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Fort Wayne is home to a lot oftalented people. Some make a name for themselves either locally or,occasionally, beyond the city limits. Some remain obscure forever, never reallysharing their talents with anyone. Many fall somewhere in between – knownto those closest to them and even beyond, but never really “hitting itbig.”
An example of the latter is JonMcCoy, a singer and guitarist who performed all over the country, hitting manyof the little clubs that fill our cities. Although a jazz guitarist of note anda respected singer, McCoy never found fame or fortune as a musician, but thepeople he entertained in Allen County in recent years were devoted, making hisperformances a regular part of their week.
Now, less than two months afterhis unexpected death at 64, his family and friends are planning a tribute tothe man they loved and whom audiences admired. Led by his musical partner, PaulStewart – who is also well-known as part of the Chris and Paulpartnership – an evening of entertainment is planned for August 22, anight that will feature Stewart and McCoy’s own son, a talented singer in hisown right. Fittingly, the celebration of McCoy’s life and work will take placeat Hall’s Guesthouse on Washington Center Road, the place where McCoy and Stewarthad been regularly performing on Tuesday nights.
To only know that McCoy andStewart sometimes performed together is to only know part of the story. Theirshared experiences began before they’d ever met, and those stories tell thehistory of an ever-changing music business, as well as conveying some of thehistory of Fort Wayne.
Jon and I met at Piere’s,”recalls Stewart. ‘I was working at Crooners, and Jon sang there one night. Heand I found out we’d started out at the same time and had played a lot of thesame places, including the old Van Orman Hotel here in Fort Wayne – theold hotel that used to be down on Berry and Harrison.
Their common ground providedgood fodder for an act, and the pair began performing regularly together at thePiere’s complex as well as Legion 47, where they developed a rabid following.They also discovered a valued friendship.
“Jon was a tough Irishman,”laughs Stewart. “But he was just a lovable guy.”
McCoy’s own road to Fort Waynebegan in Springfield, Illinois in 1943, with music becoming an important factorin his life early on. McCoy’s son, J.J., who will be among those performing atthe August 22 tribute, recently discovered something that told part of thatstory in his late father’s own words.
“I found a life story that hewas working on,” says J.J. “I don’t know if he knew his time was short or if hejust wanted to put it all down, but it tells a lot about his life.”
Part of that autobiographyshares how he came to start playing the guitar.
“It’s 1957, and I was that weirdage of 14,” he wrote. “Quiet, sullen times until Dad bought me a hollow-bodyHarmony guitar. Pretty thing – blonde body and all. I started pickingaway at it, wishing I knew some chords. I asked Dad if I could take lessons. Hehad reservations because I took accordion lessons and dropped out when I was11. He’s was a soft touch, though. I began taking lessons at McNeil studios indowntown Springfield. By this time I was 15 and had my driver’s permit. I wasproceeding so well that he bought me an electric guitar. It was a Silvertone.Only Sears sold this model. It was brown and had the basic capabilities (volumecontrol and a tone knob for treble to bass). A little amp came with it. When Itook lessons, I took the Harmony. It was easier to transport back and forth.
“A whole new world was openingto me. People wanted me to play whenever there was a get-together. Relativesthought their Jonnie Joe was a virtuoso. Friends always asked me to bring alongmy guitar. At first, I used to hang it over my bed over the headboard ’til onenight the strap broke and fell on my head. I guess you might say I had musicpounded in my head.”
Although it was thatguitar-playing that first drew attention, McCoy focused on singing later in hislife, and it was his voice, Stewart says that impressed everyone who heard him.
“I never heard Jon sing a songout of key,” says Stewart.
Although Stewart plays a varietyof musical styles and genres, when he and McCoy played they stuck to aparticular type of music.
“Jon sang a lot of Sinatra andDean Martin, a lot of that Rat Pack stuff, and the audiences at the Legionreally loved it. I play the keyboards and play a lot of different stuff withChris, everything from big band to hip hop. Jon stayed in one era – but hedid that era very well.”
The McCoy tribute pays homagenot only to his own life and career, but to the combined 98 years ofentertainment experience that he and Stewart shared each time they took thestage together. The inclusion of McCoy’s son is particularly significant toStewart since he’d seen McCoy’s sons grow up and had observed the relationshipthey had with their father.
“Jon had four sons, and I saw somuch love between them and their dad. I remember when J.J. was in college, andsometimes he’d come out to Piere’s and he’d just sing his fanny off all nightlong. Those boys can all sing, just like their dad.”
With the help of Stan Liddell ofPiere’s, who has long provided a musical home for Stewart and who provided anearly stage for his work with McCoy, Stewart is pleased to be able to provide afitting memorial for his departed friend and musical partner.”
“I just wanted to do somethingfor the family,” he says. “It’s just going to be a night to remember Jon. We’llstart at 9 p.m. and go to whenever, and a lot of friends will come in. He wasjust a talented guy who didn’t get much exposure, but he did have quite afollowing.”