2016 Liddell Award Honoree
January 1, 2016
When Guy Zimmerman was around five years old, a cousin who was three times his age rode into town on a freight train with his bundle and his guitar. It was the middle of the Great Depression in Milford, Indiana, and Dick Zimmerman, the eldest of the Zimmerman cousins, made a lasting impression on Guy.
“He was an honest to goodness railroad bum,” Guy Zimmerman said, pointing at a picture of his cousin in a newspaper. “Imagine this guy coming in, knapsack on his back. My eyes got big.”
Dick Zimmerman would visit relatives, work for a few months, then take off again. But while he was there he taught Guy’s older sisters about the guitar. Young Guy watched in awe.
“Imagine a little kid with someone like that coming into your life,” Zimmerman said. “That was something else.”
Dick Zimmerman later became famous as Dugout Dick, the Idaho Caveman. Dugout Dick lived in a series of caves he dug by hand into the hills near the banks of the Salmon River. Newspapers and television stations did stories about him. Johnny Carson even invited him to be a guest on The Tonight Show, an offer Dugout Dick, who died in 2010 at age 94, declined.
“He was a hippie before there was such a thing,” Zimmerman said. “He was quite a character.”
Spend a little time with Zimmerman and stories like this come pouring out. Most of the stories revolve around music. Through his store, Guy Zimmerman Music, Zimmerman influenced a generation. For 32 years the building on South Calhoun was where aspiring musicians went to buy instruments, take lessons and dream of stardom. Zimmerman closed the store in 1997, but his way with music and people hasn’t changed. At 85, he continues to share his generous spirit, warmth and talent.
Zimmerman graduated from Milford High School in 1948, where he was the manager of the only undefeated basketball team in the school’s history. When I visited him at his home, he led me to his music room in the basement where he had scrapbooks spread out in anticipation.
“I was the 13th member of a 12-man squad,” he said as he pointed himself out. “We still had leather balls. Had to polish those leather balls.”
Over the next couple of years he began pursuing music more seriously, still struck by the influence of his cousin.
“After I left school I started to do some singing here and there,” he said. “My big thing was the amateur contests. They had tons of those – local Moose Lodges and Eagles in the Elkhart, Goshen and South Bend area. When the local Lions Club had a contest, I won the contest and they transported me to Chicago to be on WGN television.”
Hoping to make an impression on the WGN contest hosts and the audience, Zimmerman started learning the song “How High the Moon.”
“Les Paul had just recorded that song,” Zimmerman said. “I almost hurt myself trying to duplicate his sounds. Only later did I find out he was multiplexing.”
When he got to the contest with his $100 Gibson guitar and his $100 amp, he debated on whether to play “How High the Moon” or a simpler tune.
“I did a lot of work on the guitar,” he said. “I play all styles. Red Foley had a song called ‘Old Shep.’ I asked them if I should do ‘How High the Moon,’ this technical stuff, or ‘Old Shep.’ They said, ‘Old Shep.’”
Around the same time, Zimmerman discovered there was more to life than music. He met Peggy Heeper.
“In April of 1950 I met a gal,” he said. “She was very shy. We got married that September. We’ve been married 65 years.” The couple has five children, 12 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.
In 1955 Zimmerman got the opportunity to audition for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a radio and television show that ran on CBS from New York City in the late 40s through the mid-50s. Zimmerman had barely started his audition when he got the hook.
“It was 18 hours on a train for 20 seconds auditioning,” Zimmerman recalled.
That same year Zimmerman moved his family from Milford to Fort Wayne where he got a series of jobs working for radio station WGL and selling vacuum cleaners and sewing machines door-to-door. By 1960 Zimmerman was getting antsy. He was still playing music and had recently met a man named Cliff Smith who owned the music store where Zimmerman had been taking lessons.
“He was the one who gave me one-on-one tutoring to help round out my music education,” Zimmerman said. “I’m one of those guys who is basically self-taught, but until I had someone like Cliff Smith I lacked a full education.”
Smith was a clarinet player and an arranger who had his own band, the Cliff Smith Orchestra. Zimmerman remembers seeing a poster for a show in Louisville featuring the Cliff Smith Orchestra. The next week the same venue was hosting Duke Ellington.
“I interviewed at Cliff Smith Music,” Zimmerman said. “I kind of stuck my neck out. I told him I was a pretty good reader and if he ever needed a part-time instructor he should give me a call. Two or three months later I got a call. He made me a proposition to work for him. At that time, they would charge a student $1.20 for a half-hour music lesson. The teacher got to keep 90 cents. But he wanted me full-time. Starting salary was about $25 a week. Salespeople got seven percent for guitars and amps, 10 percent if you sold them guitar strings. Keep in mind at that point I had three girls. I brought this proposition home to my wife. Can you imagine?”
In January of 1965 Smith retired and Zimmerman bought the store. Zimmerman’s timing could not have been better. The year before, The Beatles had sparked the British Invasion, and soon every kid wanted a guitar.
“The second year I owned it we stocked about 300 guitars,” he said. “We would be buying instruments by the dozens almost, in certain models. At that time the Japanese were starting to make many instruments, and they were coming in at a good price range for the student. We figured that we could sell to the student, teach them, and hopefully they would buy their instruments from you – their first and their second.”
The plan worked well. Soon Zimmerman had 30 employees, most of them part-time teachers. Over the years, many now-familiar names taught at Guy Zimmerman Music, names like Kenny Taylor, Steve Smeltzer and the late George Ogg.
On a recent Friday, I stopped into Deer Park Pub to catch Possum Trot Orchestra’s final set. Band members John Minton and Bob Vananda had already packed up and left, so I asked Dave Kartholl, Kevin Jackson and Jon Hartman if they had any stories to share about Zimmerman. (Kartholl plays guitar, bass and mandolin while Jackson and Hartman are both drummers.) Their faces lit up and the words began to flow. I didn’t take notes, but the gist was that each had learned as much about being a good person from Zimmerman as they did about being a good musician.
Zimmerman would routinely ask young players in his store if they would teach lessons. A common response, according to these three veteran musicians, went something like this:
Young Player: “I can’t teach. I don’t know enough.“
Guy Zimmerman: “You know more than people just starting out.”
Christopher Guerin, vice president of corporate communications at Sweetwater, recalled buying a guitar from Zimmerman in the early 90s.
“I bought my Yamaha LD 10 dreadnought from Guy,” Guerin said. “He was an absolutely charming person to deal with. I was ambivalent about whether I wanted that guitar or one that was sold in a different store, a different brand and I went back and forth. Finally, Guy played it for me and that turned the trick. He is such a fine musician. When he played that for me that’s what turned it.”
At one point in the late 70s he had two Fort Wayne stores and one in New Haven. But by 1997, the business had begun to change. Superstores appeared on the scene and smaller shops like his had trouble competing.
“What I found out real quickly, when you open a second store in a town the size of Fort Wayne, it immediately took 20 percent from the gross of my other store,” he said. “So you didn’t gain that much profit-wise. We continued then with the single store right on through till ’97. Like a lot of stores, it just kept on going down. We had fewer and fewer students, fewer and fewer teachers, fewer full-time people. During the years two of the young men who happened to play guitars married two of my daughters, so they were at the store for a while. Kind of tough when you have to say, guys, we ain’t making it. Go find yourselves jobs. Eventually, it’s Peg and myself and my oldest boy. Teachers were still a part-time thing. As long as you had teachers you had somebody coming in the door.”
By 1997 Zimmerman had decided to close the store and retire. Guerin recalled that when he bought his Yamaha in the early 90s, the walls of Zimmerman’s store were covered with Polaroids of customers with their guitars. One day an envelope arrived in the mail from Guy Zimmerman Music.
“The remarkable thing was when he closed the store he mailed me that photograph,” Guerin said. “I still have that picture. I like to tell people that the world became a slightly lesser place the day Guy Zimmerman’s store closed up.”
Zimmerman retired from the music instrument business, but not from music. Almost as soon as he closed the store he hooked up with an organization called Audiences Unlimited. Audiences Unlimited, which was started 43 years ago by Lillian Embick, provides music for people in hospitals and nursing homes. (Guerin happens to be on the board of Audiences Unlimited.)
Embick, who is in her 90s, retired a few years ago. She recalled Zimmerman as a crowd favorite and a “very nice man.”
“He is very kind,” Embick said. “Always has a smile on his face. He just sent me a Christmas card. Last year I was over in Canterbury rehab, and he came to visit me. None of our other entertainers came. The people he plays for love him. Some of our entertainers just pack up and leave when they finish. He always stays and visits with people. I wish we had more like him.”
Zimmerman sees his work with Audiences Unlimited as a way to thank the community for their support through the years. And while the meager stipend the organization can afford to pay is far less than scale, Zimmerman puts his musician’s heart into it even as his businessman’s head is keeping score.
“Been doing that for 18 years,” he said. “This week I have 11 engagements which is too much. We work for expense money. My attitude when I left the store is look, Fort Wayne’s been good to me. I don’t mind playing for expense money. I intended to do it for five years. Payback time. It’s been 18 years at 25 bucks a gig.”
As my interview with him drew to a close, he plugged in his guitar and played a song he was working on for his nursing home audiences. “Christmas Time,” the classic tune from A Charlie Brown Christmas, came haltingly from the speaker.
“The one thing that I do is I get up at 5 a.m. daily,” he said. “My store never opened till 10, but that’s when I do my practice. Peg is hard of hearing, so it doesn’t bother her. And that’s how I have time to take on a new instrument like mandolin. What I have done through the years is try to develop my repertoire, so I have songs that I can play to fit every holiday.”