I have often been amazed at the talent all around us, and if you’re like me, you often ask yourself, “How do they do it?” Sometimes those with these unique gifts make it look so easy we think, “I can do that.” I remember when the Beatles first came to the states and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. While many artists appeared years before the Beatles, they were credited with ushering in what is referred to as the “British Invasion.” There was something extraordinary about them that everyone wanted to emulate and ride their coattails to success, including us kids. I was in elementary school then, and my father thought it would be a grand idea for my brother and me to learn the accordion. So periodically, we would bring our accordions into school and play for our classmates.
Unfortunately for me, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Doors ruined my career on the accordion as my classmates didn’t want to hear me play “Fascination,” or “The Volga Boatman;” they wanted to hear “She Loves You,” “Satisfaction” or “Light My Fire.” Despite my father’s urgings, I quickly ditched the accordion for the more popular guitar and later got into a band. My father said I could take guitar lessons only if I continued with the accordion. I guess he wanted to carry on the rich musical tradition of his father, who attained fame as a composer of opera and was the voice coach of world-renowned opera singer Enrico Caruso. After a half dozen lessons, my accordion/guitar teacher said, “It is very apparent you are no longer practicing the accordion. What puzzles me is you can’t play “Little Brown Jug,” which I gave you to learn on the guitar, but somehow you can play “Light My Fire.” I knew I had reached my right of passage and was on a journey with my friends to a musical career as a rock and roll band guitarist. My bandmates and I thought fame and fortune were just around the corner, as we could now tell our classmates we were in a rock n roll band called “The Illusion.” I never realized how fitting that name was until my father, after hearing one of our band practices in our basement, came down and said, “If my father was still alive and heard this trash you call music, he would destroy the instruments.” I guess it was an illusion; we just didn’t realize it at the time. For someone like myself who was pretty much self-taught how to play the guitar, I compare myself to some musicians today who are self-taught and think, “I would have been better off picking up a rake.
To me, nothing sings more to my soul than music from those British Invasion years and the groups who followed them. However, when I hear some bands cover these songs, I want to listen to them played like the original artists who recorded them. Perhaps I have some of my father in me, as he wasn’t so interested in hearing the interpretation as much as how the song was originally performed. Don’t get me wrong; many artists have done excellent jobs covering songs written and performed by the original artist. Still, when it comes to rock and roll, I love to hear it performed as close to how it was originally written. Two groups come to mind where the members were self-taught on several instruments or took their skills to a higher level that went well beyond the lessons learned. They are “The Alter Eagles” and “Mike Imbasciani and his Bluez Rockerz.”
I’ve followed Mike since he was a solo act and so young they had to pass around a hat for people to tip him for his performance. Over the years, this guitar virtuoso astounds me each time I see him. Talented and highly personable, I find it amazing that he can play lead guitar solo riffs without missing a note, all while walking through the crowd and periodically stopping to engage people in the audience in a short conversation. Most people haven’t mastered the art of walking and chewing gum at the same time, yet Mike can hold a conversation with you while entertaining the rest of the audience. And if you have enjoyed the music of Eric Clapton over the years, Mike’s tribute to this famed artist takes you on a historical journey where he masterfully weaves the inspiring moments of Clapton’s career with the music of that time.
Over the years, I’ve learned the difference between a “cover band” and a “tribute band,” The Alter Eagles are a tribute band that vocally and instrumentally sound precisely like the original Eagles. Todd Pitts, the founder of the band, is self-taught on multiple instruments and has an exceptional vocal range. To read the bios of band members Todd McNamee, Ken Custalow, Tim McMaster, Guy Ruvolo, and Michael Beattie, you will quickly appreciate how they execute each song. Equally engaging and entertaining, I’m amazed at how not one but an entire group of individuals can come together with such precision yet make it look so easy and not just on their instruments. Guy slides over from his drums to keyboard, and guitarists Todd Pitts and Ken Custalow take turns putting aside their guitars to move on to the drums without missing a beat, leaving the audience astounded at the talent on display. I then think of my father’s comments and realize he wasn’t trying to discourage us but to let us know in his way that there is a great deal of passion and innate ability that create those pieces that move us, whether it is in the form of a painting, writing or song. I also realize that we are all born with unique gifts.
When asked how we can create the things we do, we often find ourselves at a loss for words in trying to explain what comes naturally to us but would be a challenge for others. I learned that lesson the hard way while building a deck with my son. While my father was not handy, somehow, I picked up an ability to see things and create them. Our son, who was helping me, asked, “Dad, how do you know how to do this? You make it look so easy?” I was at a loss for words and replied, “I don’t know, I just do.” Unfortunately for me, my wife was within close earshot of my response and, giving me “the look,” said, “That taught him absolutely nothing.” I then shared with him that there is often much thought before the project, making the result look more effortless. You have a mental image of how you want it to look, and then you mentally figure out how to accomplish it; almost like solving a puzzle in your mind.”
Recently I read an interview of a musician commenting on Paul McCartney’s success as a composer. He said, “McCartney’s lack of formal training not only allowed him to think outside the box but also kept him delightfully unaware there was a box in the first place.”
While I find music ignites the creativity in me, there are those among us whose special gift or vision inspires us and brings us a particular joy and satisfaction. Even if we can’t duplicate the works they have created, somehow our souls have been touched, and we gain the youthful desire to try. And that is what keeps us young in mind and spirit.