Paul Pena Dead at 55

Hard-luck "Jet Airliner" writer became accomplished throat singer

October 5, 2005 12:00 AM ET

Legendary folk-blues singer-guitarist Paul Pena died in San Francisco on October 1st from complications related to diabetes and pancreatitis. He was fifty-five.

Born in Massachusetts and blind from childhood, Pena played alongside such blues greats as T. Bone Walker, B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt, and released his first, self-titled album in 1972 on Capital Records. The next year, he wrote and recorded "Jet Airliner," which became a Top Ten hit for the Steve Miller Band in 1977, and its royalties provided Pena with income for years to follow.

He began work on a second album in 1973, but the tapes were shelved when he left the music business to tend to his ailing wife, Babe, who died of kidney failure in 1991. In 1984, Pena was reintroduced to the music scene when he became interested in throat singing after hearing a broadcast from Tuva, in southern Siberia, on a shortwave radio. He later taught himself the skill by listening to recordings.

Pena was invited by Kongar-Ol Ondar, one of the world's foremost throat singers, to participate in Tuva's annual competition. His 1995 travel to Tuva was captured in the 1999 Academy Award-nominated documentary Genghis Blues.

Pena's long-delayed second album, New Train -- featuring his original version of "Jet Airliner" -- was finally released to much critical acclaim in 2000.

Pena is survived by his parents and two brothers.

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