20 January 2010

Joe Maniscalco

IN EVERY beachfront city, there is a guy in a Hawaiian shirt who knows every song by James Taylor, by Neil Young, by Van Morrison and, of course, by Jimmy Buffett.

If he’s a run-of-the-mill performer, he’ll just carry an acoustic guitar. But if he’s an above-average player, maybe he’ll have bongos or a trumpet. The best can take requests, anything from “Sweet Caroline” to “The Girl From Ipanema,” and are proficient at steel drums and harmonica and saxophone.

Along Hampton Roads waterways and watering holes, Joe Maniscalco has been that guy for more than 30 years. He is the omnipresent, everbooked crooner who worked as a pipefitter but is best known for his pipes.

Ask him when he first performed, and he is always the showman: He came out screaming at birth.

And if it weren’t for the twinkle in his eye and the rasp of his voice, you’d pass it off as a witty canned answer. But his story has such a Forrest Gump-like quality to it, so many twists with fame and unlikely chances, that after a long conversation, I’m ready to believe it’s true.

And if I had to guess, I’d say he was probably the hardest-working baby in the room.

Maniscalco picked up the violin at age 4, then took up the bongos, the trumpet and later the guitar.

He could have been a dancer. He once landed a scholarship but hurt his leg and fractured his skull in a footrace settling a bet. By the time he healed, he was 22 and already considered too old. So he performed in a madrigal group, in choruses, in community theater. He played at weddings, then wedding receptions, then cruise ships and, before he knew it, in bars up and down the East Coast.

If his life were a movie, there would be a montage scene where he walks past the long lines of nightclubs and gets escorted right in. He plays guitars. He travels to the islands. He attends international wine tastings. He goes through an “Urban Cowboy” phase. He plays jazz. He plays Bon Jovi. He is loved. End montage.

In Hampton Roads, he’s been the go-to guy for entertainment. Some years he was invited to play charity events seven days a week – so many he had to turn them down because he needed to gig for money. He was a hit in the groundbreaking-ceremony circuit because he provided a speaker and microphone.

He played the first Bay Days, the first Neptune Festival, the first Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. In the early ’80s, he was getting as many three gigs a day, sometimes earning $600 apiece.

He opened for Hall & Oates and Chicago. He sang “Brown Eyed Girl,” sometimes multiple times a day. He played in 11 countries and 39 states.

He was the workingman’s musician.

He claims to play Buffett more than Buffett.

But sometimes by that second set, the smoke in the room would get in his eyes. His throat would swell up.

When you sing like Joe, when you play two trumpets at the same time like Joe, when you make “Unforgettable” unforgettable like Joe, you go through a lot of air.

And he was sucking it all in – the hints of perfume, the particles of the drinks, the microscopic granulates of the food – and, of course, the smoke.

If performing wasn’t his full-time job, if it was merely something he did a couple of weekends a month, his lungs would have never been a problem.

And if he’d hit the big time, he probably would have played a couple hundred dates one year, then taken the next year or two off. Again, his lungs never would have been a problem.

But because he was the hardest-working showman in Hampton Roads, he was cursed: Joe got burned. So did his lungs.

In October 2008, doctors said they should remove his lung. It was already scarred by secondhand smoke even though Joe had never smoked a day in his life. They told him he could play private parties, but not the places that allowed smoking. His immune system was already too vulnerable to pneumonia.

This was the exact reason he had been begging for a public smoking ban in Virginia’s bars and restaurants. He’s played for eight senators, four congressmen and a dozen delegates. He had pleaded for a smoking ban. But while they bickered in Richmond, Joe’s lungs were getting worse.

When the law finally passed, he danced for joy. He could always dance. It was a way to meet girls.

But he says it’s too late for him and his voice .

Sure, he has health insurance, but because he’s been self-employed it is the lousy kind of health insurance. He guesses his medical bills range from a quarter of a million to a half-million dollars.

So on Jan. 31, his friends are throwing a nine-hour benefit at Knuckleheads Roadhouse in Virginia Beach. Eighteen bands, almost all of whom Joe has played with, will be there to raise money to help pay his medical bills. Joe goes on last.

In a best-case scenario, that final set will be a mini-Woodstock, full of 25-minute jams and appreciative hugs.

And when it’s over, when his health comes back a little more, Joe will be back playing again, back in a Hawaiian shirt and blazer again, back in Margaritaville, with an acoustic guitar and friends onstage, inhaling the cleanest air he’s played in in years.

It might not be too late after all.

Mike Gruss, (757) 446-2277, mike.gruss@pilotonline.com

A nine-hour benefit Jan. 31 will help pay the medical bills of Joe Maniscalco, a local man who could out-Buffett Buffett.

by mike gruss

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