‘Idon’t need a band because I am the band.” That statement coming from any other musician would sound arrogant and full of bravado. But from the mouth of an affable gentleman like Tommy Emmanuel, you’d better just take it as fact.
A household name in his native Australia, the 57-year-old Emmanuel has widened the band width in recent years to all the other continents with his stupefying “finger style” of guitar playing. Akin to playing guitar the way a pianist plays piano, using all 10 fingers – like his inspiration Chet Atkins – Emmanuel is able to simultaneously play melody, rhythm, bass and even percussion parts.
“When I first heard Chet, it was quite a revelation to me. I wanted to work out what he was doing, and that’s how I got started playing in this style,” Emmanuel told The Jerusalem Post last week from Germany, where he was headlining a jazz festival. “It was his songs and music that inspired me to want to play like that.”
Emmanuel and his siblings were already working musicians before they reached the age of 10. Under the name The Emmanuel Quartet, the six-year- old Emmanuel played rhythm guitar, his older brother Phil played lead, along with their brother Chris on drums and sister Virginia on slide guitar. They became staples in Australia, and by the time he was 10 Emmanuel had played his way across the continent.
“I loved my childhood and traveling with my family,” he said. “We played in little country towns and did shows in hospitals and fairs. And because we were in the great outdoors, we’d go fishing everywhere and camp out at night. We didn’t make much money, but I don’t remember ever going hungry.”
When Emmanuel’s father died in 1966, the family went on the road with an Australian country music star.
They were eventually forced off the road by the Australian child welfare department and into a normal childhood environment, with performances restricted to weekends.
But Emmanuel had already passed the point of no return, and having heard the music of Nashville guitar legend Atkins for the first time, he became obsessed with perfecting his style and even sent the master a letter.
To his surprise, Atkins responded, and over the next 13 years they were dedicated pen pals, with Atkins mentoring the teen guitar player.
Leaving home in his later teens, Emmanuel moved to Sydney, where his guitar prowess became quickly known. By the mid-1970s, he was an in-demand session player and sideman on commercials and on albums and million-selling hits by some of Australia’s biggest acts, including Air Supply and Men at Work.
“I was the busiest guy in the world then, seven days a week. And it was all good experience for what I really wanted – my own career,” he said.
In 1980, that dream started becoming a reality when he went to the US and finally met his hero in Nashville. Atkins took Emmanuel under his wing and inspired him to branch out on his own from under the shadow of the stars he was performing for.
“It was a magical way to be introduced to America; and because of Chet and the way he treated me and the experiences I had with him, it set the course for me and my career,” said Emmanuel.
After joining one of biggest Australian bands, Dragon, in 1985 and recording the platinum-selling album Dreams of Ordinary Men and touring with Tina Turner and Olivia Newton-John over the next couple years, Emmanuel launched his solo career with the 1988 Up from Down Under. He became one of Australia’s most acclaimed performers. But in 1998, he and his family moved to England.
“I really wanted to get going with my career overseas, and I was ready to take on the rest of the world, so I decided to go to a country where nobody knew me,” he said.
That situation didn’t last long, with his virtuosity soon expanding throughout Europe and to the US, where a series of specials on PBS, as well as regular Nashville appearances, have helped propel him to stardom there, too.
Encompassing rock, jazz, folk country and blues, and spicing it with a generous helping of humor and showmanship, Emmanuel’s wholesome performances, including his Israeli debut in 2009, are punctuated by frequent standing ovations and gasps of astonishment from the audience.
Whether it’s performing a drum solo on the body of his guitar or plowing through a Beatles medley in which he makes John, Paul, George and Ringo redundant, Emmanuel defines the term “crowd pleasing.”
His performance on November 27 at the Tel Aviv Opera House is part of a never-ending tour Emmanuel undertakes, with upwards of 300 concerts a year.