Joe Keefe’s guitar has been kicked in, nearly stolen and literally under fire. Yet decades later, it carries a tune better than it ever did.
“It’s kind of like a nine-life cat thing I guess,” said Keefe of Kennewick, a musician and guitar teacher who also has a studio out at Ted Brown Music.
Keefe recently got to play the rare F-25 Gibson acoustic for the first time in 44 years.
Marv Thomas, an acquaintance who repairs guitars, recently wrote Keefe a letter to say he still had the guitar. Keefe had dropped it off with Thomas in 1972.
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“I’m going ‘What?! He had this guitar all this time?” Keefe said.
What followed was the idea for a band reunion, and it all started because Thomas heard one of Keefe’s songs, titled No Cats Mentioned in the Bible, on the radio.
Keefe received the guitar as a gift in 1964 after he graduated from Richland High School. His first band, Four Winds, split up, followed later by another band called The New Dawn.
Keefe met his wife, the former Sharon Scharnhorst, while playing with The New Dawn, best described as a folk rock group. Other members of the band were Ken Finley, Julie O’Connor and Ken Sanders.
The guitar’s first brush with trouble happened when Keefe and some friends were at a conference in California. Someone robbed the cabin they were staying in. Keefe’s guitar, however, was tucked away safely under a bed.
The guitar’s good luck did not continue. It was later trapped in the trunk of a car that burst into flames.
“All of us were standing there and waiting for it to explode,” Keefe said.
Another driver pulled up before the flames spread and offered to try throwing what he could out of the trunk. They saw him throw the guitar case — which was on fire — out of the trunk before the car was engulfed.
The guitar was fine. The case was not.
It was amazing. We haven’t sang together since 1968. It was cool.
Joe Keefe, The New Dawn
Later, in 1972, someone smashed the guitar’s back panel.
“This guitar got a foot through it,” Keefe said, unable to recall how it happened.
That’s when Keefe gave the guitar to Thomas, who offered to fix it up for him. Some years passed. Keefe forgot about it and acquired new guitars.
He and Sharon kept the music going. She was not always able to play, since she also worked as an elementary school teacher in Pasco.
“Joe just had the passion for music and stayed with it,” Sharon said.
In 1991, the Keefes had No Cats Mentioned in the Bible and several other songs broadcast on the Dr. Demento radio show. The program ended its run when Dr. Demento retired around 2007.
But their songs were still featured on other radio stations.
“We didn’t even know it was still being played,” Sharon said. “That was kind of weird.”
‘A chance in a million’
Years later, Thomas just happened to be in his living room in Deming, Wash., near Bellingham, when he heard a song on the radio about one of his favorite things — cats.
The announcer said it was Joe and Sharon Keefe, performing No Cats Mentioned in the Bible.
After doing his own research, Thomas sent the letter to Keefe — he still had the guitar, and it was repaired and ready for pickup.
“He said ‘It’s yours, you can come get it,’ ” Keefe said. “It’s just a chance in a million when he happened to be in the room when the song played.”
In June, Keefe drove to Deming with his son, Bob, to see Thomas, the repairman he hadn’t seen since 1972.
Bob, who also repairs guitars at Ted Brown, said the serial number on the guitar shows that it was made around early 1963, the first year Gibson started to make the F-25 models.
Neither of them knew what to expect on the ride up. They drove close to the middle of nowhere, and eventually turned into the trees. That’s when they found Thomas’ house in a remote woodland location.
Thomas led them to an upstairs living room. The guitar, looking as good as ever, was neatly perched on a red sofa seat.
“It was just amazing that it turned up the way it did,” Bob said.
The previously destroyed back now had fresh mahogany wood on it. Thomas had completely redone the saddle on the guitar’s bridge, putting it at an angle and giving it the perfect tune.
Thomas didn’t want any money for the work. Keefe insisted Thomas take $300 for a job well done.
”He didn’t want to take it, but I kind of forced it on him,” Keefe said.
Almost five decades apart
After getting his guitar back, Keefe heard from O’Connor, who also played in The New Dawn. She had a CD she wanted to share, but wasn’t expecting to hear the story about the old guitar.
O’Connor was also about to celebrate her 70th birthday and wanted to see if the Keefes wanted to jam together.
“We were just planning on getting together and then she suggested we find Ken (Finley),” Sharon said.
And so the Keefes, Finley and O’Connor played together in September, their first gathering in 48 years. Sanders, who’s also Sharon’s cousin, was the only band member not present.
“We had such a strong bond of friendship, experience and faith, it was like we’d never been gone,” Sharon said.
“It was amazing,” Keefe said. “We haven’t sang together since 1968. It was cool.”
They’re not planning any large public shows, but the Keefes are confident they’ll have a full-blown reunion with all The New Dawn members this coming spring or summer.
As for Joe Keefe, he’s glad to be reunited with his favorite instrument after all the chaos it went through.
“I’m going to use this guitar for good,” he said.