Image from the Satellite Media Tour with Mitch Albom
Mitch Albom is known for writing books that have a profound impact on people. Many were moved to reconnect with a mentor after reading Tuesdays with Morrie. Others were inspired by The Five People You Meet in Heaven to help a stranger. As Albom recounted in a recent one-on-one interview, “Over the years people have come up to me after that book and have said, ‘Oh, that book changed my life.’”
Although he’s always been skeptical of the praise, it finally led to his latest novel The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto. Reflecting on his fan’s comments, Albom recalled, “I was happy to hear that but I always wondered, ‘Really? Is that a little too strong? It changed your life?’ And I began to think, ‘Well, what if somebody really had enough talent to change somebodies life?’”
The best-selling author, who once dreamed of being a musician, took that very simple concept and mixed in a little bit of rock and roll. “I created this magical character called Frankie Presto, who in my novel, is the greatest guitar player to walk the earth. He has more talent than anybody.”
But in true Albom style, Frankie has some demons to overcome. “He suffers a lot as a child. He’s an orphan and he has to go through an awful lot,” explained Albom. “As a result of that, he’s granted by the fates this magic guitar that has six strings that effect six lives over the course of his lifetime. When he really changes somebody’s fate with his playing, the string turns blue and then it disappears and he can’t use it anymore. Then it goes to five and four and three and two.”
Having started his writing career as a journalist after letting go of his musical pursuits, it makes sense that Albom would ground his fictional tale in the reality of rock and roll history. “We follow the story of [Frankie] throughout the 20th Century as he plays with all these real life musical acts. He weaves in and out… He becomes a pop star.”
Leaving no iconic rolling stone unturned, Frankie plays with everyone from Duke Ellington to Elvis Presley and is present at legendary moments like Woodstock. But as is often the case in real life, Frankie’s fame is fleeting.
“He becomes world famous and then he disappears,” revealed Albom. “All throughout it we see the different people who he has affected and how the strings turn blue when he changes their life. So it’s a metaphor for how all of our talents and the way that we mesh with the bands that we have in our lives affect one another — only it’s done in a ‘Forrest Gump’-y, mythical story.”
Knowing that Albom started his career as a pianist, it’s hard not to wonder why it took him so long to place a musician front and center in one of his stories. He conceded that the reason was “probably because it was so important to me when I was young. It was all I really wanted to do, even out of school and into my twenties.”
Abandoning his musical aspirations hit Albom hard. “When I had to give it up, I just buried it. I didn’t want to revisit it,” he admitted. “It was a little painful memory that it was something I always wanted to do but I don’t do that anymore, I write now. So, I just think I stayed away from it almost like an old feud that you can’t even remember what the argument was about anymore. I finally decided, hey, this would be a good way to tell this story about how we affect one another… But it did take about 30 years for me to get around to writing about something that had been the only thing that had mattered to me when I was young.”
As any good journalist would do, Albom worked tirelessly to get the facts in his fiction just right. He acknowledged, “I really dove into it and I put so much time and research and effort into this book. It’s twice the size of anything I’ve ever written before. I had a full-time researcher working with me so that all the historical musical stuff would be accurate.”
And, once again, Albom’s sure to inspire his readers with the books central message.
“Everybody has the ability to change a life with whatever talent they have. It’s a frequent line in the book, ‘Everyone joins a band in this life. Only some of them play music.’ And it’s true.”
Whether your group is your family or co-workers, Albom believes the same patterns ring true. “You know the dynamics that go on in a band, where there’s a lead singer who gets a lot of attention, someone who’s real steady on the drums who has to keep the beat who’s really important but doesn’t get as much attention, someone who holds down the rhythm, someone who gets to play the lead solos?” asked Albom. “That’s the way it is in life. We join bands like that in life without the instruments. Someone in the family gets more attention than someone else. Someone at the workplace is kind of the steady one and someone else is more the rock star.”
And no matter what notes you contribute to the chord, Albom wants people to know that they are key to the melody. “I’m trying to show a story about how you don’t have to have a magic guitar that turns blue to affect somebody else. You just have to have a heart that is passionate enough to theoretically turn somebody’s string blue to affect them. Everybody has that inside them if they really want to exercise it.”
As an added bonus to a great book, Albom has also released a companion CD featuring artists that are represented in the novel. He described the way it all came together, saying, “There’ve been musicians throughout this project… I asked a number of them if they would participate with me… They come to Frankie Presto’s funeral, which is where the thing begins, to pay homage to him about how great he was and how he influenced them at some point or another.”
Albom continued, “I wrote as them, incidents that they had in their lives with Frankie Presto. So, maybe he was in their band for a couple of weeks or maybe they find him on an island when he was down and out or whatever the case may be. Then when we finished the book, everybody was so pleased with that they got involved in making a soundtrack.”
The tracks include Tutti Frutti by Little Richard, (Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry by Darlene Love and God Will by Lyle Lovett. Plus, according to the author who made his own contributions to the album, “Real life artists created real songs that sound like they’re from 1960 or 1965 and they recorded those.”
So, did the soundtrack help Albom fulfill those childhood musical fantasies? “Yeah, I think 35 years later, I finally got a record out. I can check that off the list after three and a half decades.”
To find out more about The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto and the soundtrack visit Mitch Albom’s official website.
And watch this bonus video to find out which pop culture icon Mitch Albom would like to be for one day: