Being related (by marriage) to one of the richest men in America is an interesting (not uncomplicated) experience. I remember when Zygi, a lifelong football fanatic, called about six years ago to inform me that he and his brother had purchased the Minnesota Vikings. Hmm, there goes 600 million dollars.
Family events are most often lavish affairs with hangers on galore, but there are benefits- the music in particular. Last week Zygi and Audrey threw an engagement party for our niece Elana and her fiancé Brett at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The flamboyant party planner they use arranged to have all of the seating, which sits on risers, disappear; he turned the venue into a three-tiered living room, with plush velour couches on every level. We walked in, I said goodbye to my wife Jerri, grabbed a martini, and sat about 15 feet from the stage while a procession of spectacular musicians displayed their wares. Wynton hit the floor at about 10 p.m. and he was just as good- but no better- than the bad to the bone talent assembled around him.
Last year my sis-in-law threw a smaller party for Zyg’s 60th birthday at some beaucoup de cool restaurant in the village. Word had it that an event for Obama was the only other time the place had been shut down to the public. The food and wine were good, but I walked in with a bigger buzz, having had a great recording session that day at BiCoastal Studios, Hal Winer’s place in Ossining, NY. I was floored by what I heard.
A brief preamble: back in the day I concertized on the classical guitar, so I have an understanding and appreciation for finger pick guitar stylings. There on the stage were two players; one keeping time in a supporting role, and the second- Adam Rafferty- holding court. Man, this guy is good!
Adam manages his concert career and distributes his instructional DVDs and CDs- including the latest, “I Remember Michael,” a tribute to the king of pop which just landed on Jazziz magazine’s top ten list of 2011 releases- using the tools of the new order. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, look for Adam on YouTube, and most definitely migrate over to his website www.adamrafferty.com to check him out.
We spoke the other day.
Gary Eskow: What influence did Chet have on your development as a finger style guitar player?
Adam Rafferty: “Chet Atkins? Funny, he wasn’t a major influence on me growing up.
I’m coming to him these days by way of my friend Tommy Emmanuel, the great Australian guitarist. I’ve become awestruck by guys like Chet and Les Paul, seeing how much they contributed, how good they were onstage, and how they turned people on to the guitar.”
GE: Where did you grow up, and what was your early musical training?
AR: “I grew up on the upper west side of New York city- W. 111th Street, to be exact. My dad played the guitar and sang a bit. At the age of five or six I began taking lessons from Woody Mann, a player who still tours and gigs.
“Woody was into the finger style blues tradition. He showed me licks by Rev. Gary Davis and some of the other old masters. Woody was a cool teacher to have, a gut level guy who had also studied with Lennie Tristano and knew harmony and theory. I liked playing the blues, it’s part of my roots, but I quickly moved over to the jazz side of the room.
“When I was 15 I started taking classical guitar lessons with Dennis Cinelli, a student of Fred Hand’s [my old teacher!]. Eventually I went to SUNY Purchase. I graduated on the six year plan. I ended up really enjoying my time at Purchase but the first year was miserable; the classical guitar department was an extremely competitive environment with a lot of dogmatic teachers. At this time, around 1988, studio engineering classes were beginning to flourish. I enjoyed those courses tremendously.
“I was trying to expand throughout my college years. I even fronted a hip hop group as a rapper. When I met Mike Longo, who had been Dizzy Gillespie’s piano player, the school let me study with him outside, play gigs, and eventually graduate as a jazz major, although technically Purchase didn’t have a jazz department at that time.”
GE: You graduated… and then?
AR: “Everyone who graduates from college thinks that a scroll from the sky will unfold and reveal the path you’re supposed to follow. I did, at least, but it didn’t work out that way. I scuffled around, playing gigs for organ/singer/entertainer guys up in Harlem, working clubs three or four nights a week. It got to be a weird, late night scene with lots of alcohol and drugs at these clubs. I bounced around, did various odd jobs, taught guitar, and learned how to build websites for people.
“I spent some time playing straight ahead jazz while trying to find tour dates. I played in Austria, in Germany, but it was extremely difficult. I wasn’t an avant garde player like Mike Stern or John Scofield. My style, grounded in the Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, George Benson tradition, was not considered fresh by a lot of people. I kept at it for about 15 years, had some great times, but found it very difficult to sustain a career.”
“Eventually I realized that it wasn’t working for me. I took about a year off, reassesed what I was doing, and discovered Tommy Emmanuel. The togetherness of his presentation is so world class and appealing, and the material so direct, that I realized this was a model I could use to develop my own entertainment style.
“Life got immediately better once I started playing solo guitar. Out of a survival need I had to change, to make my music appealing to more people. This personal change coincided with the onset of the YouTube explosion. A couple of my videos- “Superstition” and “Billie Jean”- caught fire when I put them up in 2007. They each have had over a million hits on YouTube. Of course it’s all relative; some people have a million subscribers, but that number of hits is not insignificant. Those two songs helped my career enormously. Lots of players have copied my arrangements and put their own perfomances up on the web.
“People started e-mailing me asking if I’d post guitar tablature arrangements of the songs, and that led to the DVD instructional aspect of my business. I made a DVD of Stevie Wonder material, one on the Jackson 5, and I’m now assembling a second Stevie Wonder DVD. This work constitutes more than half of my income.”
GE: Your website is packed with content. You mentioned that you built sites for other people in the past. Do you take care of yours?
AR: “Yes. It’s critical to update a site regularly. Google just announced that they’re going to revise their engine, making it faster. That will up the ante even more, because Google will hit the latest entries first.
“YouTube is the funnel, the place where people find me, so I post material there on a regular basis. I use my schlocky flip cam for those videos, but I do record the audio seperately.
“The video quality of the instructional DVD’s is very important. I met a couple of guys on Long Island several years ago who have multimedia, design and advertising firm. They do a great job.”
GE: Where do you track your records?
AR: “I’ve made four solo CDs, two of which I recorded here at my place. I thought I could just throw up a couple of mics in front of a guitar. How terrible could it be? My micing technique has gotten better over the last five years, but for “I Remember Michael” I wanted to go into a professional studio.
“I went out the twinz records studio in River Edge, New Jersey. Manfred Knoop, the engineer, did a wonderful job. Unfortunately, he passed away shortly after this record was made.”
GE: Did you hire a promotional company to help you market “I Remember Michael?”
AR: “I called several PR companies, and I did end up paying for radio promotion for a period of eight weeks. That was a fabulous experience. The traditional print and media PR people charge a lot of money, though, and they can’t guarantee that you’ll get anything out of their efforts. I spoke to Tommy Emmanuel’s manager and the advice I got was to save 10 grand and market the material myself, which is what I’m doing.”
GE: So the lesson is, don’t way for the scroll to unfurl?
AR: “Yeah, I think so! For me, taking the time to think things through led me to the realization that what was most important was to use music as a tool to make connections with people in a very concrete way. That changed my style, my career choices, and it’s put me in a great place.”