Paul New Stewart might have gone to college on a baseball scholarship, but it’s been in music where he’s hit his home runs.The 71-year-old musician was born in Boston, but he’s lived all over the country, making stops in Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Los Angeles. He settled in Fort Wayne in the 80s, and his dashing good looks (he’s often mistaken for Rod Stewart; more on that later) and versatile voice that allows him to cover everything from classic rock n’ roll to contemporary immediately made him a local favorite. He has seen, sung and lived it all, and at this point in his career he’s both looking back and looking forward – back on an incredible ride that included attending class with Ricky Nelson, singing the national anthem during a World Series game and performing for the Kennedys – and forward to a future in which his voice allows him to continue doing what he loves.
“My voice sounds as good as it did when I started,” he told me in a recent phone conversation. “When I listen to tapes from years ago and tapes I’ve made recently, there’s really no difference. No difference at all.”
Fort Wayne fans obviously concur. Stewart brings the house down regularly at area night spots like 4D’s Bar & Grill, Don Hall’s Guesthouse and Covington Bar & Grill, performing solo, with partner Chris Worth or with other denizens of the Fort Wayne music scene, including Kimmy Dean and Brian Frushour. But there was a time, about 20 years ago, when it seemed Stewart might never sing again.
He’d gone to Las Vegas for a convention and almost choked to death on a piece of steak. After that, he had trouble speaking and singing. He worried his career as a musician might be over until, during the planning for a party to celebrate his 50 years as a singer, he met a woman – Debbie Brabander – who had the same problems he did and told him he was probably suffering from spasmodic dysphonia, a condition in which the larynx and vocal folds involuntarily move or spasm. It causes the sufferer to speak almost as if he’s stuttering. Words are cut off. The voice goes in and out, a singer’s nightmare. Brabander recommended that Stewart seek treatment at the Bastian Voice Clinic in Chicago where they treat SD by injecting Botox directly into the vocal cords.
The treatment was like a miracle, and Stewart says he has an even greater range that he did when he began singing in the 1950s.
“I can go from a low, low Righteous Brothers sound to pretty high up the scale,” he said. “I’m so lucky to have my voice, and I want others to benefit from my experience.”
Stewart is not one of those gifted singers who takes all the credit for his own success. He’s adamant about thanking the people who helped get him to where he is today, including Kevin Ferguson at Snickers (Stewart played on his late-night TV show for two years) and Piere’s owner and founder Stan Lidell who, back when the club first opened in November of 1989, heard Stewart performing as part of the Little Darlins at what was then the 50s-themed Blueberry Hill (later known as Club Olympia).
Stewart and his Little Darlins, a band that started out playing near Disney World’s front gates, became the Piere’s house band. He went on to manage Piere’s as well as Lidell’s other property at the time, the House of Jazz and Blues downtown. He’s also responsible for Crooner’s, one of the town’s most popular karaoke spots. Stewart convinced Lidell that karaoke was the wave of the future, and Piere’s sports-themed bar was transformed into a spot where amateurs got a chance to shine. It was during this time that Stewart got his stage name. Born Paul New, he bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Maggie May himself, and Lidell started telling people Paul was Rod’s brother. People bought it.
“To this day … people still think he is my brother,” Stewart said. “I do look like him when I punk my hair up … I was chased out of Anaheim Stadium [in California] as they thought I was him, and a lady in a Vegas casino got mad at me because I would not sign an autograph. She thought I was him and told me as she left, “All you stars forget who made you.”
Stewart certainly hasn’t forgotten that baseball is where it all began for him. Several years ago he wrote a song entitled “The Ballad of Roberto Clemente” to memorialize the beloved Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder who spent much of his time off the field helping others and who died tragically in a plane crash at the age of 38. The original lyric sheet, record and music hang in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
If there were a Fort Wayne rock n’ roll hall of fame, there’s no doubt Stewart would be in it. His career got its jump start here. Having received encouragement from Chuck Berry’s piano player, Stewart decided to leave the baseball diamond for the stage, and it was during his first visit to Fort Wayne on a road tour that he met Stan Zucker, a high-powered music exec who got Stewart a record deal with Jubilee Records. The album wasn’t an overwhelming financial success, but it kept Stewart in gigs for years.
On the road he racked up the kind of experience most musicians only dream of, and in Fort Wayne he found a home where fans, nightclub owners and other musicians continue to applaud his classic style and priceless voice.
“I want to thank the city and the people for supporting me in all my ventures on the music scene,” he said.
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