The Tao of Esteban

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

"There are literally thousands of autographs like that out there," McGuire says of Esteban's note from Segovia. "There is a very clear distinction between signings on memorabilia and his actual written endorsements."

Local classical guitarist Chris Hnottavange agrees: "No doubt, hundreds of people have received autographs from Segovia or have had pictures taken with him. It's unlikely that that alone carries the weight of a special endorsement."

McGuire says he once saw an attractive young female guitarist approach Segovia for an autograph. Segovia flirted with her and wrote a note that praised her guitar work, although he'd never even heard her play.

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.

Although there is no doubt that Esteban met Segovia, many musicians question whether he was as close to the master as he claims. They point out that Esteban is not mentioned in any of Segovia's biographies and never received the kind of public acknowledgements that Segovia reserved for his true favorites.

For example, Segovia wrote of John Williams, one of his most talented disciples: "A prince of the guitar has arrived in the musical world. . . . God has laid a finger on his brow, and it will not be long before his name becomes a byword in England and abroad, thus contributing to the spiritual domain of his race."

Williams subsequently asked his record company and management not to use the quote, because he didn't want to ride Segovia's coattails.

Another Segovia favorite was Eliot Fisk, whom he described as "one of the most brilliant, intelligent and gifted young musical artists of our time." After Segovia's death, his widow, Emilia, specifically asked Fisk to record some newly discovered compositions by her late husband.

Esteban argues that he doesn't like to make a big deal about his "endorsement" from Segovia. Pointing to the handwritten note, he says, "That's what all the little guitar critics around the world wish they had. But I don't even care. I don't say anything about this unless somebody asks. It's a personal thing."

Such a statement appears disingenuous, to say the least. Every piece of publicity surrounding Esteban, every interview he's given and every appearance on the home-shopping channels has been dominated by references to Segovia. What's most galling to Segovia loyalists like Bart -- who says his life was transformed at the age of 12 when his dad took him to see the master in concert -- is the way Segovia's name was appropriated for the Hyatt's drink menu, which cited Esteban as "one of 14 guitarists in the world endorsed by the legendary Andrés Segovia."

In an August 7 front-page story in the Wall Street Journal, Esteban conceded that he doesn't know how he arrived at that number or who else is on the list.

When asked about his critics, he says he won't utter anything negative about another musician. But he does offer a passive-aggressive jab at Bart, a musician he says he's never met.

"He's so frustrated," Esteban says. "The guy's working for 40 or 50 bucks a night. He's pissed off, so he says, 'Esteban plays elevator music. It's the worst shit in the world.' People can say that if they want, but usually people don't feel that way."

Esteban's musical direction changed drastically, and irrevocably, in 1980.

He says he'd spent the previous two years playing straight classical music, touring colleges, and making between $600 and $700 a night. "I wanted to do other things, but I didn't dare tread off the path that Segovia had laid for me."

In 1978, after suffering through a frightening Southern California earthquake, he sold his house and moved his wife, Jackie, and his young daughter Teresa (the first of his three children) to Phoenix.

Two years later, he was driving north on Third Street at McDowell at 1 a.m. with his mother, whom he had just picked up at the airport. A drunk driver going south at 60 miles an hour smashed into the driver's side of Esteban's car, fracturing his ribs, knocking his teeth out and rendering his one good eye resistant to bright light.

He says he spent a month in the hospital, but even as he slowly recuperated, he couldn't regain his ability to play. Nerve damage had left him with no feeling in his fingertips.

With a wife and two young daughters, and no way of supporting them, he applied for a variety of jobs.

"Nobody would hire me," he says. "I was this long-haired hippie-looking guy, although I never did drugs. So I tried to cut my hair short.

"I went into sales to make money. I sold energy-management systems, I sold solar systems for Reynolds Aluminum, and I was very successful at it. I ended up running a franchise dealership for Reynolds Aluminum. I did pretty well, but I was so unhappy. I felt like I was going to explode inside, so I put everything into business."

He says that in 1988, a combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbs brought back the feeling in his fingers. By the end of 1989, he'd started playing a few gigs. But his approach was different than it had been a decade earlier.

"After that car crash, an enlightening thing happened," he says. "I said, 'I don't give a damn about precedent. I'm going to play music for anybody that I want to and I'll play any kind of music that I love.' And since I love all these kinds of music, that's what I do: I play everything from love songs to bossa nova, jazz, world music, classical music, flamenco, and I mix it all up."

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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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