By Rob Cypher
When we see a musician at the peak of their powers – whether it be at the Grammys, a rocking club show, a sold out stadium tour – they seem to be on another level, able to move a crowd and elicit a range of emotions with just a strum of their guitar or a touch on the keys.
These are people who fell in love with music. Nothing was preordained, they weren’t born holding a microphone. Every musician has an origin story: accidental,mundane or something in-between. Even the superstars started somewhere, just like us. If you want to play, you have to pick up the instrument. This is a look at some of those interesting famous firsts.
Jimi Hendrix is widely considered one of the greatest guitar players ever. His embrace of feedback and distortion as a tool in his music, as opposed to a barrier, revolutionized rock. He was the bridge between the counterculture era and hard rock. His upside down Fender Stratocaster – with the strings flipped so he could play left-handed – was as iconic as any cultural touchpoint from the 60 ‘s. The story of how he got there is interesting, heartbreaking, and a testament that genius can be discovered anywhere – even in the neighbor’s garbage.
As an elementary school student, Jimi’s fascination with music was apparent through his habit of carrying around a broom everywhere he went, emulating a guitar. As he became emotionally dependent on it as a de facto security blanket, his school social worker begged the school and Jimi’s father to provide him with a guitar to protect against psychological damage. Both, unfortunately, refused.
At the age of 14, Jimi was helping his father clean out garbage from an old neighbor’s home, a standard odd-job to help keep the family afloat. There, he found an old ukulele with only one string. The old woman said he could keep the instrument, and Jimi dove in, playing single notes and learning by ear, following along to Elvis songs. Jimi was hooked –despite serious issues at home, including the death of his mother, less than a year later he bought his first acoustic guitar for $5, and started his trajectory to becoming one of the greatest instrumentalists in the history of rock and roll. The iconic image of Hendrix on stage, in front of a wall of Marshall amps with his upside down Stratocaster – but his first guitar was an Ozark Supro.
Lady Gaga is a global superstar in every sense of the word. Playing live, in film, and through her many multi-platinum albums, Gaga has cemented herself as one of the 21st century’s greatest musicians. But while her passion for music bloomed at an incredibly young age, it was almost happenstance that Gaga’s – then known only as Stefani – parents realized the talent in their little girl.
Stefani Germanotta was born to a close knit family during the late 80’s New York City. Her parents and grandparents were a big part of her life, and it was her paternal grandparent’s piano – bought in 1966 for a whopping $780, later gifted as an heirloom to her parents – that provided her musical discovery. As a three year old, Stefani would crawl around her family home, standing and walking here and there, but needing help more often than not. Often that help came from the sturdy legs of that same Everett Piano Co. instrument. As Stefani used the legs to balance herself and stand up, her hands would inevitably land on the keys, and her ability to make sound transfixed her. She came back to it time after time, and her parents quickly recognized the value in making music accessible to her. By 4, Stefani had started piano lessons. By 5, she had written her own song. As her parents encouraged her creativity through music through camps and eventually NYU’s Tisch School of Arts, a star was literally born.
While some talents seem obvious at a young age, others take a little longer to germinate, with a little bit of luck sprinkled along the way. Jaco Pastorius is widely considered the most influential bass guitarist ever, revolutionizing how an electric bass can be featured within a traditional jazz setup. Bass was far from his first passion, though. Jaco’s father was a drummer, and Jaco naturally gravitated towards the energy and athletic requirements of playing the drums, since he was also an accomplished athlete.
As a child, he bought his own starter drum kit using money he had saved from his work as a newspaper delivery boy. In 1964, during a youth football practice, Jaco badly injured his wrist, enough so that it eventually required surgery. The operation on his wrist made drumming much more difficult. Still, he persisted, and in 1966 while in high school joined Las Olas Brass, a local soul cover band. Soon, a more experienced drummer became available to the band, and Jaco’s lingering injury forced him to give up his spot. At the same time, the band’s bassist left the group, and Jaco made a fateful decision. He dipped back into his paperboy money and bought himself a Fender Jazz bass. He quickly connected with the instrument.
Over the coming years his uncanny ear and playing ability evolved at a tremendous rate. Jaco lent his bass playing talents to groups like Woodchuck, Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, and Weather Report. It’s fair to say that Jaco forever altered the modern jazz landscape with his eclectic style, speed and approach to playing. And it almost didn’t happen.