A life of music hits the page and stage

by | Oct 18, 2015 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

After 30 years of penning columns at the Detroit Free Press, I should confess: Writing was not my first love. Music was. As I kid, I dreamed not of broadsheets but of sheet music, not of the Bard but the Beatles. I always saw myself behind a keyboard, but not the kind with letters.

I tried a music career. I failed. I moved to New York City, studied piano, wrote songs, knocked on the doors of record companies and cobbled together this band or that band, playing in dingy nightclubs, hoping for a break.

In the end, it wasn’t meant to be. My love of music was overwhelming, but my opportunities were not. While working nights as a pianist in a dive bar, I volunteered for a day job at a weekly newspaper.

And my path was changed forever.

Since then, I have rarely written about music. Thousands of columns, assorted magazine pieces, a dozen books, yet I barely touched the subject. I’m not sure why. A therapist might have an idea.

But oddly enough, as I dove deeper into journalism and novels, I made many musical friends. They often wanted to talk about my job, just as I wanted to talk about theirs.

Things evolve. On Nov. 8, at the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit, a number of those friends will join me in a charity event that finally brings together my two worlds.

Thirty some years after they split apart.

An incredible marquee

Rock legend Ted Nugent will be there. As will singer Michael Bolton, jazz great Earl Klugh, young star Sawyer Fredericks (latest winner of “The Voice”), R&B great Kem, Roger McGuinn (founder of the Byrds), guitarist John Pizzarelli, Phredley Brown (Bruno Mars’ musical director and Detroit’s own), rocker Brent James, singer Olivia Millerschin, guitarist Vito Lafata and others. They will play, sing and talk about the unique passion of music.

We also will be joined by Grosse Pointe Woods native J.K. Simmons, the Oscar-winning actor from “Whiplash,” one of the most intense movies about music ever made.

The purpose of the night is to help our needy citizens, and every cent of profit will support the efforts of S.A.Y. Detroit, which I found almost 10 years ago and which this week reopens a long-closed rec center at Lipke Park as an academic and athletic jewel for our kids.

But the evening itself will be draped in music — and storytelling. After a lifetime of avoiding the subject, I’ve finally written a novel that says everything I’ve always wanted to say about my first love. I began with the idea of a magical guitar player who was so gifted he could change people’s lives with his playing.

Nearly 500 pages later, I stopped.

The book is “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto,” to be released Nov. 10 by Harper, and it follows its hero along a Forest Gump-like journey through 20th-Century music. He’s an orphan, he gets sent to America in the bottom of a boat, he becomes an Elvis-like star, then disappears for decades until he dies on stage, mysteriously.

I got so into the project that I asked real musicians to be a part of the fictional story. They agreed, and voices from Burt Bacharach to Darlene Love to Paul Stanley from Kiss are on the pages, sharing “memories” of Frankie Presto.

Some of those voices — including Pizzarelli’s and McGuinn’s — will be there on Nov. 8, meaning fantasy and reality will have guitars around their necks.

And a few new musical dreams may be kindled.

A celebration for Detroit

You see, the money raised will go in part to the Lipke Park renewal, where S.A.Y. Detroit invited the charity Notes for Notes to build a state-of-the-art recording studio inside the rec center, located in one of Detroit’s most challenged neighborhoods.

It is my hope that studio launches the dreams of future musicians. If I’d had a place like that as a kid, who knows how far I might have gone?

One of the themes of “Frankie Presto” is that “everyone joins a band in this life.” Every family, workplace, school or peer group is a band. So is being a Detroiter. The homegrown talent on the Fox stage Nov. 8 (Nugent, Klugh, Kem, Brown, Simmons and several others) know that. It’s part of why they’re coming.

I hope you’ll join us (see the ticket information below). Everyone who attends will get an autographed book and, even better, will be treated to a unique night of hearing why musicians do what they do. We’ve done these nights before (with Ernie Harwell, Judge Damon Keith, others) and they are always memorable.

It’s funny. In composing, there is a term called “da capo” that tells you to go “back to the beginning.” Nov. 8 will feel a bit like that. Perhaps this life has been more musical than I thought.

Tickets for “An Evening With Mitch Albom & Friends,” 7 p.m. Nov. 8 at the Fox Theatre, are $50, include an autographed book and are available at ticketmaster.com, olympiaentertainment.com, Fox Theatre, Joe Louis Arena, Hockeytown Authentics and 800-745-3000. More info, Page 16C.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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