So Young

Thanks to a bright invention, Valley favorite Jerry Riopelle is finally on the verge of becoming cool

"It's essentially a mouse," he says, graciously dumbing down the complex workings of the technology, which takes 35 pages of details and schematics to explain in the document accompanying his U.S. patent, finally issued in November. "It's controlling the music programmed into the computer, but doing it in a way that's a lot more fun than pressing buttons."

Cueing up a recent Beyoncé hit on the laptop, Riopelle begins remixing the rhythm, vocal, bass and keyboard tracks by simply waving his hands through the visible beams, slapping away the star's vocals to launch into an organ solo, which he manipulates by karate-chopping the top beam, then tossing in a bit of scratching by whirling a hand through the beam at the bottom.

"The big plan is, you can go buy, say, Madonna's latest album, and when you get home and put it in your computer, not only can you listen to it, but you can play along with it, remix it. You can take the vocal out and sing it yourself. There'll be so many things you can do with a new album."

Playing DanceManiax during the Saturday arcade blowout. "He thinks young," says Roxor Games' Jason Asbahr.
James Magahern
Playing DanceManiax during the Saturday arcade blowout. "He thinks young," says Roxor Games' Jason Asbahr.

And with Beams, apparently. Lately, Riopelle's been approaching everyone from toymakers to major record producers with the gadgetry, and currently has partners developing the technology for uses ranging from a rehabilitative device (an early prototype was installed at the Phoenix Children's Hospital) to a musical instrument and professional DJ tool. "The hip-hop guys go nuts over it," he says.

But the community that's so far latched onto the device the most is the game developers.

"We immediately 'got' it," says Asbahr, who confirms Roxor's working with Riopelle to adapt his technology to both an arcade and a PS2 game set to appear sometime in 2006. "We were like, 'Wow, this is awesome!'"

Asbahr knows enough about coding to understand the nuts and bolts of how HumanBeams works. Still, even he admits there's a certain magic to Riopelle's invention that's hard to compute.

"What really happens, when you sit down in front of it . . . I don't know," Asbahr says. "Something just clicks in your brain. It's a really satisfying thing to do, to start playing with that soundscape."

Riopelle, who's never had formal training in either science or engineering, says the magic behind HumanBeams is owed to its being conceived by a musician, not a geek -- although he's since been able to hire enough geeks to bring his ideas to life.

"The big trick was, how do you make this feel like an instrument -- as opposed to just being a robotic device?" Riopelle says. "That took a long time to perfect. But musicians love it. And that would have never happened if it was just a bunch of loops programmed by engineers. You've got to be able to play it with feeling. That's what musicians understand."

Until his invention began taking off, Riopelle had always avoided living in Phoenix, even though the city kept calling him back. The hot town may have chosen him as its personal rock star, but the Detroit-born Riopelle continued to live in L.A. until 1990, and then chose to live his "kinda retirement" in Kona, Hawaii.

"I never lived here," he says, reclining on the sofa of the house he's been leasing for only the past four years -- mostly as an office for HumanBeams, which he runs along with his son, Paul. "People always thought I did. But I just came here a lot, because this is where my biggest fan base was."

The Valley's love affair with Riopelle began in 1974, when the late William Edward Compton, then program director at a young KDKB, circled eight tracks on the back cover of Riopelle's first ABC release, Saving Grace, and labeled it "Eight Ways to Improve Your Life," urging the station's DJs to put each of the songs into heavy rotation.

"All of a sudden, I went from a $300 opening act to a $15,000 headliner -- overnight," Riopelle says. When Compton died in a car accident three years later, Riopelle lost his most influential supporter. "If Bill hadn't died, I'm sure enormous things would have come from his appreciation of what I was trying to do."

Though he'd never go on to attract a nationwide audience as fervent as his Phoenix supporters, the exclusivity they felt with him only deepened the connection -- and allowed him to pull in concert grosses in the neighborhood of a hundred grand a year, he says, just playing around Arizona.

"There's a bonding between Riopelle and his audience that's immediately evident at his shows," says Zelisko, who'll be inducting Riopelle into the Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame this New Year's Eve at the Celebrity. "And a lot of the depth of that relationship comes from the fact that everybody knows it's kind of a private thing. It's between them and this city and him."

That bonding came in handy when Riopelle opted to make HumanBeams his business, and finally decided -- after a lifetime of playing hard-to-get -- that his name would carry a lot more clout if he set up headquarters in the city that knew him best.

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