Gabor Szabo
b: March 8, 1936. d: February 26, 1982.

Faces was critically neglected and sold rather poorly. But it ultimately became the last Gabor Szabo record released in his adopted homeland, America. It was not, however, the last album he made.

In early January 1978, the guitarist again ventured to Sweden and recorded Belsta River, an often exciting fusion record that teamed him with guitarist Janne Schaffer and former Frank Zappa bassist, Pekka Pohjola.

Later in the month Szabo returned again to Hungary where he was filmed live in performance at the Budapest Hilton Hotel for a Hungarian television special – later released on CD as Gabor Szabo In Budapest Again.

Following his return to the United States, the guitarist became actively involved in L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology. Seeking relief from a heroin habit he began while still with Chico Hamilton many years before, he enrolled in the Narconon program, a rehabilitation division of Scientology. Szabo would perform charity concerts throughout California for the benefit of the Church.

By November, he had met and befriended prominent Scientologist Chick Corea and signed with Vanguard Artists International, a management agency reputedly affiliated with the church and directed by Corea.

Gabor Szabo signing With Vanguard (c. 1978)

Szabo was signed by Atlantic Records in 1979. In June of that year, he started recording what ultimately became Femme Fatale for his label debut. The album, which features a duet with Chick Corea on the pianist’s “Out of the Night,” did not appeal to the brass at Atlantic: Szabo and the record were rejected and the Atlantic deal was ended. (It’s also very possible, if not likely, that Szabo’s entanglements with Scientology had much to do with the decision.)

The guitarist lobbied other American companies to release the album, but was curiously unsuccessful. This was no doubt due to Atlantic’s ownership of the tapes. Eventually, though, Szabo acquired (some or all of) the album masters. He would take them to Europe in 1981, where he got the state-owned Hungarian label Pepita to release the album later that year.

In July 1979, Szabo performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Joe Beck (el-g), Mike Richmond (b) and Dannie Richmond (d) and as part of the George Wein Festival in London with luminaries Dizzy GillespieMilt JacksonB.B. King and Stan Getz.

The Montreux performance was recorded and was intended for release on Norman Schwartz’s Gryphon label. Schwartz, who formerly managed Szabo’s Skye label and was still managing Szabo in a limited manner, issued other 1979 Montreux performances on his Gryphon label – but, for whatever reason, and to this day, the Szabo/Beck performance remains unissued.

During this time, Szabo befriended Marianne Almassey, a recently-divorced Hungarian model living at the time in Los Angeles, a neighbor of Szabo’s. The two rapidly developed a deep, emotional relationship and Szabo soon lavished much of his time and attention upon this lovely, bewitching woman. She became his muse and the two stayed together right up through Szabo’s death in 1982.

Ms. Almassey can be seen on the striking cover photograph on Femme Fatale – an album Szabo initally wanted to call “Marianne.” She relocated back to Budapest, where she remains as of this writing.

By February 1980, Szabo felt increasingly enslaved and betrayed by Scientology, telling friends “they’re turning me into a zombie.” He brought a $21 million lawsuit against the church and Vanguard Artists International, charging misappropriation of funds, miscalculation of fees, financial coercing and failure to pay Szabo’s taxes. The suit failed to survive arbitration and was dropped early the following year.

Szabo performed infrequently during this time, devoting much of his time to Marianne and fighting off the demons of his heroin habit. Pianist and old friend, Richard Thompson was, however, able to coax Szabo back into playing more regularly again.

The L.A. trio Thompson maintained with Bob Morin on drums now included Greg Lee, a talented young bassist who ably endured comparison to predecessor Wolfgang Melz. This group seemed to help Gabor discover new stills of energy, enthusiasm and creativity. Together, they accepted the challenge of tapping the limits of each other’s talents. There was no reliance on formula, no patented licks for support and flirtations with pop music were curtailed in favor of true soul searching innate of new worlds of invention.

But by 1981, Gabor Szabo was feeling frustrated, tired and sought relief from the pressures of his habit by returning to his homeland. He was determined to get his record released.

Limited edition telefoncard of the Matáv (Hungarian Telecom) issued in Hungary in November 2002 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Gabor Szabo’s death. Courtesy of Béla Simády.

Accompanied by Marianne, Szabo departed in July for Hungary one last time. Once there, he reunited with old friends Attila Garay (piano) and Peter Dando (electric bass) and was interviewed by Hungarian television for the popular TV show Pulzus (his performance of “From A Dream” here is included on the CD Gabor Szabo In Budapest Again).

Szabo performed occasionally while in Budapest and happily secured the release of his final studio recording, Femme Fatale.

The guitarist was hospitalized in early December, which at this point was not an uncommon occurrence. Friends in the United States grew concerned that he remained hospitalized well past Christmas and into January.

For his part, Gabor Szabo was becoming more anxious for his health to improve so he might return home with Marianne. He promised Richard Thompson there would be “no more Christmases ruined by me,” saying he wanted to record a Christmas album with his American group upon his return to the states. 

But on February 26, 1982, Gabor Szabo finally succumbed to the liver and kidney ailments he suffered and died in the hospital. There were no more Christmases. He was buried in Budapest.

Gabor Szabo’s gravesite in Budapest, Hungary.
His mother, who died in 1989, is buried in the same plot. Photo courtesy of Frank Van Etten (Nov. 2005)
Gabor Szabo’s gravesite with a rose
graciously featuring my name,
courtesy of Frank Van Etten (Nov. 2005)