By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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 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.
"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.
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."
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."
Esteban likes to say that there's no precedent for the kind of music he's making, that it's a revolutionary ethnic fusion of styles.
But if Esteban's musical approach owes a debt to anyone, it's not Segovia, or some modern world-beat artist. It's Liberace, the patron saint of Vegas kitsch.
Liberace, like Esteban, was a classically trained musician who realized there was more money to be made doing frilly, pseudo-classical versions of lightweight pop songs than attempting to compete with serious concert pianists.
While Esteban convincingly argues that he started playing pop music because he genuinely liked it, some of his detractors suggest that practicality played a part in the move. They doubt that he would have ever been able to make a mark on the classical world.
"One has to realize the playing field," Bart says. "There are 12-year-old kids who are virtuosos compared to Esteban. At best, he's a remedial classical guitarist."
Liberace's bejeweled costumes and trademark candelabras may have made him a joke to serious music aficionados, but his power was with the silent majority, which didn't care about musical authenticity, but simply wanted to be entertained.
This same crowd gasps at Esteban's every glissando.
"I can't tell you how many times people have come up and said, 'I've never even listened to music, but I really find that I can listen to this all the time,'" Brock says.
One of those fans, a woman from Pennsylvania, called into QVC last November during Esteban's showcase. She asked the host: "Is that the most exciting and sexy music you've ever heard?" The woman said she'd seen him for the first time in Scottsdale, and was so impressed that the following year she rerouted a vacation so she could see him perform again.
The Esteban experience was a bit less exhilarating for Devon Bridgewater, a jazz musician who played violin and trumpet for Esteban for four and a half years, until he was fired by the guitarist.
"It was one of the most embarrassing situations I was ever in as a musician," Bridgewater says. "Because other musicians would walk into the lobby after working in different parts of the hotel, and they'd just look at me and shake their heads, like, 'How can you be doing that, man?'"
He says when Esteban went through a 1996 divorce, he asked Bridgewater a few questions about his own divorce, but aside from that, Esteban never opened up to him.
"I never went to his house, I never knew where he lived," Bridgewater says. "And we never rehearsed. When we went in for a recording session, I never got to hear any of the playbacks, and I was never invited to any of the mixdown sessions. When I heard it, it was already packaged, and there were a lot of things I thought I could have done better."
As for Esteban's musicianship, Bridgewater acknowledges that the guitarist "has got a good right hand," but says he's limited in his ability to improvise with his previously injured left hand, and as a result, the musical arrangements tend to be mind-numbingly repetitive.
Bridgewater also found Esteban's song introductions to be rife with questionable anecdotes.
"He'd say, 'This song was found in an archaeological dig in Egypt in the '20s and we found it and have written it out.' And it was just some kind of minor scale. I mean, there's no notation from Egypt. He'd tell people some song was found on a piece of papyrus in the temple of the gods. I don't know how people bought into it."
Bridgewater says in 1998, Esteban contacted him on his pager and fired him, with no warning. He offered the standard "creative differences" rationale, but Bridgewater had a hard time believing it.
"He said, 'I'm taking the band in a different direction,'" Bridgewater says. "But, after that, it was just the same old 30-minute versions of 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina.'"
Esteban is a major record label's dream. He's a hard-working artist with a built-in following that isn't dependent on radio airplay or positive reviews.
He says he's currently being courted by Warner Bros., Sony, Atlantic and Universal, among others. He can't decide whether he wants to sign with a major label, but he knows one thing for sure: He's tired of dealing with business issues.
"I want to play, bro," he says. "I just want to play and write. I don't want to have anything else going on. Because life is so complicated, if you take on other things, it gets hard to focus."
For someone so comfortable with the hard-sell hustle of home-shopping television, he gets remarkably cosmic when he talks about his music.
"This is really a quiet voice in a world of noise and confusion," he says of his sound. "So it's something that's appropriate for the times. We're so bombarded by outside influences and by nonpeaceful entities, that it's really nice to have peace. And that's what it brings people. And that's what's gratifying.
"The world is kind of like a penal colony at times. And one of the things that helps is beautiful music that people can relate to and think of good times in their lives."
He talks about keeping up with musical tastes -- he says he's even written a hip-hop tune -- but one of his most endearing traits is actually his lack of understanding of contemporary music. When he talks about how he's started to get into "New Wave," you wonder if he's aware that the term hasn't been in vogue for two decades.
As he reclines in his study and soaks in his Mozart, Esteban ponders for a moment, and recalls the last time he played for Segovia. He says Segovia listened, then pointed at him and said, "You will play for countless millions of people."
Thinking about the recent splash he made in Billboard, Esteban says, "We were beating Def Leppard and all these rock bands. And I'm just a classical guitar player, turned eclectic. So Segovia's prophecy is turning out right."