitar Mania to Beatlemania,” a history of the guitar that dovetails with the history of Martin guitars, because the Martin guitar company has been around since 1873 and has been at the center of lots of developments in American guitar music. It’s an honor to be associated with them for my signature guitar and signature strings.

What do you think it is about the Beatles that makes them so enduring across generations?
The Beatles transcended their era. I think you have to look at it in the same way as you look at Beethoven or Mozart — they somehow managed through their brilliance to tap into something that is more universal than simply the fashion of the particular musical period.

I don’t think the Beatles’ music is ever going to go away — it’s become canonical. It’s great for teaching, it’s great education. It’s such a substantial body of work that was done in a remarkably short period of time. You’re really just looking at about seven or eight years in terms of record making, and then they were done.

Once they became successful, they were no longer the performing band that they had been, like the live band that they had previously been. I mean, before they ever had a hit record, they were probably the greatest cover band ever. If you look at their repertoire and how they had transitioned from that into becoming enormously successful solo artists, it’s a fascinating thing.

It was amazing to me when I first came to New York as a Wing. I had no idea, by comparison with the way the Beatles were seen in England where of course, they were kind of homegrown. I had no idea just how revered they were in America. But it dawned on me very quickly that the American experience of the Beatles was very different from the English experience. It was far more explosive [in the US].

LJ Can’t Stop Playing the Beatles and Guitar with Wings: A Photographic Memoir are both available on Amazon. Catch Laurence Juber all three days at the 2017 NY Metro Fest For Beatles Fans, and learn more at his website or on Facebook.

About Erika White 63 Articles
Erika White is simply obsessed with music and culture of the '60s and '70s. Her writing focuses on the Beatles and the incredible fandom that has kept their legacy growing for five decades and counting. Erika is also a graphic designer, musical theatre geek, rabid Whovian, and Anglophile who lives in the NYC metro area. Check out her Beatles website and follow her on Twitter.
  • Jer

    Great interview Erika. LJ is the best and you can see why Paul wanted him as the last Wings guitarist. He was so good last weekend at the Chicago Fest!