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"Not many people listen to classical music, let's face it," says the Valley lounge icon from his business office in Long Island, New York. "But I've always loved jazz, and I'm a melody guy. What's more beautiful than playing a great melody?"
And what's more rehearsed than that line?
Much has changed for Stephen Paul, as he's called on his birth certificate, since his 1970s days studying with famed guitarist Andres Segovia and playing on the streets of Spain for guitar cases full of change. Thanks to his regular appearances on the Home Shopping Network peddling albums and instruments over the past several years, which include a new instructional infomercial on the wonder and beauty of the acoustic guitar and a concert this Friday with Thigh Master queen Suzanne Somers, Estéban is now a top-selling new-age artist. He's gotten there, in part, on the strength of albums filled with covers – Beatles covers ("And I Love Her"), jazz covers ("The Girl From Ipanema"), religious covers ("How Great Thou Art"), even movie Western theme covers ("How the West Was Won"). What Zamfir is to the pan flute, Estéban is to his own instrument. Last year, he played Jerry Lewis' Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Despite attracting a legion of detractors for his self-promoting, crossover ways (a comprehensive 2001 feature in these pages detailed that resentment), Estéban, 54, remains undeterred. What's a self-promoter to do but keep on finding new sets of ears to titillate? He's now working on an album called Danza that will graft his exotic flamenco playing to spiced-up dance-pop drum beats and electronic seasoning. Yup, Estéban's making an attempt at the mainstream.
"That's not my usual format," he says with no hint of sarcasm. "I've never done anything quite like this. I've always wanted to do something with a dance beat. For the middle-aged crowd to hear that driving beat, it's kind of a nice thing, if it's done tastefully."
If Josh Groban, Yanni and the yucky Trans-Siberian Orchestra can sell mass records on the pop charts, perhaps Estéban can, too. At least he hopes so.
He's also made a slickly produced video for his electrified update of a late 19th-century Spanish tune called "Fuego Malaguena" that he hopes to air on MTV and VH1. In the video, shot last summer in Agoura Hills, California, Estéban dresses in his Zorro-in-pajamas performance outfit of fluffy black shirt, bolero hat and shades. He sits on a stool while playing the up-tempo song. The camera focuses on Estéban's hands as he manipulates the fretboard – the man really is an amazing player. Periodically, we get shots of a seductive Latin waitress flashing him come-hither looks. Soon enough, the waitress and another woman partially disrobe, hit the dance floor and twirl to the sounds of their would-be Latin lover.
Estéban debuted the video for the press last month at the trendy Scottsdale restaurant Barcelona, manning a booth in the aforementioned slumber-party outfit while beautiful women flashed smiles his way. He applauded along with others as the video, strategically aired on restaurant screens between others by Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez, faded to black. For a night, at least, Estéban was a phenom.
As for the Danza album, due either in May or June, Estéban says it will mix a few originals with covers like Consuelo Valazquez's "Besame Mucho" (Beatles fans will recognize that one from the movie Let It Be, which the Fab Four feature in a jam session). He's planning to record up to nine songs, all of which will likely clock in at more than six minutes each.
If that sounds bold, that's because it is – outside of pop folks like Santana, the Who and a few stoned jam bands, flamenco-pop has rarely been attempted, and it's practically never been done by a classical guy like Estéban. And if it hasn't been done before, in Estéban's mind, there's a good reason for that – no one is as capable as he.
"It takes a little bit of creativity for a classical guitarist to be dealing in that realm. It's a whole different technological scene," says Estéban, who estimates he and his engineers spent a whole month perfecting the drum track to the song "Fuego Malaguena." "You have to know what you're doing. Most classical guitarists have no basis for having the ability to do that."
For a long time, it looked like Estéban might never get there himself. He quit playing for the entirety of the 1980s after a car accident left him with numbness in his left hand. A combination of depression, doubt and rust set in, which meant it would take baby steps to get him back to mastery – or a pop approximation of it, anyway.
"If you stop playing, then hey, what's a C chord anyway?" he says. "I [thought I] would maybe have been able to come back and teach at a university level after Segovia."
That's where all those weird covers come into the picture. He had to start somewhere, and in 1990, he decided just to play what he loves. Who knew "Nights in White Satin" could be so therapeutic?
He eventually landed a steady gig at the Hyatt Regency in Scottsdale, where he performed for boomers, retirees, and the occasional young couple in search of a romantic evening. Estéban didn't tap into a wider audience until he hooked up with cable television's home-shopping empires, first QVC, then HSN. A whole lot of middle-aged women watch those stations – heck, my mother bought me a DVD player through QVC – and he's successfully connected.
That's what has him so geeked about his new boogie-oogie-oogie venture. Who's to say his audience can't skew younger? "There's a whole group of people out there, between the ages of 15 and 28, maybe as old as 30, that really love that dance groove," says Estéban, sounding increasingly like a 54-year-old. "I've never ever had those people as part of my audience."
If a man in black for squares can get this far with an instrument normally reserved for the poverty-stricken and teachers of night classes at community colleges, then maybe he really can become a pop star. Doubt the guy at your own peril.
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