Behind 'Frankie Presto': Exclusive Interview with Mitch
Albom on Famous Musicians, Talent & Guest Judge Hoda Kotb
Book of the Month, Mitch Albom
February Guest Judge Hoda Kotb selected Mitch Albom's latest book, 'The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.' Albom, who is best known for his memoir 'Tuesdays with Morrie,' tried to make it as a musician before becoming a writer. 'Frankie Presto' is narrated in the voice of music and tells the story of the world's greatest guitarist, weaving in real artists, like Elvis Presley and Duke Ellington, who Frankie encounters throughout his life. In a one-on-one with Mitch at ABC Radio, where he broadcasts his nationally syndicated show, he told BOTM: "So it was really failure that led to writing, not anything more glamorous than that."
Watch the interview or read the transcript below:
Why did you decide to write a non-fiction book centering around music?
Before I ever wrote anything I was a musician and some people know that - most people don't. It's always been a love of mine. I sort of stopped playing music and trying to make it as a musical artist when I started writing so I think in my head I never mixed the two, because one sort of begat the other you know I didn't really start writing until I gave up music. But at this age, I was able to come up with something that I wanted to say about talent. And the way that every talent that everybody has - and everybody has one, at least, affects other people. I realized, well the talent that I probably know the best, maybe people who read me think it would be writing, but it isn't, it's music. So I said the time's probably come to set a book back in the world that I actually know better than anything else, even sports, and use that to tell the story about how the talents we have affect everybody in a different way and really changed the world around us.
I'd like to say that there was some sort of divine calling to writing that swept me away from music, but the far less glamorous truth is that I flopped in music. I couldn't get a record deal, I couldn't advance the way that I wanted to, and I was starting to see - I lived in New York and you know, just did the starving artist thing, held every kind of odd job while I worked at night singing or playing or writing songs or bringing them to record companies, having them try to - "please buy my song, please buy my record," "no, no, no, no." People didn't even really listen to what it was, and I think one day I was auditioning some guys for a band that I was putting together, and I was only 23 or 24, and guys were coming in who were 50 years old to audition for the band that I was putting together. I sort of realized - "Wow this can go on forever. I mean, there's no end to this."
I started writing when I started volunteering for a local newspaper where I lived. They gave it away for free. I picked it up one day, there was an ad that said 'If you have some free time we could use some people helping us with the newspaper.' So I had some free time, I went down there, I was the youngest person there by about a hundred years, and they gave me an assignment that day to write about parking meters. And I went out and covered it as if it was Watergate. Never wrote anything before really, but I think I had some innate writing ability and certainly music helped me know how to create phrases and ideas. When the paper came out the next week I picked it up in the supermarket and my story was on the bottom of the front page - which shows you how little news actually happened that week - but also it was my first byline. I saw my name, and you get like goose bumps even when you tell the story about wow you know I could make words and put them together and they come out in this printed thing, and it's mine forever. And I think I became a writer that day, and that was it. So it was really failure that led to writing, not anything more glamorous than that.
Is Frankie Presto based on anyone?
I'm glad you asked me is Frankie Presto based on anyone and not, 'Is Frankie Presto based on you?' Because people have asked me that and I've said 'Well let's see, he's stunningly handsome, has endless music talent, can sing, can play, so there's absolutely no connection to him from me at all, thanks for rubbing it in.' But I would say...there's a little Elvis in there, there's a little of this 19th century guitar player Francisco Taregga, who ends up sort of becoming kind of a guardian angel type for him. Frankie is born in Spain in the same town and the same church where Francisco Taregga was.
There's something to me about the spirit of an artist living on, because if you think about art - music in particular - there are no musicians that just come out of the blue. They all listened to somebody before them. Even the most distant musician in some far away tribe in some far away country - the young artist has to listen to the elder. Certainly everybody who listened to jazz and rhythm and blues got into rock roll, everyone who listened to early rock and roll got into later or psychedelic rock and roll, everyone who listened to that stuff got into disco and punk. So I thought well Taregga, he was sort of the father of modern guitar in Spain. Modern classical guitar. He had trouble with his eyes and he was a bit of an outcast early on, like Frankie is, and he's from Spain, and he loves the guitar. So there's a little of him, there's a little Elvis, in that he was sort of fated to become this real big thing and then kind of regrets becoming a big thing, which I kind of think Elvis did. Then just little bits and pieces that I've heard from musicians along the way.
Going back to that concept of musicians who die - their talent being passed on. Do you think the same can be said of writing?
In the book, music tells a story, music is the narrator. That was the most fun and most challenging thing I've ever had to do in writing because when you decide to write a book that ends up being 500 pages, and the narrator is not a person, it's just a thing, it's a talent - music speaking as music. It's a challenge. It's also fun because you get out of the human set of parameters. So music explains that when you're born, you come into the world, human beings, before they even open their eyes, they can actually see. And what they see is a wall of colors, really bright colors. And those colors are actually all the talents in the human spectrum, and when we clasp our hands for the first times when we're babies which is of course the first thing we do when we come out, we're actually seeing that wall of colors and grabbing the colors that appeal to us instinctively and those become our god given talents. So why you may be good at singing and someone else is good at dancing and someone else is good at math. And you say, 'How did the kid get good at that?' Well because you grabbed it, when you were younger.
I like that metaphor because someone, some way, we all end up born with a certain ability to do something better than most people can do it. I do think that if you exercise that over the course of your life, if you line up with the color and the talent that you were meant to have, that was in your hands when you clenched it, you will create something that will live on beyond you, and will therefore affect somebody else that absorbs it, or reads it, or listens to it, or whatever. It's most certainly true in music, but it's proven true in writing. Go to any library and take out a book from somebody who's dead. He's doing it. His talent is going on because you're reading his words, you're hearing a voice from two centuries ago, three centuries ago, and it's still going on. That's very much the concept, it's easier even in a book, because books we have from that long ago, whereas music we only have from the time it was recorded which is relatively new.
Hoda was very interested in the real life musicians who were mentioned in your book. She talked to Darlene Love backstage about being used in your book. Can you talk about your relationship with some of these amazing musicians?
So I had the idea that because music was going to narrate the book, and Frankie Presto was going to be this sort of larger-than-life figure, that it was starting to get almost as if it was taking place in a non-real universe and if I took music and I took this superstar singer and then I made up bands and made up music and made up eras, the whole thing would just seem like it was taking place on mars. So I decided to ground it by making Frankie surreal, but all the other musicians in the book real. Not just the ones that are featured, but everybody he plays with along the way, is real. Everything in the book is historically accurate in terms of when he would have toured with Duke Ellington, when he hung around with his band, they were out on tour during that time. When he met Elvis Presley and played in his band on the Louisiana Hayride, that was accurate. When he met Hank Williams, and sold him the car that Hank Williams ended up dying in, that was accurate.
So then I got the idea, well it's a funeral. That's where it starts. Wouldn't it be interesting to see how people spoke about him at the funeral, but I'm not going to make up people for the most part, I'm going to see if I can get real people to let me use their voices. Many of the people in the book I knew before the book started. I've been very blessed to have met a lot of people in the music world, I think because of my background in music, my interest in music, and the fact that I am no threat to anybody. Because I never met any of these people when I was in the music business. It was only as I got into the writing business that everybody wanted to meet me in the music business and vice versa. So Burt Bacharach, Tony Bennett, John Pizzarelli, Wynton Marsalis, Darlene, Roger Mcguinn, a number of these other guys, and women, I had a chance to know. I called them up and said listen, I have an idea, I want you to have met my character. Maybe you fell in love with him, maybe you influenced him, maybe you saved him, maybe you discovered him when he was down and out, I don't know. I'm not sure what you're gonna do, but would you trust me enough that I'll write something in your voice - I know how you speak, I've been around you, and I'll send it to you, if you don't approve it, fine no problem. But if you do I'd like you to be part of his life. To a person they all said yes and to a person they all approved it. It was really something, that everybody did.
Darlene, she gets one of the best ones because she meets him early in life when she's 18 years old. Something that I found out from both talking to her and reading her autobiography about where she was when she was 18, and she did a concert at the Hollywood Bowl with Nat King Cole, so I took Frankie and I put him at that concert, everything else about it is real. When I saw Darlene she said, "How did you know about Nat and that?" And I said 'Darlene, you wrote a book - you told me, you basically told the whole world.' She falls in love with him, and then he just sort of takes off. They have one night together, and that's it. But he says to her, 'Don't give up on music. You have a voice.' And she says, 'How can you tell I have a voice, I was singing with a bunch of other women?' And he said, 'I can always hear the one that stands out.' He gives her the encouragement to go in music. She goes home that night after she meets him, and writes in her diary, 'Today I met the boy I'm gonna marry.' Which of course became a hit song for her several years later. And in the book she says when I saw they gave me that song, 'Today I met the boy I'm gonna marry,' she said, 'Oh well this is my song because I wrote that sentence about Frankie Presto.'
So the truth and the fiction interweave, and I did that with all of them. They were all tickled by it, I have to say. They were great. They got into it. They made videos about it. Some of them recorded songs about it. So there's a cross-section, there's something to be learned from, how much admiration artists have across different arts. Maybe even more than within their own. Within their own there's always a bit of jealousy, and a bit of... well if he's that good then what does that make me? But if it's a different field than yours, you can admire it without reservation, and you can just say ,'Oh that guy's a genius filmmaker or a genius dancer, or whatever.' And I was really fortunate to get cooperation from those artists.
How does it feel that our Guest Judge Hoda Kotb selected your book for Book of the Month?
I owe her a big thanks when I see her again. She's always been very kind to me, her and Kathy Lee, I've been on their show a couple times. They always had nice things to say and I noticed actually read the book. Sometimes you'll go on shows and people will be very nice to you but you can kind of tell that they don't really know what they read, or have supposed to have read. But she's a reader and a writer, and she's a good judge. So I take it as a high compliment and I'm humbled by that. I thank her very much.