Author Mitch Albom

The bestselling author of Tuesdays with Morrie discusses his inventive new novel The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, a tale about the transformative power of music.

Mitch Albom is an author, journalist, screenwriter, playwright, radio and TV broadcaster and musician. His books have sold more than 30 million copies and been made into Emmy-winning TV movies. Albom wanted to be a cartoonist but switched to music. He eventually took an interest in writing and started as a freelance sports journalist. His book, Tuesdays with Morrie—the most successful memoir of all time—made him into an internationally-recognized author. Albom is also known for his philanthropic work in Detroit, where he oversees three charities. His latest book is called The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, a unique novel, narrated by the "voice of music."

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Mitch Albom, the author of six consecutive number one New York Times bestsellers, including the bestselling memoir of all time, “Tuesdays with Morrie”. His latest text is called “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto”: an epic novel about the power of music.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with bestselling author, Mitch Albom, coming up right now.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: So pleased to welcome Mitch Albom back to this program. He’s a nationally syndicated columnist and the author of six consecutive number one New York Times bestsellers–I just love saying that, Mitch–including his massively successful memoir, “Tuesdays with Morrie”.

His latest work is called “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” a novel that weaves its protagonist, a Spanish war orphan raised by a blind music teacher, through the musical landscape of the 20th century, a brilliant idea. Before we start our conversation with Mitch, a look at this clip to set the stage for this unique story.

[Clip]

Tavis: So I’m sure some folk in the audience just got lost because I mentioned this is a novel. It is a fictional story, but these folk we all just saw in that brilliant roll-out are real live people. What a brilliant idea to market, promote, get us to be interested who Frankie Presto was. Whose idea was this?

Mitch Albom: It was my idea, but it doesn’t surprise me because it’s a book written about the power of talent, particularly the power of music, to influence people. And I’ve been blessed in my life to know a lot of musicians or get to know them, a lot of whom are in there. And when I asked them to participate in the book, not only did they participate in the book, they took it like to a whole other level.

So they made these videos as if Frankie Presto was real like Forrest Gump. And they even recorded a soundtrack album to it, which they did songs that I fictionalized in the book. So they basically remade songs that never existed, which I’m pretty sure has never happened before [laugh]. But it’s all there for a love of music that we all share.

Tavis: So who is Frankie Presto, who was Frankie Presto?

Albom: Well, Frankie Presto–I should set it up. The book is told by the voice of music, the voice of music itself, as a talent, and it explains right from the start that when you’re born, you come into the world and before you even open your eyes, you actually see a wall of brilliant colors, and those colors are actually all the talents that exist in the world.

And with your little fist, the first clench that you take with your fist, you grab the talents that actually innately most appeal to you and those become the talents that you have for your life.

Frankie Presto grabbed two massive fistfuls of music and subsequently becomes the greatest musician to ever walk the earth because he took more music at birth than anything else. So he’s this fictional musician who has a tragic early life. He’s an orphan, as you mentioned, born in Spain, loses his parents.

He bounces around from person to person and sort of as payback for that, he’s given a guitar when he’s about nine years old with six magic strings that, over the course of his life, can actually change six lives with his playing. And when it happens, his playing is so effecting and it changes someone’s fate that the string turns blue and then withers away and is gone.

On top of it being a tour de farce and a Forrest GumpZelig kind of story, it’s also a metaphor for how we are able to change other people with the talents that we are given in life if we’re true to them. We all sort of get our own blue strings to change somebody.

Tavis: There’s a lot here and I want to unpack some of it in the time that I have with you. Let me start by asking, for those of us who know you and know your past, you’re a piano player, but you made Frankie a guitar player. Why [laugh]?

Albom: Because you can’t tote a piano around [laugh] wherever you go. I mean, he wanders all over the globe. It’d be like here is Frankie pushing his piano around across Spain, you know. That just didn’t work.

Tavis: Simple enough. Okay, I guess I was asking for that. I got it. Okay. What does this novel say to us, first, about music, about the power that is pregnant inside these notes?

Albom: Well, I believe, having been a musician, that’s where I started, that there is a language that is spoken through music that is on a whole other level. You know, you can take two people from across the globe totally different in background, in ethnicity, in religion, in an economic situation, and you put them as close as you and I are and play “She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” or something, and they both start tapping their feet.

Now why is that, you know? There’s something that speaks to people on that level about music. And the universality of that is also reflected in how people get together to play music.

So having been in many bands, a line in the book that I’m sure you’re familiar with that repeats often is “Everyone joins a band in this life.” Some of them play music, but everyone’s in a band. You’re in a band, this show is a band, your family’s a band. You know, your workplace, your school place, the Army, and everybody has a certain role.

Some guy’s the lead singer, some guy has to keep the steady beat, some guy gets stuck with the rhythm chords while someone else gets to be the lead player. But the dynamics of how music works within when people come together to play is very much similar to the dynamics of human interaction, and so…

Tavis: But every band breaks up eventually.

Albom: And every band breaks up for three reasons. Divorce, death or difference of opinion, right?

Tavis: Yeah [laugh].

Albom: And that’s pretty much the way that life goes too.

Tavis: When I had this come across my desk, because I’ve known you and I think I can call you a friend…

Albom: Absolutely.

Tavis: I hope you call me a friend.

Albom: I hope you would.

Tavis: All right [laugh].

Albom: Otherwise, we got to talk about something [laugh]. What’s been going on?

Tavis: I was anxious to see when I discovered who the character, Frankie Presto, was what kind of lyrics you’d put in his mouth. It’s one thing to be a performer, but I wanted to know what kind of lyrical content you were going to put in his mouth. Tell me about that part of the book.

Albom: Well, it’s interesting that you ask that because his real talent is playing the guitar and he comes from the tradition of Spanish guitar. He’s taught by a blind Spanish guitar teacher in the tradition of Francisco Tárrega who was the father of modern classical guitar. He influenced Segovia and all the people that came after him. So his real gift is playing the guitar. He has all these adventures along the way.

He’s in Duke Ellington’s band. He convinces Little Richard to record “Tutti-Frutti” by accident and launches his career. He interacts with Hank Williams and, at one point, he’s with Elvis Presley as his backup guitar player and one night Elvis gets called to the Army to talk to them and Colonel Parker doesn’t want to cancel the show.

And because Frankie looks like Elvis and can sing like anybody, he lets him be Elvis for the night because those shows were crazy. People were in the stadium were. And he gets out and he pulls it off and that’s one little adventure.

But what happens to him is he gets a taste of fame and he hears girls screaming for him just by singing, and he becomes a pop star himself, a rock and roll star, for a couple of years and they convince him you don’t need your guitar. Just get out there and sing and be sexy. So he puts his guitar, symbolically, in the closet and that’s when bad things begin to happen to him.

So the songs that he writes and all the rest of it are secondary to his guitar playing and he goes downhill when he just focuses on being a pop star and then eventually has something terrible happen to him at Woodstock and he disappears for 20 years and becomes this recluse. And, of course, when he becomes a recluse, the whole world starts looking for him and they start chasing after him.

So the lyrics that I put in at the beginning in his songs, at first they’re very innocent. “I Wanna Love You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” and that kind of stuff. Then he writes a song for the woman who he loves who leaves him and that’s called “Our Secret”.

And then, finally, at the very end of his life, he writes a song that it’s just brokenhearted because his wife has died and he says “The clouds lay claim to a moonless sky. You are gone and I am here” which, to me, encompasses loneliness as best as I could lyrically put it.

Blessedly for me, I actually got real musicians, friends of mine who liked the concept of a book about music, of which there are not very many fictional books about music–you can count them on one hand, the well-known ones–and they went out and they recorded these songs.

They took my words and they took the title and they took the year it was supposed to have happened, and they went out and they made these songs, and I had a chance to watch them come to life as if they were real songs. Each person got them beautifully. John Pizzarelli did the final one, the great jazz guitar player. Ingrid Michaelson did the ballad. Mat Kearney did the rock and roll song.

You know, no one’s asked me that. I leave it to you, Tavis. Everyone is always asking me, you know, so where’d the idea come from, and you asked about the lyrics. That’s really something. Thank you.

Tavis: When you are writing a book like this in the century that you’re writing it in, obviously, as we said earlier, it’s kind of Forrest Gumpian in the sense that he’s moving through it through time. Did the scenes come to you? By scenes, I mean, the moments that you wanted to put him in based upon what was happening in that century.

Albom: Yeah. Well, I had to do a lot of research. This is the first book I hired a full-time researcher for. I’ve had people help me on a part-time basis before, but I had to go over to Spain. I went into the church. You know, I had translators in Spanish to find out everything that went on there.

And then all the stuff that happens in America from what studio Little Richard recorded in, to what car Hank Williams bought that he ended up dying in, to where did Duke Ellington and Django Reinhardt play together because he’s with him.

I either did all that research myself, my researcher worked with me, and a lot of it I knew because I’m just fascinated by this anyhow. But it is the most historically accurate book I have ever written. It’s like doing nonfiction except then I plop Frankie Presto in the middle of it.

So there was a lot of work, but it was fun work for me because I got to find out how many trombone players were in Duke Ellington’s band and, you know, what was the Grand Ole Opry called and what did it look like and where was the entrance in 1953? You know, that kind of thing.

Tavis: You titillated me a moment ago when you suggested that there have not been–I’ve been sitting here thinking I could have asked it the minute you said, but I wanted to take two minutes while you were talking and answering that question to think about this before I raised it, which is why there haven’t in fact been more fictional books about music. I was trying to think of a few in my head before I asked this question, but why so few?

Albom: Well, I think it’s very hard to put into words what music does to people because it is an audio medium. So how do you describe a note? How do you describe harmony other than using the words for notes in harmony?

Now because I was a musician first and a writer second, I took a stab at it and, hopefully, a few times I got some paragraphs right that can create the magic of it for people. But most people shy away from it. It’s hard to write about music just as it’s probably hard to, you know, write music that necessarily encapsulates words.

I mean, you can get beautiful, beautiful words that don’t always fit to music. They’re a little too clunky. They’re a little too awkward. The sentences don’t work. The mediums are very attracted to one another, but also like magnets, they get too close and they start to bounce off. So I’ve tried to do it in Frankie Presto.

Tavis: Quincy Jones, Q, tells me all the time, every time we talk. At some point, you talk to Q long enough, this is going to come up in conversation. He’s going to raise this point at some place in conversation whether you talk to him for five minutes or five hours.

He will eventually get to this saying. It always makes me think every time I hear him say it, which is that “There have always been, there are now, and there will always be the same number of musical notes. There are no more.”

Albom: That’s right.

Tavis: And yet, what people have done with those notes is endless when it comes to the stuff they’ve created and produced. And I thought about Q’s admonition, or Q’s statement, when I got a chance to get into your text because it reminds me and underscores for me that very point, that this is the number of notes, and look at all that’s been created by those notes. What do you make of that?

Albom: Well, first of all, he’s 100% right. And secondly, I think the music is as elastic as the human imagination. So the greater our imagination gets, the greater music will grow. No one could have imagined rap music 50 years ago, that it would become what it is.

Electronic music would have been a pipe dream, but these are legitimate and masterful forms of music as practiced now, and I think it’ll just continue to grow. It’s why I was wondering when you said Quincy, first of all. Quincy Jones is an absolute hero. If I ever got a chance to meet him, I’d probably…

Tavis: You’ve never met Q?

Albom: I have never met him.

Tavis: We got to make that happen one day.

Albom: I’d be down on the ground. I’d be doing the “not worthy” thing.

Tavis: We got to make that happen one day. He’s a great guy [laugh].

Albom: But I was wondering about the quote you were saying because another quote that an equally talented musician, Duke Ellington, was famous for having said was “Music is my mistress and she’s a jealous lover.”

I read that when I was very young and I realized a lot of musicians I know this is why music often interferes with their personal lives because once you are infected with it, nothing will satisfy you the same way. And it will always pull you back and it will always be there for you and it will never leave you the way that human beings can or whatever.

No matter who you fall in love with–and music says this as the narrator–“No matter who Frankie Presto, no matter who crossed his bed, no matter who he is, I always knew I had him because he was mine. He was full of me.”

Tavis: What kind of narrator is music?

Albom: Proud, sensitive, haughty, curious. It was such a liberating thing to write as a spirit because you’re not stuck in the first person of a real human being. You’re not stuck in that dispassionate third person narrative. So I got to ask all these questions and speak as I imagined music would speak.

For example, there’s a point where he says, you know, “What is with this money thing? I don’t know what it is. I’ve never touched it. All I know is it has taken away so many of my best artists who have chased after this money. Why does matter? I matter. What is this stuff between your fingers?”

Another point, he rails against when Frankie gets involved with Woodstock and he’s involved with drugs and things like that. And he says, “Why do people think that you’re gonna find me at the bottom of a bottle or the end of a needle? I’m already inside you. Why would I hide from you and make you go through that to get to me?”

And, of course, ever since Charlie Parker, jazz musicians and many other musicians after that and many rock and roll guys did the same thing, they think, well, he was great and he did drugs, so if I do drugs, I’ll be great.

That’s not the way that it works, you know. The music’s inside you or it isn’t. It isn’t in that needle, but I got to express that as the voice of music. So music, it thinks it’s the best talent. It says the other talents are good, but I’m the best and, if I were music, I think I’d speak that way too.

Tavis: You mentioned Woodstock. You mentioned the drugs. You mentioned Charlie Parker. Charlie Parker didn’t survive. There’s a long list of those who did not. Frankie survived. Why? I mean, the simple answer is you got to close the book in some sort of way. You need to close, yeah. You need the character, but he survived that episode.

Albom: Yeah. Well, because you can’t really teach the lesson if it ends halfway through. You know, he paid a price for his addiction and he paid an even bigger price. What preceded his addiction was his walking away from his talent and I wanted to bring that around full circle because, with all of my books–although I hope I write an entertaining story–I always try to have a theme or some kind of lesson.

Ever since “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “Five People You Meet in Heaven”, those are books that have stories and narratives, but hopefully when you’re done reading them, something sticks with you.

Well, what I wanted to stick with after this was over was that we live in a world where our talents–yes, everybody acknowledges talent, but for the most part, we only celebrate a handful of them, the talent to be a startup artist, the talent to invent the computer or something technological, or the talent to sing and win a reality show. These are the great talents or, if you can act or if you could be…

Tavis: Athletics, of course.

Albom: Yeah, and sports. But if you don’t have that handful of talent, it’s like, well, whatever your talent is, just isn’t. You didn’t get lucky with the good one. And that’s not true. I wanted to be a musician when I first came out. I dreamed of being a musician. I had paid no attention to writing. I didn’t write a thing through college or whatever. But when music didn’t work for me, I kind of failed at it, you know, economically.

And when I had to try something else, I kind of fell into writing and it turned out that that’s where I belonged and that’s where I could make a difference. And I’ve actually had people who said to me, “Tuesdays with Morrie” changed my life.” I’ve had many people say that.

And at first, I thought a book can’t change your life. What are you talking about? But then over time, I came to realize, well, books, music, whatever your talent, however it influences someone, can change your life. You may have had a conversation on this set with somebody, made them think about something, because you’re very good at what you do.

You made them think differently when they left and you altered their path a little bit. A nurse takes care of a patient in a hospital and does so with such comfort and care that, when they get better, they say, “You know what? I want to heal people too” and a life has been changed.

Now these talents may not be LeBron James’s talent or Beyoncé’s talent or Duke Ellington’s talent, but they are your talent. They’re the ones that you grabbed with those two little fists when you came into the world, and those are your blue strings, you know. That’s what you’re here to do.

Tavis: If I said to you the problem, though, is while I love the text, we live in a world that doesn’t celebrate talent. It celebrates mediocrity. It celebrates people singing in autotune. It celebrates people lip-syncing. It celebrates your curves and your looks. It celebrates your family heritage and who you know.

If I said to you that the world really doesn’t celebrate pure, unadulterated talent the way it used to, it’s all this–we’re skimming talent.

Albom: Well, first of all, I don’t disagree with your question, your premise. But I might disagree with the now. The world, what’s the world? Media? Okay, I don’t look at the world that way.

Tavis: Fair enough.

Albom: I look at it, if I’m sitting across from you and you’re playing me a classical piece, Lágrima by Francisco Tárrega, which is the central piece of that book, not “Rock Around the Clock”, you know, not the modern song…

Tavis: The Beatles song, yeah.

Albom: Right. Not The Beatles. Then that is being celebrated. If I say to you, God, that’s beautiful, and it’s me and you, why do I need the world to call attention to it? So it depends on who’s celebrating what, and it’s not an accident.

It’s only when Frankie goes back to his playing and turns inward and just plays for his wife. In fact, without giving away too much of the book, “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” is actually the name of a bootleg that somebody recorded that he didn’t know about when he was in a studio.

And he just was playing everything he ever learned to his little girl and his wife. He said something to her about those string are magical because the strings were magic, and the guy wrote “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” and put it on a shelf.

Later, somebody stole it and then it became bootleg and everyone in the world had to get it. Who was the guitar player? And they all thought it was because of his playing, and in the end towards of his life, he tries to get it back.

And you read along and you figure, well, he wants it back because he doesn’t want people selling it in his name or whatever, and that’s not it at all. He wants it back because the tape contains him laughing with his wife and his daughter and he wants to hear that again at the end of his life.

So to him, the same thing that was celebrated, “celebrated by the world”, for one reason was celebrated by him for some totally different one. So it is possible to celebrate real art. It just has to be a smaller audience sometimes.

Tavis: Is music still pregnant with the kind of power to make the kind of difference in the world today that it once did?

Albom: I think so. I think in some way even more than before as the world becomes louder and noisier and more complicated, you know. There’s a line in the book that says, “All humans are musical. Why else would the Lord give you a beating heart?” And we all have that in common, you know.

Haven’t you ever been like in a waiting room or an airport lounge and some really catchy beat comes on a song? You look around and peoples’ feet–you say, well, that guy, that fat guy over there, and that kid over there, and that tourist over there–and they’re all tapping. Why? Why? There’s something that can change us through music.

Tavis: That’s my favorite line in the book, that beating heart line.

Albom: Thank you.

Tavis: That is a powerful line. Let me close on this note. I think this may be the last question. I don’t mean to proselytize here, but I couldn’t help but think about this the minute I got the book. I’ve given speeches about this around the world. One of my favorite parables in the bible is the Parable of the Talents. And for those who’ve never read the bible know the story about the Parable of the Talents. Go find it.

There are two versions, one in Matthew, one in Luke, as I recall, but two versions of a parable called the Parable of the Talents, which leads me to ask you what do you hope the book speaks into us about how we use or abuse our own gifts, our own talents?

Albom: Well, if I remember that correctly, the parable, the lesson you walk away from it is you don’t squander it and you don’t just let it sit there. You do something with it.

Tavis: That’s right.

Albom: And we have all been given that chance. You know, in the book, it’s a fictional thing where you grab what appeals to you, but what appeals to you appeals to you for a reason. You have that ability and don’t be afraid to maximize it. Don’t be afraid to utilize it and don’t be ashamed of it or try to say, well, I don’t want to be that. I want to be this.

If it feels natural and you have that gift, be as good as you can at the thing that you were given, and you may find the satisfaction that you’re looking for rather than chasing somebody else’s talent that, for whatever reason, you didn’t grab when you came into the world. It wasn’t meant to be for you.

This speaks to a whole larger thing. If you can accept what’s meant to be for you, be satisfied in a simple sense. Your life is infinitely more at peace and happier than if you’re constantly chasing the colors that were never meant for you in the first place.

Tavis: You’ve hit that parable on the head. And the last thing about that is that, if you pursue exactly what you said, the gift that you have been given, you become the best at that, as has happened for you and me and anybody else who’s done it, it makes room for itself. It opens up other doors to do other things that you never thought imaginable because you perfected that one gift that you had.

Albom: That’s right. You’re absolutely right.

Tavis: But I digress. The book from Mitch Albom is called “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto”. He’s done it once again. Six consecutive number one New York Times bestsellers and this one is no less good than the others. Mitch, always good to have you on the program, and congratulations, my friend.

Albom: Thank you, Tavis. Great to see you.

Tavis: Good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: November 30, 2015 at 1:50 pm