The Tao of Esteban

Confounding all his critics, an aging Scottsdale lounge guitarist transforms himself into the heartthrob of TV's Home Shopping Network

Esteban is stressed out and exhausted.

The immensely popular Tempe-based flamenco guitarist usually spends about three months recording an album, but, for reasons that have more to do with marketing than art, he's given himself only a week to cut an ambitious double CD, called At Home With Esteban.

It's a Friday afternoon, day five of recording, but the days and hours have begun to blur at the Sound Lab, a state-of-the-art studio nestled behind an allergy lab in south Tempe. All week, Esteban has followed the same grueling schedule: get to the studio at 10 a.m., lay down tracks for 16 hours, go home at 2 a.m.

Man in black: Esteban, flanked by guitar cases and a Harley-Davidson pinball machine, relaxes in the music room of his Tempe home.
Man in black: Esteban, flanked by guitar cases and a Harley-Davidson pinball machine, relaxes in the music room of his Tempe home.
Man in black: Esteban, flanked by guitar cases and a Harley-Davidson pinball machine, relaxes in the music room of his Tempe home.
Paolo Vescia
Man in black: Esteban, flanked by guitar cases and a Harley-Davidson pinball machine, relaxes in the music room of his Tempe home.

Recording should have been completed by now, but Esteban has decided to cut one final tune, a solo version of an old Russian folk song that, in English form, provided Mary Hopkin with the 1968 hit "Those Were the Days." Normally, he has sheet music to work from, but since this song is a late addition, he's having to rely on a skeletal chord chart -- and his own memory.

If one of his many devoted fans walked into the Sound Lab today, they probably wouldn't recognize him. Seeing him in street clothes is a bit like catching KISS' Gene Simmons without his platform boots and makeup.Onstage, Esteban is the personification of the dark, mysterious Latin lover. He dresses in all-black Zorro ensembles, with a bolero hat and impenetrable shades. Whenever he tilts his head down in deep concentration, it's easy to imagine that he's younger than his 52 years. His right hand sports long, acrylic fingernails that dance across his guitar strings with dramatic tremolo flourishes. In the minds of his fans, he's Rudolf Valentino and Antonio Banderas rolled into one, and wrapped in Ricardo Montalban's rich Corinthian leather.

But the guitarist sitting in the recording booth at the Sound Lab with his foot propped on two Yellow Pages books is not Esteban the stage persona. He's Stephen Paul, the blue-collar gringo kid from Pittsburgh with hippie affectations. He wears a gray tee shirt, navy blue shorts and white athletic socks, but no shoes. His long blond hair is bundled in a ponytail. He refers to everyone he meets as "bro." Periodically, he lifts his shades to look at his chart, squinting like an old man trying to decipher a road sign.

He makes a few practice passes at "Those Were the Days," then decides he's ready.

"I'll probably screw it up, but let's try it," he softly grumbles to house engineer B Gerdes.

Sure enough, he struggles through seven or eight takes, botching a few performances by scraping his nails across the strings.

Finally, with a note of exasperation that's rare for this placid man, he blurts out, to no one in particular: "What am I doing?"

The answer is simple. Esteban is punishing himself with this breakneck schedule because, after nearly half a century of devoting himself to the guitar, his career is suddenly accelerating beyond his wildest dreams, and he doesn't dare slam on the brakes.

Last November, Esteban made his first national television appearance on QVC, pitching his musical wares alongside the Miracle Mop, the Marie Osmond fine porcelain doll collections and the gaudy pink pendants that are the lifeblood of the home-shopping industry. He wasn't the first musician to market his product on TV. People like Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie had already experienced moderate success with it.

But Rogers and Richie were already established names. Esteban was a nobody, a star only to the devoted cult that repeatedly returned to the lobby bar of Scottsdale's Hyatt Regency, where he'd slowly built a worshipful following over the last decade.

To the astonishment of many in the home-shopping biz, Esteban was an immediate sensation at QVC, quickly selling more than 100,000 CDs. He's since moved on to the Home Shopping Network, and two months ago, after a rapturously received debut appearance on the network, he sold 56,000 CDs in one week, simultaneously placing two of his albums in the Top 54 of the Billboard200 album chart.

Incredibly, a middle-aged instrumental artist with no record-label support, minimal radio airplay and negligible press interest had outsold Limp Bizkit and Celine Dion.

The Esteban phenomenon is also a business coup for his self-created local label, Daystar Productions. Only folk-punk troubadour Ani DiFranco, with her Righteous Babe imprint, can rival his success at moving product without relying on the muscle of the record industry.

But DiFranco built her following with the help of stacks of glowing reviews and positive buzz from her peers. When Esteban is not being ignored by other musicians, he's generally being ridiculed, accused of taking classical guitar techniques and dragging them through the mire of cheesy song selections ("Don't Cry for Me Argentina," "Happy Trails") and bland new-age arrangements.

"I'd put him in the category of a John Tesh: easy-listening music without harmonic or rhythmic complexity," says Eric Bart, a local jazz guitarist. "And something that's very, very heavily marketed."

Bart is one of several local musicians who cringe at the mention of Esteban's name, and they're all quick to emphasize that it's neither sour grapes nor their considerable dislike of his music that fuels their animosity. What really gets up their noses is the way Esteban has spent the last decade milking his murky 1970s association with the late, legendary classical-guitar master Andrés Segovia.

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