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Mitch Albom talks to Stephanie Sy

The author talks about his book ‘The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto,’ a tale about the greatest guitarist ever to live

Stephanie Sy: Let's start with your new book, because it's about music. It's called "The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto." What's so interesting to me about it is it is written through the voice of music. What kind of voice or personality does music have?

Mitch Albom: Well, in my imagination, music is very proud to begin with. It's proud of itself. It sees itself as the greatest of all talents. This book, it begins at a funeral, where music has come to collect the talent that was inside the soul of Frankie Presto, who is my mythical hero, who was the greatest guitar player to ever walk the earth. And while music is at the funeral, it decides it's going to stay and listen to all the hosannas being thrown at its prodigy because it's so proud of this young man's life. As the book goes on, you start to hear about his life, you start to hear some of the mourners at the funeral. But you keep hearing it in the voice of music. 

Talk about Frankie Presto. He's this virtuoso. He works with all of the music greats — Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley. What story did you want to tell through this character?

So my theme that I wanted to do, having been a musician myself, I know that there's a certain relationships within a band. When you're in a band, even though you're not speaking, you're speaking musically. Everybody has a certain role to play in a band. I realized that that's very much what life is like in all the other bands that you join. Family, a workplace, school, army. Everybody sort of has a role. I wanted to do a theme about, well, a musical book but show that how we all influence each other — whether you're in a band of musicians or you're just in a band in life, you influence people that you come in contact with your talents. Frankie became sort of this great symbol of that because he is the greatest guitar player to ever walk the earth. 

And he's sent to America when he's 9 or 10 years old with a single guitar and six magic strings. And those strings, empowered by his playing, can actually change people's lives. And when they change a life, they turn blue. He gets six sort of opportunities with these blue strings over the course of his life to change six lives. Again, sort of a metaphor of how we affect one another with our talents and with our music.

The last element was — he's sort of Forrest Gump. He's fictional, but everything else in the book is real. So he's with Duke Ellington's band, and he travels over with Django Reinhardt, the jazz guitar player. He ends up influencing Little Richard and singing “Tutti Frutti,” and he backs up Elvis, and then Elvis doesn't show up one night, and he takes over for him. And he's at Woodstock, and he meets Tony Bennett later in his life. There's all these real people who were nice enough, many of them, to let me actually write in their voices in the book. But he's fictional. 

In some ways, did he have your dream life, to be able to meet all of these people?

Yeah, I guess he did. Haven't thought of it that way, but yeah, I suppose a lot of my own musical fantasies were sort of played out. He personifies what I would like my musical playing to do, except Frankie Presto is a much better musician than I was or ever will be.

But you wanted to be a musician from a young age. You wanted to be a musician?

It's all I wanted to be. I didn't write anything until I was already well into my 20s because everything I wanted to do was based around music. I put myself through college playing music. Then when I got out, I tried to make it as a musician in New York.

What happened?

I failed. Like many people. Maybe if I had stayed with it longer, something else might've happened. But I found that it was breaking my heart. I was so in love with music, and music had been everything I dreamed about my whole life.

‘Everybody sort of has a role. I wanted to do a theme about, well, a musical book but show that how we all influence each other – whether you’re in a band of musicians or you’re just in a band in life, you influence people that you come in contact with your talents.’

Mitch Albom

With this new book, "The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto," there's also something special about it because there's a soundtrack that goes with it in which you are actually able to also do your music.

Yeah, finally. Thirty-five years after trying to make it in the music business, I have a record. It grew out organically. Frankie Presto has this real career, and he comes to America, and he's this virtuoso guitar player, as you say, even by the time he's a teenager. But then he falls into the whole rock 'n' roll thing, and he becomes very handsome, and they turn him into, like, the next Elvis.

And for a period of time, they tell him, “Don't worry about the guitar. Just go out there and dance.” And he does. Of course, it's a metaphor for sort of losing what really is where your heart is. And he puts the guitar away, this magic guitar, and he becomes very popular, but he loses his soul along the way, and he loses the girl of his dreams and all the rest of it. Then eventually, when he kind of realizes what's happened and fame disappears on him, as it frequently does, he works his way back to the actual guitar. And so along the way, I wrote about these songs. Like his first hit song was called "I Want to Love You." I just made it up, and I gave it some lyrics 'cause that's the kind of songs that they were singing in 1960. And after I was finished with the book, I said, “You know, it would be really cool if these songs were real songs,” because in my head, they were real songs. And so I ended up calling a bunch of different people and meeting some of them for the first time and saying, “Would you like to write the real song of the fictional song that was supposed to have been written in 1960?”

And they loved it. I mean, to a person, all the musicians I contacted, they loved, like, an assignment. Consequently, we ended up with a soundtrack album that has six original songs of fake songs that were created by me in the book. And we made a soundtrack.

Mitch Albom and Stephanie Sy

Let's go back to 1997 and "Tuesdays With Morrie" comes out, because that is one of the best-selling memoirs of all time. But it is also a book that I think a lot of people still associate with Mitch Albom. It was a story, of course, about a professor of yours who was dying of ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis]And sort of the lessons that he left you with. 

I'd never written anything that had any kind of sensitivity to it, unless you call, like, a free throw sensitivity or something. I really didn't know what I was doing. He was an enormous influence on my life. Everything that I write basically is a stem from a "Tuesdays With Morrie" tree. Even the themes of "Frankie Presto" and how we affect one another, I don't think I would've thought of those things if I hadn't been exposed to how a professor who's no longer here — OK, he's been dead for almost 20 years this month — is still affecting people in schools and even in our conversation right here, long after he's gone. So that ripple effect of how you affect people is actually one of the themes of the "Frankie Presto" book.

One of the lines from "Morrie" is "Giving makes me feel like living." And it is actually a creed that you, Mitch, seem to be living up to with the amount of charity work that you seem to devote. Talk about what the focus of a lot of these charities is.

They're twofold. I have a charity called SAY Detroit, basically just helps needy Detroiters from birth all the way till senior citizen years. It started when I was in line at a homeless shelter doing a story and during the 2006 Super Bowl. And it's a whole long thing about they were scooping all the homeless people off the streets in Detroit and trying to hide them from the general public, which I thought was awful.

And so I went down to spend a night at the shelter to write about what this was all about. While I was on line, the guy in front of me — we're waiting for the meal — and he turns around, he looks me up and down, he says, “Aren't you Mitch Albom?” And I said, “Yeah.” And then he looks me up and down again. He says, “So what happened to you?” you know? And he just presumed that I had fallen from grace.

And that you were a homeless person?

Yeah, I was on line. And after I kinda chuckled, then I realized, that's a perfectly acceptable question. I'm pretty sure he never figured to be on that line himself. And it really was one of those moments — everybody has them — where you just can't stop thinking about it. And I wrote that column, I think, infused with the spirit of that moment.

Detroit — and Michigan in general — is an incredible place for charitable giving, considering how hard pressed it is and considering, you know, Detroit, one of the most bankrupt cities in America a few years ago. Most of my work is there. And then I have an orphanage in Haiti that I've been going to for the last six years or I've been operating for the last six years. I go every month for three or four days. 

You know, I wasn't blessed to have children of my own. I kind of look at this as sort of my — this is what I was fated to sort of be when it comes to whatever father instincts I must have.

I know everything there is to know about these kids. I know where they came from. I know their backgrounds. And I don't ever think you can save Haiti. I never tell anybody that you can. That's a country with a lot of problems. But you can save this much of it. And if everybody saves this much of it, you know, you can make a dent. And that's my this much, those 40 kids. 

‘So I move between a lot of faiths. I pray every morning, and I thank God for what I have. I also don’t believe that you’re supposed to start telling everybody else what they’re supposed to do with their faith.’

Mitch Albom

Reading your writing is almost like a spiritual, almost quasi-religious experience, I think. I'm just curious whether that is a part of your life in any way?

Yeah. I was raised with faith. Faith is a big part of my life. Probably more in a spiritual and knowledgable way than, like, rabid attendance at any particular place, mostly because I'm not in a particular place. When I'm in Haiti, it's a Christian mission, and there's church, and so I'm sitting in the church services.

When I'm at home or go back to where I grew up on the East Coast, I'll go to the synagogue that I was raised in. My wife is Christian. So I move between a lot of faiths. I pray every morning and I thank God for what I have. I also don't believe that you're supposed to start telling everybody else what they're supposed to do with their faith. I think I got more than my own hands full just trying to figure out my relationship with a higher power than for me to tell you or anybody else what they're supposed to do.

I'm always pleased and a little surprised when my books are embraced by different religions, many of whom don't believe the same thing, but they'll embrace the book. I think a lot of what faith is about, people react to because "Oh, no, that's a Jewish idea. That's a Christian idea. That's a Hindu idea. That's a Muslim idea." But if you didn't know where it came from and you just heard the idea, you might say, "That's a great idea." 

If the idea is as simple as just giving makes you happy and makes you want to live.

Yeah. What difference does it make where it came from, you know? And I think — Morrie said to me at the end of his life, he said, "I've become a religious mutt, like a dog, mutt, you know? I take a little from here, and I got a little of this in me and a little of that in me" and, you know, that's not a terrible way to be. It means that you're open to hearing ideas from backgrounds other than your own.

Mitch Albom

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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