Randy Napoleon: Playing for the Jukebox Crowd
Why the guitar? According to Napoleon, there are practical reasons: "Guitars are not expensive. You can get a beater-upper for next to nothing. I bought my first guitar for thirty dollars with money I made mowing lawns. This makes guitar a democratic instrument, an instrument of the people." There are aesthetic reasons: "The guitar is shaped like a human body. There is a head and a neck, and a curvy body. You hold a guitar close when you play it. When you pluck a note, you actually feel the resonance of the wood in your body. The wood was once a living thing, and it still retains some qualities of life; the wood changes with the weather, it breathes. The guitar is alive." And there are symbolic reasons: "Guitar has become a symbol of romance all over; I've never heard of someone serenading a woman with a hand drum. It could be hip, I just haven't heard of it."
Napoleon's guitar of choice is his archtop. "After I found my first one, I never wanted to play any other kind. I've upgraded a few times, always large archtop guitars with heavy strings on them-I'm currently playing a Stadler guitar; it's a work of art. Tom Stadler carved this guitar by hand; he even built the pickup, everything. It's a super organic, beautiful, living, breathing instrument. I have an electric guitar, a [Fender] Telecaster that I play very occasionally if I have a gig where I'm playing top forty kind of stuff. I'm not really a great solid body player."
Brown continues, "Randy is an incredibly giving artist, really one of the least selfish musicians I know. He really puts a lot of thought in how to reach people. I've played with him for many years now, in almost every configuration you can think of, and any venue, and you can see his playing effect the audience. It's really palatable. I've never played with him and not seen an audience member totally fall in love with him. Randy is a real guitarist, pulling the sound from the strings and instrument instead of relying heavily on the amp for his sound. He is a unique and gifted musician who really connects with his audience, without watering anything down or making artistic sacrifices. Just out there, swinging his butt off!"
Adds agent Scott Levin, "Napoleon is a grounded, approachable, honest and genuine person."
And Green has this to say about his former protégé: "Randy is so admirable in how he continues to treat everyone around him with kindness and respect, be they musicians or not, older or younger, famous or relatively lesser-known."
Once Napoleon completed his tour with Green, a few years went by, during which time, Napoleon says, "I was working with my own groups, freelancing around the city and teaching guitar lessons." Then in 2004, he landed his next significant gig, playing alongside drummer Jeff Hamilton. Says Napoleon, "Jeff and Benny actually heard me for the first time on the same day. I was still in college, playing with the University of Michigan Big Band at the Notre Dame jazz competition. The funny thing is I almost didn't go to that festival because I had the worst flu of my life. I was so sick that day, pure pain. I'm really glad I went!"
In 2004, Napoleon got the opportunity to play beside, at the time up-and-coming pop sensation Michael Bublé. Did Napoleon have to audition against hundreds of other talented young guitarists to earn his position? Nope. "Bublé took me on the recommendation of the band," Napoleon explains. "I guess my first tour was an audition of sorts. Michael was very welcoming. My first date with him was in Newcastle, England. I had finished a tour with the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra two days before, in Japan. I remember the travel day connecting the two tours vividly: Tokyo to JFK, I took a cab home to get fresh clothes, then right back to JFK, and from JFK to London Heathrow, Heathrow to Newcastle. Man, I was messed up!
"I had the jitters I get anytime I'm starting with a new group," Napoleon continues. "I met Bublé at sound check; the first thing he said to me was, 'Don't think of this as a professional gig, I want this to be the best time of your life.' I thought that was pretty cool. It really was like a crazy party for those years in his band."
Napoleon says, "Michael is a very intelligent guy. He is an amazing entertainer. Michael is pure bottled charisma. On and off the bandstand, he knows how to conduct himself as a star. I gained more appreciation for pop music when I was with him."