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L.A. at Large

Payback Time for a Beloved Guitar Man

When Westwood Music's owner faced cancer, members of the rock aristocracy organized a benefit concert

August 07, 2000|PATTI DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

People buying tickets for a two-night concert at the Santa Monica Civic on Tuesday and Wednesday with Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt might be puzzled that it's a benefit concert for Fred Walecki and family.

No, he hasn't been in the news or featured on "Extra." Walecki owns a music store--Westwood Music, a place that's been in his family since he was born 53 years ago. He's sold guitars to some of the most well-known names in music, and has been entrusted with the repair of valuable and beloved instruments.

In the '70s, when Los Angeles was home to more rock music stars than anywhere on earth, it wasn't unusual to walk into the store, then located on Westwood Boulevard, and see Browne or Neil Young trying out a guitar, or the Eagles' Glenn Frey buying guitar picks.

It was a place where musicians loved to hang out, the place where somebody like Bonnie Raitt, who went to University High with Walecki, might phone from the road in urgent need of a replacement guitar. It was a place, too, where Fred might look you in the eye and tell you you were wrecking your life with drugs and needed to go into treatment. Several people would come to feel they owed him their sobriety.

Walecki was always available, always cheerful, and always seen with a cigarette. Several months ago, he got the diagnosis: throat cancer, growing so quickly that there was no choice but to remove his voice box. He now speaks through an artificial-voice device, requiring him to hold a small microphone to his throat.

Those close to Walecki knew that despite his positive outlook and the resilience of his wife, Cathy, and their two young children, the medical expenses not covered by his insurance were more than he could handle.

Enter Bernie Leadon, an old friend and one of the four original Eagles, and Glyn Johns, the legendary producer who has worked with the Beatles, Eric Clapton, the Eagles and the Rolling Stones. The idea for a benefit concert was born.

"Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne and David Crosby were the first to say yes," Leadon says. Crosby suggested they contact Tom Campbell, whose company, the Guacamole Fund, has put together benefit concerts on behalf of individuals and social issues for the past 25 years.

Each artist who was approached committed without hesitation: Warren Zevon, Chris Hillman and Randy Meisner joined the list. Browne came up with the concert billing, "Gathering of the Clan," which the musicians said symbolized the way they'd gathered for so long under Fred's roof.

"Not a sweeter soul walks this earth," said Hillman.

"When I grow up, I want to be Fred Walecki," Harris added.

"They're paying him back for his kindness and generosity over the years," Glyn Johns said earlier this week as he prepared to fly here from London for the concert.

The latest addition is Don Henley, who has been on tour, and has adjusted his schedule to perform Wednesday night.

"I've learned a lot about strength and character just by watching Walecki go through this ordeal," Henley said.

Walecki's father, Herman Walecki, opened the store in 1947, catering mostly to classical musicians. Fred started working there when he was 14, repairing instruments. Four years later his father died. Fred quit school and took over the store, changing its focus to the guitar-based music he'd grown up with.

The store has been located on Santa Monica Boulevard for the last six years and--like other small music stores and bookstores--has lost business to the new mega-stores that offer lower prices but less camaraderie.

Walecki has been moved by the attention. He fondly recounts a moment in the hospital when, under the haze of sedation, he pressed a button to summon a nurse for more pain medication, only to have Henley walk into the room first for an unexpected visit.

"If someone offered to give me back my voice in exchange for knowing this kind of friendship," he said, "I wouldn't take the offer."

"If someone offered to give me back my voice in exchange for knowing this kind of friendship, I wouldn't take the offer."

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