Author: Karsemeyer, John

On the Trail of Steve Martin
 

The Bear. Not your average bear. The Golden Bear. The Golden Bear was a club in Huntington Beach, California. Southern California that is. It's gone now, but not forgotten (R.I.P. 1926-1986). You could go there and hear live music.

The opportunity arouse in 1967 to see The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, so I went. While sitting in the audience waiting for the band to begin, a door on floor level, to the side of the stage, opened. Out came a young man, looking to be in his early twenties. He could have been mistaken for a person coming to see The Dirt Band, as he headed for the audience area. But wait, he was wearing a buckskin shirt and pants, and sported not just a few pieces of turquoise jewelry. His necklace, belt, and bracelets all visually jumped out at you. He also had shoulder length hair.

Okay, so that wasn't an unusual sight in those days. What was unusual is that one his left shoulder was a strap that supported a 5-string banjo. As he walked into the audience area, he began to play tunes on his banjo. Interesting tunes, and complicated enough to let you know that he was way beyond beginner status. He really knew his way around the fret board of that banjo. He didn't sing, he just played the banjo. It was a long time ago, but I seem to recall thatin the middle of one tune he stopped and said, "Hey, this guy's good!"

While playing the banjo he would sometimes stop and deliver a one-liner like, "You don't have to tune this, it's a banjo." At other times he would stop playing and begin to juggle. Or blow up those long, thin balloons, form them into weird contorted shapes, put them on his head, and say, "Look, I'm an alien with a banjo." It was humor. But it was different humor. Different humor with a 5-string banjo. Different humor that was entertaining.

After his performance, a voice came over the club's sound system and announced, "That's Steve Martin!" Then The Dirt Band came on, winning over the audience with a great show. The 5-string banjo (Steve wasn't playing this one), fiddle, mandolin, electric guitar, harmonica, and drums were all in the musical mix.

Since the year 1965 (and before), Steve Martin performed in small clubs in southern California and San Francisco. He was the opening act for other entertainers. He delivered his brand of comedy, all the while armed with his 5-string banjo. He didn't make much money. It wasn't an easy life. Sometimes he slept in his vehicle, or camped out in a park while touring. He played his banjo on the streets for tips, just to survive. How many other comedy acts included the 5-string banjo? Why did Steve include it?

Like many banjo players of today, Steve heard Earl Scruggs's "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," way-back-when, and he was hooked. Steve is self-taught, with an assist from his friend John McEuen. That was back in their high school days. John McEuen? Right, the banjo player with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. So why put a banjo in a comedy act? Love of the instrument? Creativity? Something different? Weirdness? Probably.

Mr. Martin honed his comedy and banjo playing skills at Knott's Berry Farm's Birdcage theatre, located in southern California. He had a regular gig there from the age of eighteen to twenty-five. Sandwiched in were those intermittent jobs in southern California and San Francisco, which paid almost nothing (he did get the camping perk in Golden Gate Park while in San Francisco). As time went by, he performed in other states around the country, offering his banjo playing, comedy, and "magic" to unsuspecting audiences who had not yet experienced his unique entertainment. He kept on doing what he was doing. But then, enter evolution? Yes, his career and life were about to experience change. Evolving into something else.

Remember John McEuen? The banjo player from The Dirt Band, and Steve's friend? Well, John's older brother, Bill, was managing the Dirt Band. That's what Bill liked to do. He was a musician, but foremost he was a manager. At one point in time, Bill McEuen and Steve Martin connected. Management, comedy, magic, and banjo became one. Soon Steve was opening shows for The Dirt Band. Oh yes, according to Steve, Bill McEuen was the creator and producer for a music album you may have heard of, "Will The Circle Be Unbroken."

Many of us know that Steve Martin is a highly motivated, creative, and successful person (insert other opinions and perceptions here). From an unknown, struggling open act with a banjo, he became a writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. He also made appearances on Saturday Night Live, The Johnny Carson Show, and who knows what else. He continued his comedy (often integrating the banjo), and ended up as one of the most popular comedians ever in show business. Not resting on his laurels, he became a screen writer and movie star. You can't keep a good man down.

Fast forward to the year 2009. Steve has recently appeared on the "Ellen" television show, not just talking about his banjo, but also playing his banjo with a full band (including John McEuen). Steve is an IBMA nominee for banjo/instrumental performer of the year, and his recently released banjo album, "The Crow," has also received an IBMA nomination for "Recorded Event of the Year." This CD album, reviewed in the August edition of the CBA Breakdown (Brenda and the Reviews), motivated me to get it. Personally, I enjoyed all the songs.

What can we gather from all of this? For one thing, in spite of all the banjo jokes, it's possible to be a banjo player and still be a success in other parts of your life! For another thing, a lesson here might just be that no matter how busy, how old you are, or any other excuse you can create, you don't have stop to playing your instrument of choice. As busy as Steve Martin has been, he still took the time to nurture his playing, and still does!

That's Steve Martin's trail. From high school when he started playing the banjo, to small clubs, to amusement parks, to opening for other entertainers, to a major force in the world of comedy, to writer, to movie star, to the present; all the while being held captive by his banjo! Yep, that's Steve Martin's trail, so far. Since history tends to repeat itself, there is a good chance that he is blazing a new one right now....
 
Posted:  9/12/2009



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