November 24, 2020

Just learning at 75: Webster Groves resident plays guitar at Starbucks

John Stauber used to only play guitar. Five years ago, he started to sing, too. He believes singing has improved his harmony when he plays guitar. “The voice is acting in counterpoint,” Stauber said. PHOTO BY MEGAN FAVIGNANO.

John Stauber’s calloused hands strummed his acoustic guitar as he stood on the sidewalk outside the Starbucks in Webster Groves. Stauber, 75, wore a blue button-down shirt and black hat. He softly played and sang the Michel Legrand song, “Will Someone Ever Look at Me That Way?”

Stauber drives his mo-ped scooter from his home in Webster Groves to the Starbucks in the Old Orchard Center every day, weather permitting. He plays his guitar, composes music and drinks coffee.

“I’ve been unfulfilled in so many ways,” Stauber said. “I’m not blaming anyone for it. This craft of music is just a little life preserver I’ve brought myself.”

Stauber said he would get frustrated because he couldn’t compose or improvise music.

“Only recently did I figure out how music is put together,” Stauber said. “I finally started to learn about music. It’s a great joy to finally begin to understand what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Stauber bought his first guitar in 1950 when he was about 13 years old. He said he would listen to his favorite composers, like Legrand, and hear beauty in their music. Now, Stauber said he is really learning how to make music.

“That’s addictive, to know how to do something to make beauty,” Stauber said. “Beauty is addictive if one doesn’t have the other things in life one wants.”

John Stauber bought his first guitar in 1950 when he was about 13. He has had this guitar for about six years. PHOTO BY MEGAN FAVIGNANO.

Starbucks employees have noticed the music of their regular customer.

“He’s an incredible guitar player,” said Starbucks employee Kevin Bilchik. “He’s very generous in sharing what he knows with other people.”

Stauber said he hopes to attract a producer and get paid for his music.He currently doesn’t play professionally or for money. Over the course of his life, he has sold some of his guitars to pay bills.

“(It’s) a pleasure just getting to own some of the guitars for a while,” Stauber said.

After college, Stauber started to hitchhike east with his brother, Ralph. He ended up in New York City in 1958, where he got a job cleaning at a coffeehouse. In exchange, he was allowed to live at the coffeehouse.

While in New York City, Stauber played guitar for American folk singer Leon Bibb. He accompanied Bibb on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the early 1960s. Stauber said even then, he didn’t know what he was doing with a guitar.

“His (Leon Bibb) career was just beginning. If I’d known what I was doing, his career would have flourished,” Stauber said.

John Stauber said he plays at Starbucks because he is addicted to coffee and enjoys being around people. “I’ve been unfulfilled in so many ways,” Stauber said. He said he is just now learning to compose music, at the age of 75. PHOTO BY MEGAN FAVIGNANO.

In the early 1960s, Stauber gave up his job to move to San Francisco with his then-wife. They opened a restaurant with a stage where he often played. He didn’t stay in the city long before he was offered another job as a guitarist in New York City.

“I still didn’t know how to put music together, but nobody could tell that. I could do a lot of things with my hands that made it look like I knew what I was doing,” Stauber said.

In the late 1960s, Stauber taught music at The American Academy of Music in New Jersey. He said he knew “a little bit about a lot of things.” But, Stauber said, he still didn’t know what he was doing.

“I didn’t know what I was doing (then),” Stauber said. “It’s a great pleasure to finally know a little bit about music (now).”

Stauber moved back to St. Louis in 1972. He hauled furniture for an antique dealer.

A few years later, he left St. Louis again and moved to Tallahassee, Fla. Stauber moved back to St. Louis again in the ‘90s to help his brother take care of their parents. When his mother died, Stauber moved back to his childhood home in Webster Groves.

While he was at Webster Groves High School, Stauber said he started to play Andrés Segovia’s music. He learned to imitate the hand movements needed to reproduce Segovia’s classical guitar music.

Even though he could play other musicians’ work, Stauber said he didn’t know how to compose music.

“It was very frustrating to compose without knowing the rules,” Stauber said.

In the past decade, Stauber said he began to understand diatonic tonality, the arrangement of tone, and counterpoint, the relationship between the voice singing and the music playing. He said this opened his eyes to learning the rules needed to compose. He started to read about traditional harmony.

“I finally started to learn about music,” Stauber said.

Stauber takes notes and composes music on a yellow legal pad with a permanent marker. He uses a small, square magnifying glass to read his writing because his eyesight is poor. Stauber said he can’t see well enough to read books on composing anymore, but he is still learning.

“Every time I go back to something, I learn more,” Stauber said.

Stauber also plays at Robbie’s House of Jazz on Tuesday nights.

“I’m an artist, not a professional,” Stauber said.

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