The Tao of Esteban

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

The only interest that could compete with music was baseball. He says he was a promising pitcher, but at the age of 12 he was blinded in his left eye by a screaming line drive. From then on, all he had was the guitar.

After high school, he enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University, where he double majored in English and music. During the same period, he says, he taught 150 guitar students a week and found time to play in clubs at night.

He'd progressed as a player over the years, but he says no one in Pittsburgh could teach him the authentic classical guitar skills that he craved. He knew that he needed to study with the best in the world: Andrés Segovia.

Mighty clout of Joy: Home-shopping icon Joy Mangano transformed Esteban's career in 1999 by getting him on television.
Mighty clout of Joy: Home-shopping icon Joy Mangano transformed Esteban's career in 1999 by getting him on television.
Latin lite: Esteban, in full Zorro regalia, does his flamenco flourishes at the Arizona Biltmore.
Paolo Vescia
Latin lite: Esteban, in full Zorro regalia, does his flamenco flourishes at the Arizona Biltmore.

Born in 1893, Segovia had practically defined the instrument since the 1920s, not only adapting much of the classical repertoire for guitar, but also playing with a virtuosity which had never before been heard from the instrument. He approached the guitar with a near religious sense of commitment, stubbornly refusing to allow concert microphones to be placed near his guitar, for fear that it would spoil the acoustic purity of his sound.

"I had this insatiable drive to study with Segovia," Esteban says. "Everybody tried to study with him and very few got to. The waiting lines were immense. So it was disheartening. I couldn't figure out a way to study with him."

After graduating from college, Esteban moved to Los Angeles, where he began avidly pursuing his idol. For two years, he sent unsigned notes to every hotel at which Segovia was staying. The message was always the same: "My life is meaningless unless I can study under you."

In 1972, he finally met Segovia in L.A. The details of the encounter have varied a bit, depending on whom Esteban is telling the story to. Most often, he says that he impersonated a courier, knocked on Segovia's hotel-room door and was rebuffed by a suspicious road manager. When Segovia came to the door, Esteban repeated the message he'd written on his cards, and Segovia shouted, "It's you, it's you."

However, in a 1998 interview with Scottsdale Magazine,Esteban offered a different account of the meeting, saying, "Finally, [Segovia] looks me up in L.A., knocks on my door, and I greet him with the same phrase. He says, 'So you're the one.'"

This discrepancy is only one of the puzzling components of Esteban's relationship with Segovia.

Esteban says that after nervously playing for Segovia, the master gave him a list of music to study. A year later, when Segovia was back in L.A., they hooked up again, and Segovia invited him to Spain.

He says he took part in Segovia's master classes in Santiago and was invited by Segovia for private classes at the guitar legend's home in Madrid.

"He would only teach once in a while, but one class with Segovia could last you three years," he says.

"He would just stop me in the middle of tunes. As soon as he heard an imperfection or an incorrect analysis or a wrong note, he would just stop you, look for a moment, and point out what it was. Then he would play it himself. The next hour or hour and a half would be like that. So I'd study for the next two or three weeks."

Esteban says he studied with Segovia, off and on, for five years, splitting his time between Spain and California. In Spain, he often stayed at youth hostels for four dollars a day, earning money by playing in flamenco clubs or busking on the street.

He says Segovia, the classical purist, objected to his playing flamenco music.

"The only thing that bothered me about Segovia was he didn't like flamenco music, and that's the real essence of the folk and peasant music of his country," Esteban says. "So I asked him about it. Well, he had a little ego, and he talked about it. He was the father of the classical guitar and here's this kid asking him about it. He's ready to hit me over the head with his guitar case. So I learned my place from that."

In 1976, Esteban got married in Los Angeles. Two years later, while Segovia was in California, Esteban obtained a note from the master. Segovia signed a copy of his then-new autobiography, adding the following message: "To Stephen Paul, who loves the guitar and the guitar loves him -- an artist."

It was a modest compliment, particularly considering that Segovia was known to be very generous with his fans. But Esteban has used this simple message as proof that he was "endorsed" by Segovia, and has made it a crucial part of his mystique. The implication is that Esteban is the heir to Segovia's legacy, carrying it into the 21st century by delivering music "for the new global awareness," as his Web site proclaims.

The problem is that most musicians don't buy it. Chris McGuire, president of the Fort Worth Classical Guitar Society, studied with Segovia and says he saw him sign autographs for countless people.

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