"I play guitar primarily. I also play mandolin, banjo, transverse flute, straight end flute, shakuhachi, 5 or 6 Balinese/Javanese instruments. That (Balinese and Javanese) was my field of study at Buffalo State College and University of Buffalo- Asian Ethno-Musicology. Didn't get me anywhere.
WHEN DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN MUSIC?
"I don't remember. It was younger than my memory goes. My mother said that when I was colicky as a baby, they only thing that would put me to sleep was Sarah Vaughn's Misty."
WHERE HAS YOUR MUSICAL INTEREST TAKEN YOU THROUGHOUT YOUR LIFE?
"My interests are primarily blues and jazz, well before rock or any of it's perversions. My music career started in A&R (artist and relations). (It was) record promotion for famous music which was Paramount, Just Sunshine, Blue Thumb, Neighborhood... there was a whole slew of minor labels. Did a little radio disc jockeying late night, weekends, cause that's where it's wide open air and nobody's listening. I was pretty young. The way I got that job was pulling orders at a record distributor. You never even saw records, there were just 100 pound cardboard boxes, but you knew they were full of records, so you were IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS. I hustled and hustled and there was a promotion department that seemed to be neglected, so when I got my job done quickly, and I would do that on purpose by the way, I'd go back to the promotions room and sort albums for all the radio stations throughout NY state and part of PA. When the distributor realized I was doing that, after some time they said, well we need someone to actually do that job. Then they gave me a company car, an expense account and all of the sudden I wasn't wearing coveralls, but it was a harder job actually. You had to hit Syracuse and Rochester in the same day, hit Erie one day, then Buffalo the next. There's 4 days out of the week and you still haven't done your calls, your reporting, your mailings."
DID YOU ENJOY IT?
"I did. I was a kid. Had energy to burn and was IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS!"
WHEN DID YOU BEGIN PLAYING AGAIN?
"I was exhausted from the previous job. My boss, Niles Segal, out of NY (I'd go there at least once a month); he knew how much I loved playing and suggested maybe I step away since I was getting burnt out, and start doing what I loved, to recuperate. And I didn't go back. I kept playing instead."
WHERE DID THAT TAKE YOU?
"I mentored with a guy named Ernie Carella, and if you look his name up, you'll see he's played with Booker T and the MG's, Martha and the Vandellas. He played second to Steve Cropper. He's headlined. He's the quiet little guy in the back that looks a little like Waylon Jennings and kicks some ass. He just does that whole Memphis Stax sound. So he was my mentor and when he couldn't make a gig, I'd get a call. He mentored with Steve Cropper and I mentored with him. I played for two nights with Taj Mahal, waiting for John Hall (later of Orleans) to come along, because Ernie was playing with Martha and the Vandellas. I got to do little things like that."
"One night John Prine played and I asked to play his Martin triple. I told him that I played some Steve Goodman stuff, and we sat on the cobblestone playing guitar for about 45 minutes. I gave him my number and then Steve Goodman ended up calling me out of the blue one time, as he passed through. He'd been touring alone and had been calling for second guitar players, and so anytime he wound up east of the Mississippi, I got a call for a number of years. He would borrow my cowboy hat as a prop for one of his songs too. West of the Mississippi he'd call Diz Disley, who I'd suggest anybody look up. The guy's out in the Pacific Northwest now, I believe, with a gypsy jazz band that'll just knock the socks off ya. Steve Goodman was the reason I started playing mandolin. Because it was easier to leave our guitars packed, we could practice and learn other stuff on mandolins since they were easier to travel with. Steve was tight with John Prine and Jimmy Buffet. They would play on each other's albums, but when they did, they always used the pseudonym, Marvin Gardens (like the property in monopoly), so the record companies didn't have to haggle over royalties."
"Then in college, I was playing with a band called Spoon and the House Rockers with Elmo Witherspoon (Spoon). He was an assembly line worker for Chevy in Buffalo, NY. He was a fantastic harmonica player. Anywhere we played, we rocked the house. Spoon would get up on the bar and be kickin people's drinks off, doing the harp shuffle and people loved it. Spoon went through some tragic domestic troubles. So most of that band ended up playing with Steve Miller, Paul Butterfield, Santana, and America. I played with a band called Sweetball while playing with a husband and wife team Debbie Ash and Mike Compagna. They played blue eyed soul, Motown sounding. We played regularly at Buena Vista and one night Bonnie Raitt came in. She wound up playing a couple of tunes with us."
"From there, I moved to the west side of Buffalo with a group of musicians. That's where SpyroGyra was born. I left pretty early on from the band though to go back to school for music. After that, I took a number of years off and was learning lutherie, the repair and construction of string instruments. Still in the music business! The owner of the music store I was working in was a terrific bass player from Buffalo. He still owns Top Shelf Music in Buffalo. He introduced me to a young girl he was rehearsing with. She needed a guitar player and he always liked my slide playing, I second on slide guitar a lot, and that's a way I've gotten a lot of my gigs. The girl's name was Ani DiFranco. We wound up together for six or seven years and I was her guitar player."
"Then I wanted to do something on my own and I put a band together called Five Guys Named Moe. We did a lot of swing stuff, Louie Jordan stuff, but also did a lot of blues standards and a lot of slide. I could say it was like the Allman Brothers, but not southern. It was more roots with long kind of Phish-like solos. We had a good time doing that."
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR FAVORITE MUSICAL EXPERIENCE?
"Sitting with Miles Davis backstage at Lincoln Center. Myself and a business partner of mine, Kenny, had a chance. Miles had come out of retirement and started a new band, and was back on tour. We were about a year and a half out, but my friend got a line on some really great tickets since we were promoters.
Kenny and I booked for colleges while we were in college. We would do block bookings. I'd book you in the beginning of the tour at top dollar, but at the end of the tour when they were looking to fill dates, we'd book them again at a lower price. Then I'd put you in a venue I could afford, but not at the college. He had a young guy named Bill Evans playing sax with him, who took to us. And we weren't fartin around and drooling, like "Oh Mr. Davis...". We just talked some business, told some stories, and we had a good time. We did no playing, we just had a beer."
"Another great experience was meeting Ray Charles. Kenny and I were doing our promoting thing and spent a whole summer putting a show together to start the season. The first half of September, we were just back to school, and we book Ray Charles for $27,500! We had an orchestra and Ray Charles to play at Kleinhans Music Hall, a premier flagship music hall! Kleinhans is a symphonic music hall, their blueprints have been used three times and it's never come out as perfect as Kleinhans. It's a hidden gem. So anyway, we secured the music hall for the date. I walk backstage just before the show, I wanna meet the reverend, Ray Charles. I hadn't spoken to him throughout any of the contract negotiations or any of that. You weren't able to. You had the go-betweens. His right hand guy comes to us and says "Mr. Steinmüller, Mr. Olsen: the reverend will see you now." Like we were gonna see the president. It kind of was. So we go back and there's Ray! He's in the middle of tearing a new asshole into this young kid about his pants. He's holding the pants upside down at the hem and he's yelling at the kid that those pants didn't match the suit. He had like eight brown/tan tuxedos with the velveteen collar, stripe on the pants. They all looked identical to me. But, he had rows of stitching on the bottom cuffs of each pant to determine which ones went together. Turns out the valet/kid was his nephew."
DID THAT INTIMIDATE YOU?
"I didn't know that Ray existed. But when his right hand guy said to Ray, "Mr. Charles, the promoters are here", he dropped everything stepped right up and said "Hi! How are you!?" He was as pleasant as a pastor in church. Thanking us, pleasure to meet you, absolute gentleman. But it was like a switch. It was short and sweet. Then the big guy swooped us out of the room and on with the show. The biggest exclamation point at the end of that sentence is that the biggest local promoter of festival concerts, at the last minute, didn't sell tickets, there was no promotion. They dropped a stadium tour on our date. The Rolling Stones, Journey and George Thorogood. It hurt our show, but we still broke even. But guess who showed up later?! The Stones and Thorogood. And I had to tell Keith Richards five or six times that he couldn't smoke in the hall. Mick was the only one that didn't come. He jumped on a jet and left after his show."
"Not spending more time studying when I was younger. My struggle with self doubt, lacking confidence- especially in light of my physical failings in the last decade. I had a broken neck and I've had to teach myself guitar twice in this life. I don't play like I used to but I'm still gaining ground and getting better."