Schwartz Stories #3: Stephen Michael Schwartz and The Race For His Coveted 1923 Martin Guitar
Plus, his 1975 touring band finally revealed!
This Schwartz Stories #3 is a bit of a grab-bag, as we’ve uncovered some more info from two events that were large parts of previous Exclusive Interview sections. The first one takes us back to Exclusive Interview Pt. 4, where Stephen Michael Schwartz found himself opening a concert gig with Paul Williams in Bellingham, WA. For a refresher, that episode can be found here:
RCA Records had released Stephen’s self-titled debut album in August 1974, and feeling the need to hit the road, he began auditioning and rehearsing prospective musicians who could travel. You’ll recall that Stephen’s album had employed all the best LA studio musicians, none of whom could (or wanted to) leave their cushy studio gigs for a road tour.
It took weeks of auditioning, choosing, and then rehearsing his new road band for the March 9, 1975 Williams/Bellingham gig. Stephen wracked his brain, recently, to try to recall just who ended up hitting the road with him!
Just as it was in the studio for Album #1, and back at RCA Studio A for the first four songs of aborted Album #2, Stephen’s one-night touring band was (if not at the time because of their youth and inexperience), a stellar collection of talented and eventually-celebrated musicians!
Click on their respective blue links below, and you’ll notice that while building star-studded playing resumes over the decades since, many have won recording awards, and some have even become award-winning producers!
Load the Bus: Roll Call!
“This is a tough one given I couldn’t find any solid notes or even pay stubs to verify the musicians I used, so I’m going by memory. But this seems right. Realize we only did one performance, but lots of rehearsals. Crazy!!!!
“Me on guitar and vocals
Robbie Buchanan on keyboards
Richie Zito on electric guitar
Jeff Eyrich on bass
Willie Ornelas, drums
Carmen Twillie, background vocals” (A gal named Afrika joined Carmen on back-up vocals, but Stephen couldn’t recall her last name)
“Composed by Elton John, with lyrics by Tim Rice, the song was performed by Carmen Twillie (the deep female lead vocals) and Lebo M. (born Lebohang Morake), with opening vocals (in words he wrote) in Zulu as the film's opening song:
Race For the Mint Martin: The One That Got Away
“Funny you should ask about that guitar.” Stephen was responding to my question about a special axe he once described to me. “There is a great story behind it:
“Back before we had ‘Craig’s List’ or even the internet, there was a weekly paper called The Recycler. Every city had their own version. It was chock-full of used items for sale in all sorts of categories. I would diligently grab mine each week, and thumb through the ‘musical instrument section’ in search of great offers on guitars.
“Along with McCabe’s Guitar Shop, which was west of Los Angeles, near the beach in Santa Monica, there was another guitar store in Tarzana, near where I lived, in the San Fernando Valley, Norman’s Rare Guitars.
“Norman’s was very well known by the elite musicians of the time living in Topanga Canyon or Laurel Canyon: Stephen Stills, David Crosby, James Taylor, Neil Young, among others.”
“The owner was Norman Harris. I knew Norman pretty well, as I frequented the store many times to see what new (old) inventory he had. The vibe in the store and the guitar collections hanging on the wall were similar to McCabe’s in that they catered to vintage, expensive and rare musical items...thus, the name Norman's Rare Guitars.”
“OK, I’ve set the stage for the story:
“As usual, I would buy my Recycler, which came out every Thursday, turn to my favorite section, and suddenly there it was: An ad for ‘a 1923 Martin guitar w/case, price $175 obo (or best offer).’
“I call the number, speak with what was clearly an elderly woman, and asked her a few questions about the guitar. She knew very little about it, but said it had been under her bed in its case for many, many years. ‘It was small and dark brown,’ she said.
“I told her I’d be right over to look at it.
“It turns out she lived in the city of Downey, a good hour away from my home in Canoga Park. If the guitar was in great shape, for that price, I would have driven to the moon.
“I hopped on the famous 101 Freeway (made famous in song, ‘Ventura Highway,’ by the group, America), for the long haul to Downey. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a car and a face I'm all-too-familiar with: It's Norman, and he's looking determined to get somewhere!
“I know exactly where he's headed...Downey!! Suddenly, he recognizes me, and the race is on! We bob and weave through traffic. Suddenly I lose him. Don't know if he's ahead of me or behind me.
“I finally make it to the address I was given and pull up to the house. No sign of Norman’s car. I rush up to the door and knock. I’m greeted by a lovely older woman, maybe 70-plus years old. She shows me the guitar. It’s in pristine condition. I give her the exact amount she was asking for...$175. No need to haggle down. She was satisfied that I met her price without quibbling.
“I shook her hand, and as I turned to leave, Norman pulls up, seeing me walking out with a 3/4-size guitar case. He’s pissed, but gives me a ‘congratulatory smile.’
“‘Can I see it?’ he asks. I oblige him, opening up the case to reveal a treasure of a guitar: A mint condition, 1923 Martin 0021 Koa wood.
“Every time after that, when I saw him, Norman would ask me, ‘How's that guitar doing?’
“Norman had tons of great guitars in his shop, but I think this was the one that got away!”
Schwartz Stories #1 & #2 here:
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