Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Back in His Arms

By Beverly Keel

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  On a recent Thursday evening, Ed King received the call of his life. A nurse informed the former Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist that the heart he had been awaiting for two years was available immediately. After endless days and nights waiting for this call, King had to make a split-second decision. Without hesitation, the 47-year-old turned the heart down. "She asked how I felt, and I told her I hadn't felt this good in three years," says King, who suffers from cardiomyopathy. "I told her, `If you had called me a year ago, I would've taken it.' "

Given the way King's luck had been going, it's amazing he was even offered a heart. Two years ago, he was forced off the road by doctors; as a result, he was edged out of the band. When he wasn't dealing with divorce proceedings, he became embroiled in legal battles over his removal from Lynyrd Skynyrd.

So why would he turn down a perfectly good heart, especially when the one he has is in such bad condition? As it turns out, King's luck had already begun to change. And the burst of good news gave him the courage to go with what his defective heart told him. Whether it's his heart or his music, King prefers original equipment.

For years, King had been on an exhaustive search for a 1959 Gibson Les Paul guitar that had been stolen at gunpoint from his New Jersey home in 1987. Over the past decade, King, who now lives in Nashville, had diligently called every pawn and guitar shop in every town he visited. Just hours before he received the call from the nurse, King had gotten another call from attorney Diana Lopo. She called to tell him that her client, New York billionaire Dirk Ziff, had agreed to return King's long-lost Les Paul.

After all the searching King had done, it was only through a complicated series of events that he was finally able to track down his instrument. In March, he attended a guitar show in Dallas--the last trip his doctors allowed him to take. He stumbled upon a booth promoting the book The Beauty of the 'Burst (which, incidentally, was printed only in Japanese). After thumbing through the first 15 pages, he recognized his guitar by a distinctive red blotch near the toggle switch. At first he couldn't believe it, but he returned the next day and bought the book. "I didn't have the serial number with me, so I spent the weekend just looking at the photo saying, `There's no other guitar that looks like this.' I just knew it had to be mine."

One of 1,700 Les Pauls made by Gibson in 1959, King's guitar is now valued at $40,000. "They are in a world all by themselves," he says. "To a guitar player like myself who grew up in the '60s and '70s, the 1959 Les Paul was the ultimate blues guitar. The guitar seems to play itself; it can cry and scream and evoke almost any emotion you can imagine. There isn't any guitar being made today that can do that."

King returned to Nashville and matched the guitar's serial number in the book with the one on an old inventory list. Unfortunately, the New Jersey State Police couldn't help him because the statute of limitations had expired on the stolen instrument. So he decided to focus on Perry Margouleff, the collector featured in the guitar book. King's girlfriend, Sharon Brock, eventually tracked down Margouleff's Long Island address on the Internet.

Ed King with his 1959 Gibson Les Paul.
Photo by Eric England.
Before he went any further, King called a guitar expert in Florida, who told him that Margouleff acted as the chief procurer of guitars for Dirk Ziff. Brock quickly returned to her computer to find out more about the billionaire, who she soon learned was an avid guitar collector and player. He was, she also learned, the largest individual contributor to the Democratic Party in 1996.

Visiting the Web site of a band called The Gathering Field, Brock got a glimpse of Ziff's "secret" studio in New York. On the site, bassist Eric Reibling described the walls, which were lined with rare and exotic guitars. "And these were just the ones for playing," Reibling wrote. "The other ones were in a vault you could only enter after donning one of the felt jumpsuits at the entrance."

Armed with this knowledge, King called Margouleff, who said he purchased the guitar in 1988 from Hollywood-based Voltage Guitars for $9,500 and had then traded it to a friend. "Would that friend be Dirk Ziff?" King asked. Confirming his suspicion, Margouleff offered to help get the guitar back; he wouldn't, however, accept any further calls from King.

In April, King sent a certified letter to Ziff outlining his position. "As a musician, you understand that there's a special relationship that develops between a player and certain guitars," he wrote. "I have that relationship with this guitar. My musical creativity has all but ceased this past year due to the stress of needing a heart transplant, going through a divorce, and having my bandmates turn their backs on me. The hope of getting my guitar back has changed my outlook on the future. I pray that it might bring my music back."

In early July, after being led to believe that the guitar's rightful owner was Lumberman's Mutual Casualty, the company that originally insured the guitar, Ziff's attorneys offered to buy the instrument. But even then, it still wasn't clear who had rights to the guitar. "Mr. Ziff's attorneys spent the next several months trying to establish who was the current owner of the guitar--Mr. King or the insurance company," says Ziff spokesman Tim Metz. "Repeated approaches to the insurance company seeking relevant claim records were unavailing."

King received a letter, dated July 28, from Lumberman's attorneys stating that the company could not verify that a claim had been paid; therefore, it could not help King recover his guitar. He was free to pursue it on his own. After receiving this verification from Lumberman's attorneys, Ziff finally offered either to return or to purchase the guitar.

King, of course, opted for the guitar's return. Former Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Mike Estes flew to New York to retrieve it; upon Estes' return to Nashville, King greeted him curbside at the airport. After placing his prized possession in the back of his Chevy Suburban, he drove only a few miles before deciding he had to see it right there and then. "I pulled into an Amoco station under the lights," King says. "I just stood there and stared at it."

Once home, King restrung and tuned the guitar--and instantly felt inspired to compose a new song. "It will probably be the only guitar I'll ever use again," says King, who hopes he can also stick with his original vital organs. "I'm still sick, and I still need a heart. But it may be two years, and who knows what technology will develop by then?"

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