Friday, July 16, 2010

My REAL Guitar Hero

My REAL Guitar Hero

Poldo Delucca - 2010

Every guitarist has a guitar hero – someone you emulate, respect, imitate, learn from and aim to equal, if not surpass some day. Ever since the mid-60’s, anytime anyone asked me who my guitar hero was, my patent answer was Roger (Jim) McGuinn. For many years I’ve tried to pattern my playing style after his. I was recently listening to my iPod on “shuffle” mode and Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader Of The Band” came on – a gorgeous song about how his father gave him the gift of music. It then came to me as my eyes teared up: my Dad is my REAL guitar hero! He taught me the basics of the guitar, even though neither one of us could read a single note. Most importantly, however, he instilled in me a deep love and appreciation for music and for that I will be eternally grateful to him.

Leopoldo Claudio Delucca Albizu (“Popi”) was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico on October 30, 1918 – the second child of Leopoldo Eugenio Delucca (“Don Leo” or “Belo”) and Maria Ana Albizu de Delucca (“Marian”). Belo was a gifted guitarist in his day and he COULD read music. He accompanied the likes of Puerto Rican chanteuse Sylvia Rexach. Unfortunately, he lost his right hand in the 50’s to gangrene as a complication of diabetes. Even though he was a lawyer and an accountant and he had to learn how to write left-handed as an adult, what really devastated him was no longer being able to play the guitar he so loved.

Growing up in the post-depression era, Popi was forced to mature at an early age. In 1936, when he was 18, the family decided to relocate from Ponce to San Juan. They trusted him enough to send him by himself to the capital city to find a place for the family to live. He graduated from Central High in Santurce in 1936 and entered the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras. As a student there he worked as an usher at the University Theater. One of his favorite stories from those days was the time he told the great guitar virtuoso Andres Segovia to go to hell (!). He snuck into Segovia’s dressing room before the concert and very respectfully asked him if he could please play Tarrega’s “Recuerdos De La Alhambra”. The maestro became indignant and gave young Popi some lip so Popi proceeded to tell him to go to hell (“vayase pa’l car***o!”) and left. He was always so proud of that and, to this day, I cannot listen to Segovia without thinking of that story.

His plan was to go to medical school in Brussels. There was no medical school in Puerto Rico at the time and the family couldn’t afford U.S. medical schools. Those dreams came to an abrupt end when the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940. He enlisted in the U.S. Army after finishing his first year of law school at University of Puerto Rico School of Law. Sergeant Delucca was stationed in Panama working for the Judge Advocate Office. Shortly before he was scheduled to be deployed to the front the war ended in 1945 and he returned to Puerto Rico. Popi re-entered law school, acquired his pilot’s license and worked as an insurance adjustor for Maryland Casualty Company. He obtained his law degree in 1947, served as Class President and passed the bar exam on his first try. He always prided himself in being the first and only person to land an airplane on the U.P.R. campus. I always found that hard to believe, as there were palm trees everywhere. That was until, many years later, we ran into Air Force Colonel Pepe Bloise, whom my father had not seen in decades – the first thing he tells me is: “did you know your father was the first and only man to land an Aeronca Champion at the University?”. Case closed!

Popi knew EVERYBODY! When I was little he would take me to court with him during the summer. It would take us an hour to walk just a block in Old San Juan from the parking lot to the courthouse as he had to stop and visit with everyone he ran into. At one point, on a bet, a friend sent him a letter from Mexico addressed “Popi, Puerto Rico” and it got to him! I saw it! I have never seen a funeral as well attended as his.

He also was a superb pistol target shooter. He qualified to represent Puerto Rico at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland but couldn’t go due to law practice obligations. On many occasions he represented the island at the National Matches in Camp Perry, Ohio. In addition, he enjoyed gardening as well as stamp and coin collecting.

In 1949 he married Laura Iris Juncos Davila (“Lela”) and they settled on a second floor apartment on America Street in Santurce, a suburb of San Juan. I was born down the street at Doctors’ Hospital in 1952. In 1955 they built a house in Garden Hills, Guaynabo, where they both resided for the rest of their lives. My sisters Georgina (“Gina”) and Laura (“Laurin”) were born in 1957. He practiced general and mercantile law as a soloist until his death from cancer in 1983.

Now, let’s get back to the music. My father had an astounding musical ear! He would hear a song once and play it – as simple as that – and play it he could! He never learned to read music. Growing up in Ponce there was a player piano at the house and he taught himself how to play it. Unfortunately, they had to sell it when they moved to San Juan. Don Leo had a very fine Spanish guitar made by Andres Marin in Valencia and, once again, he taught himself to play (my sister Laurin still has that guitar). He TRULY LOVED the guitar and music. Some of my dearest early recollections are of the sweet sound of his guitar. Unfortunately, he never recorded himself so all that beautiful music is lost forever but it lives in our hearts. He was also a fairly good singer, even though, by and large, he played both melody and accompaniment simultaneously and seldom sang. He played very close attention to technique, almost to a fault. To this day I’ve never seen anyone embellish a D minor chord the way Popi did! He was so involved in the technical aspects of the music that he NEVER finished a song beginning to end. That used to drive my mother nuts – “Popi, why don’t you ever finish your songs?!”. When he played he used to curl his lips in a certain way and my mother always teased him about it – well, I’ll be doggone if I don’t catch myself doing the exact same thing when I play!

He played Belo’s old guitar until 1967, when he ordered two Hermanos Conde guitars from Madrid, Spain – one classical and the other flamenco. Exquisite instruments! The flamenco one was ruined when our basement flooded but the classic one survived. I still have it and it is one of my treasures – what a treat it is to play!

The day I realized the magnitude of his musical ear was during a law school reunion of his. He had not played the piano since 1936 and this was in the 1970’s. I had never heard him play the piano. All of a sudden his classmates start asking him and his good friend Benjamin Rodriguez Ramon, a superb concert pianist, to play. They both sat at the piano and Popi starts playing first – astounding – as if he had been playing all his life! Then they start playing four-hands – once again, you’d think they’d been playing together for years. I gained new respect for him that day.

When I was eight, my fingers were finally long enough to tackle the fret board – I couldn’t wait to learn how to play. I was never taught how to read music but I didn’t care – I HAD to learn! I quickly discovered that I had been blessed with the Delucca musical ear – I could hear something, visualize it on the fret board and play it. He taught me so much! Left-hand technique – press with the tips, hurry up and develop calluses, DO NOT use your thumb on the 6th string. Right-hand technique – grow nails on your thumb and first three fingers and take good care of them, DO NOT use your pinky, the thumb plays strings 4-6 (“los bordones”) and the first three fingers play the first three strings (“las cuerdas”). He taught me how to strum, “el rasgado” and, of course, fingerstyle – he never used a flat pick or finger picks. He taught me how to tune the guitar by ear – no pitch pipes. Electronic tuners didn’t exist then. He would go, “mi, si, sol, re, la, mi” – perfect pitch! To him a major chord was “happy” and a minor chord was “sad” and that’s how he taught me the difference. He never capoed – played everything “natural” – I take my hat off to him for that – I’m a capo fiend. The guitar goes on your LEFT thigh, not on the right – to this day I still hear his voice reprimanding me every time it winds up on that right thigh! He taught me how to string a guitar and, most important, he taught me that the guitar was my friend and, as such, I needed to take good care of it and it would, in turn, give me many years of enjoyment. Wipe the strings after playing, polish it, humidify it, baby it!

He loved all kinds of music but especially tangos and Bing Crosby. When The Beatles took over the world in 1963 I had already been playing for three years so I was WAY ahead of the game. Every boy wanted to play the guitar. He gave me every excuse he could come up with not to buy me an electric guitar – in time, however, he gave in. He had a really hard time believing that the Fab Four wrote their own music – in his day singers sang and composers composed. One day when I was home on break in the 70’s he came out of his bedroom all excited because he had just seen this young singer/songwriter on TV and he really liked him – my father LOVED Cat Stevens!

My goal has always been to play as well or even better than Popi. Whether or not I have is not for me to judge – someone else has to. Just like Dan Fogelberg, to this day I regret that I never told him – “my life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man, I’m just the living legacy to The Leader Of The Band”.