When I was eleven, my parents sent me to a summer camp run by Christian Brothers in Southeastern Maryland. There was the usual swimming, hiking, and softball, but what really caught my attention were the campfire sing-alongs. Two teenage boys had guitars, and could play the popular folk songs of the day, such as “Michael row your boat ashore” and “If I had a hammer.” I had never seen live musicians before, and I was fascinated by their ability to strum chords and make those wooden boxes with strings come alive.
Later that year, the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. My dad showed me an article in The Washington Post about it, with two small photos side by side, of Paul McCartney and Moe Howard from the Three Stooges. I guess that’s the only frame of reference they had at the time for that kind of haircut. Anyway, I was camped in front of the TV on Sunday night when the show came on, and after the Beatles played, I said, “That’s what I want to do.” (And so did thousands of other kids just like me.)
I hounded my dad to get me a guitar. He kept saying, “You’ll never learn to play it, it’ll just sit in the closet.” But finally, he took me to a pawnshop and bought me a $13 “Stadium” brand acoustic guitar. It was a pretty crummy instrument, but I immediately started to learn some chords and simple rock riffs. I remember sitting on my front steps one day with my guitar when a neighborhood kid walked up and showed me how to play the opening riff to “Secret Agent Man.” I thought that was so cool. I played it over and over again until I drove my family crazy.
In eighth grade I got a used electric guitar, a Fender Jaguar, and formed a band with some of my friends. We started playing at teen clubs and school dances, with a repertoire of songs like “Louie Louie” and “Gloria.” Those bands were really rough, with everyone just having the most basic skills on their instruments.
When I entered high school, it was the age of the singer-songwriter, and I sold my electric guitar and got a Yamaha acoustic. I taught myself to fingerpick and sing harmony by listening to Simon and Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills and Nash records, and formed a folk group that played at school functions and retirement homes.
After high school, I went to college, but I wasn’t much of a student, and I dropped out after a year and went to work for the Post Office. I really just wanted to play music, but I didn’t have any idea how to go about it. Then, a guy I had known in high school, Steve Yudowich, called me up and convinced me to quit my job and move with him down to Roanoke, Virginia, to form a band with a guy Steve knew. We rented a house up in the mountains from an old farmer, and spent a summer writing and rehearsing, until we had a falling out with the other guy and Steve and I moved to Richmond, Virginia. We formed a duo, called “The Turkeys” and played at the campus beer joints around VCU.
After that, I bounced around for a couple of years, playing at crab shacks in Ocean City, Maryland and coffeehouses in Virginia, until I landed a steady gig with a trio at a Holiday Inn lounge. Playing five nights a week, I honed my guitar and singing skills, and made enough money to buy a new car and upgrade my equipment.
I had become a professional guitar player.