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He began playing at the Hyatt Regency at Gainey Ranch. Initially, he'd play Sunday brunches for three people and a bunch of empty chairs. But, even early on, if there was a convention happening, he'd draw a huge crowd, and the reaction was usually enthusiastic.
He started playing five nights a week, five hours a night. In 1991, he released the first of his nine CDs. In 1992, he added keyboardist Robert Brock to the mix. It was his first step in putting together a band, which now also includes drums, bass and trumpet.
Brock, whom Esteban described in a 1995 concert video as "my best friend in the music world," had played in a series of Top 40 bands and gotten burned out on the local bar scene. But playing with Esteban rekindled his enthusiasm for music.
"His gig at the Hyatt was a totally different vibe," the 30-year-old Brock says. "It was awesome. As far as a musician having a steady gig in town, there was absolutely no better gig to have."
As audience response became more boisterous, the Hyatt began to promote him. They sold his CDs in their gift shops and paid for full-color ads in trade magazines.
On the rare occasions when Esteban performed at concert venues, he found that about half of his audience would buy his CDs, an unheard of figure in the music business.
"Locally, he's always had a good following, but you always wondered whether he could take this to a much bigger level," Brock says. "And one thing I've always known about him is that when you see him live it's a very different experience from what you hear on the records.
"It's very difficult to capture that whole vibe and persona that he has. I've always known that when people see him, they immediately fall in love with him."
Last year, Esteban's name came to the attention of Joy Mangano, a popular QVC fixture who'd invented household accessories like the Miracle Mop and the Rolykit closet organizers. A fan of Esteban's kept telling her that the guitarist was ripe for stardom and would be an ideal addition to her company, Ingenious Designs LLC. Mangano wasn't interested in working with a musician, but after she heard one of his CDs, she was intrigued enough to fly from New York to Atlanta to see Esteban play at the Hyatt.
"Everybody I watched, everybody who came into the hotel stopped and sat down," says the 44-year-old Mangano. "He was just so captivating. It was really mind-boggling to think that 10 fingers could do that. I instantly knew that if you could get it across on TV, he'd be hugely successful."
Convincing the executives at QVC was a bigger hurdle. No one at the network believed that an unknown musician could be successful with home shoppers.
So Mangano organized an Esteban concert in one of the network's West Chester, Pennsylvania studios. She invited QVC execs, but didn't tell them what they were going to be hearing. She says they immediately sensed the same power that had captivated her in Atlanta.
"His appeal is what made Elvis Elvis," she says. "There's a star quality, a charisma. Included with the talent, there's a picture that goes with it. It's the ability to take an audience and truly mesmerize them."
Weeks after his history-making November appearance on QVC, Home Shopping Network bought Mangano's company, including Esteban. So, after the six-month non-compete period that was in his QVC contract, he made his debut at HSN on June 29. The network packaged together his two most recent albums, Heart of Goldand All My Love, as a $24.50 special discount deal.
The prospect of playing with cameras whirring and TV hosts bopping to the wrong beat would be unsettling for many musicians, but Esteban's years of experience at the Hyatt pay off mightily on HSN. He comes across as relaxed yet enthused, and his band -- which recently added former Tower of Power trumpet player Jesse McGuire -- is a solid, efficient unit.
On June 29, the group romped through slightly shortened versions of Esteban staples like "Malagueña" and "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," sat for interviews with a chirpy female host and took gushing calls from devoted fans. In two sets of appearances on the network, Esteban sold an estimated 132,000 CDs.
He says he sells his CDs to Mangano's company for "a couple of dollars each," she sells them to HSN for about two dollars' profit, and they sell them to home shoppers for $10-$12 a pop. It's not a perfect setup, but it's still a better percentage deal than most artists have with major labels, and it's provided Esteban with several hundred thousand dollars in the last year alone.
"It's not that I haven't sold a lot of CDs before this, because I have," he says, adding that his record label has moved a million units domestically over the last nine years. "But I've never been on TV. This is the thing I've always dreamed about, to find a way to sell my product, to get my music out there so people can buy it easily."