January 25, 2007
I had barely settled into my chair on the patio of the Venice Restaurant when Paul New Stewart asked me if I had heard of a comedian from the 1950s named Rusty Warren. I hadn’t. They shared an agent. Gifted piano player, he said. Went to Julliard. First off-color female comedian. “One day she gets up and starts doing standup,” Stewart said. “She wrote this song called ‘Knockers Up.’ It was about three minutes long. Sold 18 million copies. They put me on her label, Jubilee Records. She lives in Hawaii now. I was really too young, like 22. People don’t know who you are. I was travelling with my band. Takes about 15 years to get your act together.”
Stewart (his birth name is Paul New – the Stewart was added as a sort of riff on his resemblance to Rod Stewart) had with him two LPs, one with “What’s New? Paul New and Crew. That’s What’s New!” and a picture of his Dixieland band on the cover. The other titled Catch This! was by his band Paul New and Steel City and featured Stewart clutching a football while perched on the face mask of an enormous Pittsburgh Steelers helmet.
“I had met (Steelers founder) Art Rooney and he gave me permission to use the Steelers logo,” Stweart said. “I got that football from Fran Tarkenton and Karl Kassulke.”
Tarkenton and Kassulke played for the Minnesota Vikings, and one day Stewart stopped by a hospital to visit Kassulke who had just had a career-ending motorcycle accident while on the way to training camp.
“I remember he had the hiccups and couldn’t get rid of them,” Stewart said. “So I told him to take a big mouthful of water, stick his fingers in his ears and swallow slowly. He thought I was joking. But he did it and the hiccups went away.
It took about 15 minutes for Stewart to warm up, 15 minutes of stream of consciousness recollections of his life in music, musicians and sports figures he’d met, tales that zipped to and fro across the continent, surfing his memories, smiling and laughing and cursing the whole time. Then he asked,
“Okay, where do you want to start?”
Good question. The purpose of the interview, my reason for being there, was to find out about Stewart’s pending relocation to Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California after nearly three decades of living and working in Fort Wayne. After all, Stewart has been a staple of the Fort Wayne music scene for years, playing keyboards with Chris Worth in Chris & Paul, piano with Brian Frushour in Dueling Pianos and vocalist Kimmy Dean, to name the main collaborations. But after an opening like that, his moving plans seemed beside the point. He told me anyway.
“Not to put music down, but this town has dried up,” he said. “There used to be bands everywhere. Today it’s become more civic stuff, fundraisers. And my brother died. My sister-in-law has a house in Seal Beach, about a mile and a half from the water. I’m going to get a moped and ride to the beach every day. Her family has a condo in Avalon on Catalina and it sits empty seven months of the year, so I’m going to live there as well. I’ll live for free. What would you do?”
Stewart’s time in Fort Wayne began when Piere’s owner, the late Stan Liddell, contacted him about being the house band at Piere’s. Stewart, who found his way to Fort Wayne on his own, said his band, the Little Darlins, had been playing the 50s-themed Blueberry Hill, just a stone’s throw from where we were sitting. The Liddell connection led to Stewart’s managing Piere’s and one of Liddell’s other clubs, The House of Jazz and Blues on the Landing.
It all seemed like a natural fit for Stewart. His father, Joe New, was a popular hotel manager at the famed Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in the 50s. The Ambassador also had Coconut Grove, the hot spot of the era.
“When I was a kid I used to do my homework in the Coconut Grove watching Harry Belafonte,” he said. “I met Harry James, Gordon McRae, all the old-timers back then. My mother had just died and Harry would take me to breakfast every morning and talk about life.”
Born in Boston, Stewart moved with his family to Pittsburgh, then California, where he attended Loyola Marymount University on a baseball scholarship. After two years at Loyola, he transferred to St. Louis University. In St. Louis he fell in with the Dixieland crowd and started Paul New and Crew playing the trumpet. That’s when his varied adventures began.
Being a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and gifted vocalist allowed Stewart enormous latitude in his life as a professional musician. It also got him in a position to meet the famous and soon-to-be famous.
Stewart loved Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirate standout who was killed in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972. On January 1, 1973 Stewart wrote “The Ballad of Roberto Clemente.” The song wound up in the Baseball Hall of Fame and won Stewart an invitation to sing the National Anthem at the 1979 Hall of Fame induction of Willie Mays and during the 1979 World Series.
As an Elvis impersonator at the Minnesota State Fair in Minneapolis, Stewart met Prince, then in his teens. A guy Stewart knew also knew Prince and told him the young musician was impressed by his Elvis act.
Stewart once drove the Oak Ridge Boys through a snowstorm back to their hotel in Minnesota following a dinner at a mutual friend’s house. It also happened to be the night John Lennon was murdered. Later, following a gig at Piere’s, the Oak Ridge Boys paid a visit to Stewart’s apartment in Canterbury Green where they recorded background vocals on Stewart’s version of “Sail Away.” You can hear it on Stewart’s Reverbnation page.
The stories go on and on. You can hear them in person just by going to one of his Wednesday gigs nights at the Venice with Kimmy Dean. But after February if you want to hear Paul New Stewart sing and play and talk you’ll have to track him down on the beaches of Southern California.
“I love it here,” he said. “It’s a hard move. But I’m 76. How much more time have I got left when I can swim and scuba dive?”
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