FRIDAY, Dec. 4 — If this was Rate-a-Record from Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” I’d give Mitch Albom’s new book, “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto,” a 90. The book’s got a good beat, I like the lyrics, and you can dance to it — literally.
Detroit sportswriter, author and humanitarian Mitch Albom has gone all out on the newest addition to his string of inspirational books, including best-sellers “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” and “Tuesdays with Morrie.” These books carry a strong message of hope and helping others — and help sell a lot of Kleenex.
Frankly, “The Magical Strings of Frankie Presto,” which tells the Forrest Gump-esque story of a rock musician with a magical guitar that can change people’s lives, is cleverer and more hip than his previous books. In interviews, Albom himself has consistently referred to it as “my best book.”
City Pulse caught up with Albom by phone. The author, who is on an extended 22-city book tour, gives you the impression that this is the book he has lived for. Albom was able to tie together several of his loves: music, writing and his uncanny ability to recognize people who need help.
Edging up on 35 years ago, Albom was a struggling musician in New York trying to make it in the music business. Nearly four decades later, he’s finally made his first album: a musical companion to his novel, including some of the author’s favorite tunes as well as original songs co-written by Albom. (Listen to a track here.) Albom himself makes an appearance on vocals, singing his original tune, “Maalaala Mo Kaya.”
But back to the book’s namesake, Frankie Presto. Frankie, or Francisco, until his name was fine tuned by music handlers, is a musical genius who was orphaned at birth and raised by a single man who owned a sardine factory in pre-WWII Villarreal, Spain.
Frankie has been given his gift by an unnamed higher power —a musical spirit — that confers the power of music to only certain people. There is a limited supply of special powers, so they are re-collected upon death. Later, Frankie is given a magical guitar with six strings. Each time he changes a life, one of the strings turns blue. The higher power provides some of the book’s off-scene narrative. As most of Albom’s inspirational books, this one begins with a funeral.
And this is where Albom turns on the creative juices. The story begins at the end, with Frankie’s friends and musicians from all over the world turning out to tell their stories of how Frankie and his magical guitar have changed their lives.
“People say I write about heaven, but I’m really writing about those left on earth,” Albom said.
Through a series of flashbacks, Frankie and his guitar walk through musical history, beginning with his touring with renowned jazz pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington as a boy. The stories are told in first person in the voices of musicians Darlene Love, the late Marcus Belgrave, Burt Bacharach, Roger McGuinn (of the Byrds) and Paul Stanley (of Kiss), among others. through these life-changing, fictional meet-ups that Albom works in his message of hope and humanity.
Albom’s choice to make Frankie an orphan was not arbitrary. He was inspired by his humanitarian work in Haiti where he established and runs an orphanage which houses 40 children.
“The book is partly about the people who take care of (Frankie),” Albom said. “People step in and raise him. No matter what your gift, you can share that. We all join bands in life: Someone leads, someone plays back up, and the drummer is always in back.”
Albom said the most difficult thing about his new book was “writing it.”
“It’s twice as long as any of my other work (nearly 500 pages). I got to page 200 and Frankie was only 18,” he said.
He added that getting the timeline of Frankie’s musical connections was important. For that, he hired a full-time researcher to make sure he got the details right.
“We had to know the color of his pick-up,” he said, referring to the ride of the late Hank Williams. “The events I describe are real life events and historically accurate. I just put Frankie Presto in them,”
Albom worked with each of the profiled stars in his book chapters, and asked permission to use their first person voice in the book.
“Everyone I called said yes. I’d known them, so it was easy,” he said. “It was also the most fun I’ve had writing a book.”
Albom’s love and understanding of music is apparent in the book. He uses musical terms and metaphors to make his points. In addition to his New York venture into music, Albom also played in a pick-up group called the Rock Bottom Remainders featuring authors like Amy Tan and Stephen King.
As a Mitch Albom book, it almost goes without saying that millions of readers will join Frankie’s fabulist voyage through the history of the rock ‘n’ roll — all leading up to a blockbusting ending which most will not see coming.
Albom said he’s spending less time writing his Detroit Free Press sports column but his charities in Detroit (eight and counting) keep him busy. The most recent is the restoration of the Lipke Recreation Center, which had been all but abandoned by the city. He also is heading an effort to build libraries in the Philippines. Albom feels it is important to walk the talk of his books when it comes to giving back.
“Those with talent and who have a lot need to give back,” he said.
When Albom was playing with his first band, the Lucky Tiger Grease Stick Band, he probably didn’t imagine it would take him 30 years to become a rock star — and he didn’t have to sell his soul at the crossroad to get there.
Albom will be signing his book 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Schuler Books & Music’s Okemos location. To get in line, you must have a ticket that accompanies the purchase of “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” at any Schuler Books location. Albom will only be signing copies of “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.”
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 8
FREE (with purchase of book)
Schuler Books & Music
1982 Grand River Drive, Okemos
(517) 349-8840, schulerbooks.com