The Tao of Esteban

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

Although the only evidence of his studies with Segovia is a photograph and a brief, autographed note that Segovia wrote to him, Esteban has rarely missed an opportunity to invoke the name of his beloved "maestro." He's repeatedly claimed to be one of only 14 guitarists in the world endorsed by Segovia, a number unsupported by any factual evidence, and even says that he began using the name Esteban (Spanish for "Stephen") because that's what Segovia called him.

Cynics are quick to note that this appropriation of Segovia's reputation didn't begin until after the Spanish classical-guitar virtuoso died in 1987, and therefore could no longer speak for himself.

"It's disrespectful. It's like pissing on his grave," Bart says.

Classical gas: Some musicians argue that Esteban has exploited his connection with legendary guitarist Andrés Segovia.
Classical gas: Some musicians argue that Esteban has exploited his connection with legendary guitarist Andrés Segovia.
Love for sale: Esteban (right) and trumpeter Jesse McGuire get the HSN phones ringing with "Unchained Melody."
Love for sale: Esteban (right) and trumpeter Jesse McGuire get the HSN phones ringing with "Unchained Melody."

Frank Koonce, music professor and director of guitar studies at Arizona State University, agrees with Bart.

"Segovia dedicated his life to elevating the guitar to the stature of a serious concert instrument, and he had a disdain for popular and commercial music," Koonce says. "With regard to Esteban, I think it is fine that he has found a formula for success with his brand of popular music. However, I think it is inappropriate for him to use Segovia's name as though it is an endorsement of what he is doing."

If it's hard to imagine Segovia embracing Esteban's Latin-lite sound, at the very least, Esteban does share his hero's all-consuming work ethic.

He's scrambling to ready his next album for the holiday season, because HSN is already preparing a big campaign to coincide with its release. He must finish mixing the disc on a Monday night, because on Tuesday morning he's flying to New York for two weeks to talk business with several major record labels who are awed by his power to reach the housewives of middle America. As soon as he gets back to the Valley, he must prepare for another round of HSN showcases, a performance at the Arizona Biltmore and a concert at Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

"I don't have any furniture, I don't have a girlfriend, I don't have time for anything but music," he says, with a mixture of pride and embarrassment. "I'm a weird guy. I don't have any of the normal things."

Esteban's contention that he owns no furniture is slightly exaggerated, but the interior of his pink stucco, two-story Tempe home does have a slapdash quality about it. Books are scattered all over the floor, and his living room has little room for anything but instruments, amplifiers and a Harley-Davidson pinball machine. His upstairs office is more like a storage room, where CDs, press packets and sheet music are stacked on tables.

It's Saturday, the day after Esteban completed recording his album. Because another band booked the Sound Lab for the day, he'll have to wait until tomorrow to begin mixing the tracks. So he has a rare day off. He tries to unwind.

"Where's my Mozart? I always have Mozart playing," he mumbles as he walks into the study.

The moment you enter the room, it hits you. Up on the wall is a mammoth framed photo of Esteban with Segovia, taken sometime in the mid-'70s. The two men are sitting on a couch. Esteban has long black hair, parted down the middle in a manner that makes him look like '70s teen idol Shaun Cassidy. He's holding a guitar in his left hand, and he's got a giddy smile on his face.

Segovia, well into his 80s, looks old and frail. He's leaning back on the couch like he's about to fall asleep. His face is a blank page.

The picture dwarfs everything in the house, and not just physically. After all, the spirit of Segovia has dwarfed everything in Esteban's life since he was a child.

Esteban was born Stephen Paul, the first of four children, to a Pittsburgh steel-mill worker and his wife.

"It was a blue-collar atmosphere and there wasn't a lot of culture," he recalls. "The only thing that was good was when I went to visit my uncle George. He was always playing music. He was a great clarinet player. He loved Benny Goodman and all the '40s swing stuff.

"He always put on Segovia or flamenco guitarists like Vicente Gomez. I always heard these songs and liked the feeling and the sound of the guitar and the big old stereo he had with a 15-inch speaker. It was the coolest thing and it sounded so great."

It was Esteban's uncle who bought him his first guitar, a nylon-stringed Goya ("the same one they used in The Sound of Music"), at the age of eight and a half.

"That cost my uncle a couple hundred bucks, and that was a lot of money back then. A lot of times kids get guitars and they're hard to play, so they give up. But that was a dream to play."

He says that he taught himself to play well enough to win talent shows at his parochial school. By the time he started taking lessons, at the age of 12, he was already teaching other kids how to play, charging $3 for a half-hour.

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What?  Fourteen years and no comments, not even from the haters?  I love this guy's music and wish I had 1/50 the skills and playing ability.  Oh well, keep pickin', Maestro.

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