DISCOVERING STEVE MANN
I am honored to post this story about Steve Mann in this May edition of FolkWorks which would have been Steve Mann’s 80th birthday. My brother and I made a thrilling discovery about Steve during the Pandemic which the following story describes.
It all started when I received an email from my brother, Ken, on July 3, 2020. “What, if anything do you remember about Steve Mann?” Steve Mann was in my 1960 high school graduating class at Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley, CA. We had gone through junior high and high school together. He and my brother were friends and had played chess at each other’s homes. I remembered Steve as being smart, spirited, likable and nerdy in a good way. I also recalled later that he had a prominent physical feature – a head of thick, curly, black hair. I looked up Steve’s high school graduation photo from my yearbook and one of him in the chess club as a 10th grader in my brother’s yearbook. (Ken was two years ahead of Steve.) I passed this information along to my brother. Interestingly, over the years I had wondered about what happened to the Steve Mann in my class.
Ken responded that he had found a Steven Mann online that had some points of similarity with the Steve Mann he knew.
“He was born in 1943, which would place him in your class, and born in the San Fernando Valley. He was Jewish and played chess. This part I am not sure of, because he was out of my circle of friends after I graduated. He became a talented musician who played a 12 string guitar for Sonny & Cher, Janis Joplin, and others. He underwent many years of mental illness, recovered, but, subsequently died in 2009. The picture of him in the yearbook does resemble the online picture of the musician, Steve Mann. They both have relatively narrow faces and the part in their hair is quite low towards the ear. Men don’t tend to change that style, unless like me, they cut it all off. The age of the musician, Steve Mann, is appropriate – his being Jewish and playing chess are correct. But I would need at least some additional information to confirm this is the same person. For example, did this musician go to school at Poly? This would confirm it in my mind.”
I searched the internet and found multiple photos and reviews of Steve Mann, the musician, describing him as a remarkable and legendary acoustic guitarist. According to the reviewer of the CD, Straight Life, Ross Altman, stated, “For Steve Mann didn’t just rewrite the book on blues guitar, he re-invented the printing press. … one of America’s most original and inspiring musical artists.” Fellow blues guitarist, Stefan Grossman called him ‘one of the most exciting and dynamic guitar players I have ever met.’
Although the internet photos had some similarities to his high school graduation photo, they were decades apart so we could not be sure. Also, Steve Mann was not that unusual a name. Beyond the common characteristics – Jewish, played chess, lived in the San Fernando Valley, we needed to place him in Sun Valley at Polytechnic High School where he graduated. And last, we needed to solve an important mystery. We were totally unaware that the Steve we knew had any musical inclination or talent. And it seemed inconceivable that the Steve we knew could have achieved such notoriety just a few years after high school graduation.
I was intrigued and now on a mission to confirm that this Steve Mann was indeed my classmate and, if so, what it was that made his style of playing so original. Little did I realize where this search would take me.
I started out by reaching out to reviewers and artists that knew or were admirers of the Steve Mann described on the internet. It was easy to connect as current emails were provided or I found them on Facebook: Rolly Brown, renowned National Guitar Fingerpicking Champion; Will Scarlett, legendary harmonica player, a 42 year friend; and Leda Shapiro, Executive Director of FolkWorks, an internet site that was instrumental in promoting Steve’s music. I friended Will Scarlett and Rolly Brown on Facebook and emailed Leda Shapiro. I let them know the facts about Steve that matched but that if we could confirm that Steve graduated from Polytechnic High School and lived in Sun Valley, that would provide the missing pieces that could secure his identity. Next I posted on my high school Facebook page to ask if any of my classmates knew if the Steve Mann in our class was the same Steve Mann described on the internet. There was quite a bit of interest, a couple dozen ‘likes’ and two classmates said they were pretty sure it was him but could not say definitely. I indicated that I was initiating an in-depth search and would let them know the outcome.
I first heard from Leda Shapiro. “I got your email but will need to contact those who knew him well to try to find out. It may take a while. But will try.” She had forwarded my request to Barry Smiler, FolkWorks reviewer, former touring musician and concert producer who had written reviews of Steve’s CDs, Steve Mann Live at the Ash Grove and Alive and Pickin’. Barry commented, “Leda Shapiro forwarded me your email. I met up with Steve a few times while living in and around Berkeley and interviewed him. Here are some things that might help you tell if this is your Steve. His full name was Steven David Mann and he was born on May 2, 1943. He had a sister, Devorah, and a brother, Jim. And he did play chess.” I checked with my brother and he did recall that Steve had two younger siblings, one of each sex, which confirmed another significant fact.
Rolly Brown responded to my friend request. I had provided Steve’s high school graduation and chess club photos. “Hi, Charlotte. I’ll help if I can. I’m always interested in hearing from folks who knew Steve in his early years!” Rolly provided a photo and compared it to the high school photo.
“Verrry interesting, Charlotte! I’m studying facial features in your graduation pic and it seems it could be him. Compare his hairline, eyebrows, and such with this pic. I didn’t know about a brother, but Steve had a sister, Devorah. Here they are, about 13 years ago.” I provided the year of Steve’s graduation — 1960. “That sounds about right … and your description of him sounds about right. He was a gentle soul. But he did start playing guitar fairly young … started with a uke when he was a toddler.” The latter was quite a revelation, I thought.
The plot was thickening. Rolly next stated, “I just sent a note to Will Scarlett who was one of Steve’s oldest friends. He might know where Steve went to high school, but I’m fairly convinced. I played three games of chess with Steve and was lucky to come away with a draw in one of them.” Next, he heard back from Will. “Will said to have you call him.” Shortly after this, Rolly posted, “I’m sure it’s the same person.” What better individual to make that declaration. But both Ken and I were still short of being 100% convinced.
In the meantime, I found a story online that Rolly had written in 2006 when he met Steve for the first time and performed with him in Berkeley. Rolly had been introduced to Steve’s guitar style while living in San Francisco in the 70’s and was a devotee from then on. Rolly shared about the dark days of Steve’s life. After Steve made a solid name for himself as an innovative blues guitarist and songwriter primarily in the Los Angeles and Bay areas, he descended into years of mental illness beginning in 1967, having been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was just 24 years old. He had pretty much disappeared from public life and was in and out of mental health facilities and halfway houses for years. Steve moved to Berkeley in 2003 with the help and support of friends Will Scarlett and Janet Smith where he began to perform again and give guitar lessons. When Rolly found out from Chris Rietz, CD Buyer for Elderly Instruments, that Steve was back in Berkeley, he traveled twice from Pennsylvania to meet one of his idols — in 2006 and 2008. Steve continued to play locally in Berkeley until shortly before his death in 2009 due to falls following surgery for an aneurysm.
Then … Rolly provided one of his audio interviews that might just explain the mysterious musical side of Steve Mann. The quality of the recording was poor and It was difficult to understand Steve as his speech was quite animated and somewhat slurred. It was about 10 minutes long but by listening to it numerous times, I gleaned some very interesting facts. This Steve came from a very musical family. He said his father played drums and French horn. Both parents loved all genres of music and had all kinds of recordings, including blues. He told the story of his mother taking him to Muscle Beach when he was three years old. As he was on his way to buy a sno-cone, he encountered one of the muscle men on the beach lifting weights. After he purchased a sno-cone, he saw that same muscle man playing a plastic ukulele. Steve was very curious about the instrument and the muscle man agreed to sell it to Steve for 30 cents. At three years old, he learned a few chords on the spot. Later he said he studied piano at age 12 and learned to play the harmonica along the way. Then at about age 16, he began studying the guitar and took lessons twice a week at the Jewish Community Center. Around this time, he was introduced to Big Bill Broonzy and Erik Darling on his father’s Grundig Hi-Fi and thought their artistry was not just the best thing since sliced bread. And he stated, “It was sliced bread.” He mentioned he was thrilled to learn fingerpicking from Tony Harris. He went on to detail how he was introduced to many traditional blues and jazz musicians and how that sparked his interest in playing those genres. He recalled attending a Blues Fest at UCLA where he heard the Reverend Gary Davis, a major influence. He also was exposed to many performers at Ed Pearl’s legendary Ash Grove where he later performed frequently himself. Privately he listened to and studied recordings of the early ragtime, blues and jazz guitarists and taught himself the songs by studying the recordings. Some of those who influenced him were: Mose Allison, Blind Blake, Ray Charles, Blind Boy Fuller, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Alonzo Lonnie Johnson, Robert Leroy Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Lou Rawls and many others. From this foundation, he began to develop his own style. He also had access to and studied the Harry Smith Folkways Collection, an anthology of folk, blues and country music recordings originally recorded from 1926 to 1933 and released in 1952 and Chicago/The Blues/Today!, a series of three blues albums by various artists recorded in late 1965 and released in 1966. His affinity and affection for these genres as well as the fact that he was clearly a gifted prodigy set the stage for his rapid ascent to notoriety. So, if the Steves were the same person, we had the answer to the mystery of his musical side. (This recording is one of the rare existing interviews of Steve and as far as it is known the only one that details how he became interested in the blues and the acoustic guitar.)
I continued to search for additional photos and found two more in my brother’s yearbook – one was Steve’s 10th grade photo and in the other one he was photographed in the Forensics Club. Both photos featured a Steve with a head of black, tousled, curly hair which matched many of the photos on the internet. In his graduation photo, his hair was slicked down which seemed to be an anomaly. His participation in the Forensics Club proved to be especially important.
By this time, Rolly was convinced and I was at about 95%. Ken and I were still holding out for anything that would place Steve Mann in Sun Valley at Polytechnic High School. There was one word on the audio interview Rolly provided that I could not quite make out. I was finally able to identify the word ‘Vineland’. Steve said on the recording that he lived on Stagg and Vineland right where they crossed. That placed him clearly in the middle of Sun Valley. I was excited and couldn’t wait to tell my brother. I sent him my findings and included a map of that specific area.
My brother stated that the Stagg St. location fit his memory better than the location of Steve’s home I had initially recalled. He would have ridden his bike from our home which was less than a mile away. He recalled that he began playing chess with Steve in junior high and that they had both participated in Los Angeles City Chess Championships. And he “sort of remembered him having a guitar, but that may just be a phantom memory.” Since we could definitely place Steve in Sun Valley, I was now convinced. But Ken was still holding out for the confirmation that this Steve attended Polytechnic High School. I was not sure we would be able to get confirmation of this detail.
I had yet to hear back from Will Scarlett. In the meantime, Rolly dedicated one of his weekly ‘Facebook Live’ events to Steve on July 11. And he also mentioned that we had connected. This event is available on Rolly’s YouTube channel.
I was like an open book and learning more and more about Steve Mann’s playing and getting interested in the artists that influenced him.
On July 12 I heard from Will Scarlett. He told me a little about his long friendship with Steve, how he first saw him at the Joan Baez Big Sur Folk Festival and later met and performed together for the first time at the Jabberwock Club in Berkeley. (Fun fact: Will was in Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love in 1967.) Will stated that once he met Steve, Steve was his mentor for over 40 years. He further elaborates on his own website: “Though his teachers were many, Will’s biggest musical influence was Steve Mann. A dear friend and collaborator for 42 years, Steve led Will down unexpected musical paths that inspired improvisation and fueled his urgency to learn.” In response to my question about what made Steve’s playing so unique, Will stated, he was a ‘five finger picker’ and he could replicate all the parts of a piano piece on the guitar. When I stated my understanding that Steve’s playing combined blues and jazz, he said he and Steve called his style ‘blues with a hole in the top.’ He said Steve was not shy and completely at ease on stage. I was aware that Steve had attended Valley State College (now CSUN) for about two years and dropped out to pursue music. Will then noted that Steve was a debater in college and that fact proved to be decisive in merging the two Steve identities. Steve was a debater in high school as well! So now the matching facts were indisputable: chess player, debater, Jewish, lived in Sun Valley, had two younger siblings as well as the similarity in multiple photos. So at this point, I felt this would finally convince my brother — which it did. He no longer felt we needed to place Steve at our high school. This was a remarkable moment when everything came together in a little over one week and we were sure the two Steves were the same person. Who knew a nice Jewish boy from Sun Valley, CA would become a renowned jazz and blues acoustic guitar musician!
At this point, Rolly forwarded two photos of Steve in the early 60’s which were more reminiscent of the Steve we knew. In one photo, Steve was holding a copy of the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle dated May 15, 1967 with the title, “I Was a Hippie.” The other was a photo of Steve likely performing with David Bromberg at a coffeehouse in Marin County.
I was curious if Steve was quoted in the newspaper article and proceeded to request a copy. I just happened to be connected to the librarian at the San Francisco Chronicle and he was more than happy to forward a digital copy. Steve was not quoted in the article, but he obviously had a strong connection to the hippie era and San Francisco. He had been quite involved in the drug culture according to those who knew him well.
Now that I knew Steve was the noted musician, the real research needed to begin. I needed to know what it was about Steve’s playing that was so original. I started with reviews of his playing style and recordings. There are only a few recordings of Steve available today. Steve Mann Live at the Ash Grove, a taped recording Steve did in 1967 at the Ash Grove; Alive and Pickin’, a compilation of cuts from a number of sources; and Straight Life, his only studio recorded album. All three recordings were released as CDs by Bella Roma Music in Berkeley through the efforts of his close friend, Janet Smith. Songs from his vinyl LP, Elephant Songs and Cow Cow Blues, are available on streaming platforms.
Following are a few of the comments by reviewers and fellow guitarists regarding his influence as well as his playing style.
“Steve Mann is one of the hippest, tastiest and scariest guitar players who ever walked the planet. The tracks on this CD (Alive and Pickin’) show his humor, his breadth, his sensitivity as an accompanist, and the phenomenal technique that made him the most devastating underground acoustic guitar hero of the 1960’s.” Elijah Wald, Blues scholar and music historian
“He challenged me and a generation of young guitarists from L.A. to be more than we were – Ry Cooder, Taj Majal, John Fahey, and dozens of others. Steve Mann changed the way the guitar is played and, for that, we owe him an everlasting debt of gratitude.” Barry Melton of Country Joe and The Fish
“Of all the white blues artists to come out of the blues revival in the mid-Sixties, Steve Mann would have to rank very near the top. Rather than take the ‘academic’ approach, prevalent with so many of the college/student blues interpreters’, Mann seems to have genuinely absorbed the feeling of the idiom, more than merely the correct strums and bends. Review of Steve Mann: Live at the Ash Grove. Guitar Player, March 1977, Volume 11, Number 3
“Steve Mann might be the greatest blues revivalist you never heard of. He had a phenomenal ability to coax sounds from his guitar. For example, it’s well known among guitarists how dammed difficult it is to figure out from his few recordings what exactly Robert Johnson was playing, fingerings and such. Steve nails it perfectly. His version of Johnson’s “Walking Blues” (on Ash Grove) is eerily perfect. Not the note-for-note perfection of the scholar, but the perfection of a musician who truly gets it, down to his bones, down to his soul. ” Barry Smiler, former touring musician and concert producer, Folkworks website
In response to the question, was there ever anyone that blew you away the first time you heard them? “There was a guy I met in 1963 named Steve Mann, from L.A. He played the 12-string guitar on Sonny and Cher’s“I Got You Babe”, worked with Mack Rebennack (Dr. John), and did a lot of sort of silly pop stuff. But he was a really brilliant fingerstyle guitarist. He would do really complex versions of Ray Charles songs like “Drown In My Own Tears” with all the big band changes, cool stuff.” Jorma Kaukonen, member of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. From guitar.com
“… he had both a fidelitous and eccentric way about him and with his handling of the blues and folk. By that he came to the attention of such luminaries as Sonny Bono, Hoyt Axton, and Frank Zappa.” Mark S. Tucker, Reviewer for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
“Our friend, Steve Mann, was influenced by the Reverend (Gary Davis), but he was his own wavelength. I’m just a footnote at best and there are many like me who spent a few days with him and went on to study his style at length.” Rolly Brown, National Fingerpicking Champion
“… Steve Mann, the most exciting ragtime and blues style guitarist I had ever seen, who stole the show at the Ash Grove no matter who else was on stage.” Ross Altman, folk singer and ‘songfighter’ (Note: Only the very best in their field could perform at the Ash Grove.)
Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna, wrote an original song, “Mann’s Fate.” released May 1970, a tribute to Steve’s guitar style. Wikipedia
The above reviews are only a sample of what is available online. There is glowing praise of his influence but I was not finding much about his specific playing techniques. I still wanted to know more about what his protégés were attempting to replicate. Ross Altman, who reviewed Steve’s CD, Straight Life, has one of the best descriptions of Steve’s playing that I was able to find on the internet. He described Steve’s playing at the Ash Grove one night in 1967 as well as particular songs on the CD, Straight Life. I think this description pretty much sums up Steve’s style.
“Steve then turned his attention to a Ray Charles classic “Drown In My Own Tears,” and miraculously recreated on six strings Charles’ 88 keys piano accompaniment, complete with his jazz chords. Then Steve Mann began his opening dazzling finger-picking intro to “Pallet On Your Floor.”
To appreciate the significance of what Steve Mann accomplished just listen to the opening chord on the second song of this breakthrough album—“Cocaine”, a traditional song he arranged. You won’t recognize it from any blues record you have heard before–not from Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, or Big Bill Broonzy. Why? He sings it like the blues and plays it like the blues, up to a point. But that opening chord is a jazz chord, and makes the song. To follow the road Steve Mann took to get to that chord you have to go back to the early piano recordings of Ray Charles and, later on, Mose Allison, who were both major influences on Steve Mann’s music.
Before Steve there were jazz guitarists and blues guitarists, and never the twain did meet. Jazz guitarists were known for their amazing chords and chord structures, while blues guitarists were known for their amazing picking patterns, built around very basic chord patterns, often just the proverbial three.
Steve created what you might call the double whopper, by adding jazz chord structures to blues finger-style pattern picking. He copied no guitarist, since he was the first to fuse these disparate styles into one; rather he copied piano players like Ray Charles and Mose Allison (whose song “If You Live” is included on this record), recreating on six and twelve-string guitars what they had an entire keyboard to work with. It was and remains an amazing feat, and is still thrilling to hear for the first time. And yet Steve would have been the first to tell you that he was not the first guitarist to have been inspired by a pianist.
What remains so remarkable about Steve Mann’s playing are the brilliant bass runs he incorporated into an arrangement that has already dazzled you with its highly punctuated progressions on the top strings high up the neck. That and the jazz vocabulary he transformed into an instrument of the blues. Steve Mann, more than any other guitarist I can think of, played the guitar with both hands, and fingers that had the maneuverability of a contortionist.
Just look at one picture in the CD booklet for Straight Life (also available on his web site*), the original studio album plus two bonus tracks, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and “The Letter”. It’s worth a thousand words, and shows what he calls his ‘Ray Charles E Chord.’ Take a friendly word of advice from your intrepid reviewer, and don’t try this at home, not unless you are near an ER. You will see Steve’s elongated pinkie crawling underneath his ring finger–which is holding down the second string on the third fret–all the way up to the fourth fret to grab the first string-all the while his first two fingers are taking care of business on the first and second frets.” *Note: This web site dedicated to Steve is no longer available but can be found on Wayback Machine.
The excerpt below is from of a review of his CD Alive and Pickin on Amazon.com by Jim Leitch, CD Baby
“But just listen to what is really in the grooves here, the lo-fi is almost appropriate, like discovering a great old 78. Especially on the Janis Joplin rehearsal tracks; a phenomenal singer accompanied by a guitarist who’s second to none; a guitarist who has completely absorbed the styles of all of the greats: Bill Broonzy, the Reverend Gary Davis, take your pick. I would compare him to Joe Pass; not stylistically, but in his complete mastery, and in his summing up of all who went before. Every aspiring fingerstyle player needs to hear this; I can see this CD inspiring another generation of players …”
Finally, I had a better idea of Steve’s unique style. I could now better appreciate his playing as well as the reason for critical acclaim.
I really enjoyed learning about some of Steve’s influencers and decided I would like to know more about them as well. So this whole experience has sparked a new interest in studying more about the early artists as well as the evolution of ragtime, blues and jazz. Fortunately, there is an abundance of information and historical recordings on the internet for self study. Though I am musically trained, I was never particularly interested in these genres so this has opened up a whole new world so to speak. I also gained a new appreciation for harmonica playing after listening to some of Will Scarlett’s collaborations with Steve and others. I am a new member of SPAH – Society for the Promotion and Advancement of the Harmonica.
A number of acoustic guitarists and musicians are featuring Facebook Live events now because of the pandemic. Rolly Brown has four weekly Facebook/YouTube guitar concerts which he titles, ‘Curve Flattening Concerts’. And with every airing, he provides interesting patter about the song selections and their composers. He has over 4,700 followers, many of whom are musicians, so this is also an opportunity to learn more about legendary and current musicians and songwriters of many genres. I am following his Facebook Live events and also those of his colleagues Alex Bevan, Frank Fotusky, Cosy Sheridan and Charlie Koch. (NOTE: Rolly released a new song on August 8, 2020 dedicated to three of his musical influencers, one of which is Steve Mann.) It’s definitely worth looking up. It’s the second song on the YouTube video below.
I wanted to document this story because it was so interesting to solve the mystery of the two Steves and to find out what Steve Mann accomplished. I will be posting a tribute on both our high school Facebook page and my own Facebook page. I will also apply to get Steve listed as a noted graduate of our high school. I would like to do my part in keeping Steve’s memory alive.
In conclusion, a few things stand out. Besides the legacy of his phenomenal playing, after enduring years of a difficult life, Steve remained humble and gracious, according to close friends. There is sadness about what might have been and poignancy about what Steve suffered with his mental illness. Admirers can take some comfort in knowing how much he enjoyed playing and performing and that he had some sense of his accomplishments. Those who knew him say he was clearly proud of his work with Janis Joplin. (The three songs he recorded with her included on the CD Alive and Pickin’ are registered with the U.S. Library of Congress.) And, there is this. And Rolly says it well, “… he is also possessed of many qualities that ‘sane’ people might emulate. He is polite to a fault, and shows genuine interest in other people. He has a good sense of humor and he doesn’t seem to feel much bitterness or do much complaining regarding the fairly squalid circumstances in which some of his time is spent. He is just generally a warmhearted, likeable guy, which is probably why, along with his musical gifts, that he has so many friends.”
I note also the impact that one person can have on another’s life. A major influence was Dick Rosmini, at one time (per Wikipedia) considered the best 12-string guitarist in the world, who was Steve’s guitar teacher and mentor. Rosmini produced, Straight Life, Steve’s only album recorded in a studio. Will Scarlett was his friend through thick or thin for over 40 years. Janet Smith, in particular, was responsible for getting his CDs produced and, according to Rolly, was Steve’s guardian angel in his last years. Rolly Brown continues to be a faithful follower, preaching the good news of Steve’s musicianship and keeping his legacy alive. These friends as well as other devotees made all the difference in Steve’s life. And for that, I and so many others are so grateful. I like what my brother, Ken, said, “He should be remembered for his musical accomplishments.” Amen to that.