Tony Melendez, armless guitarist, visits SLO

Posted by David Middlecamp on August 26, 2013 

The performance was one of the most inspirational stories I have covered.

Tony Melendez was a much better guitar player than I was and he was playing with his feet.

I walked into the gym thinking I might have to lower my guitar-playing expectations and left thinking I had a lot more to learn.

Melendez now lives in Branson, Mo., according to his website, and he still tours.

The headline writer could not resist the pun, but read past it to the story by David Wilcox published in the Telegram-Tribune on Feb. 6, 1989:

Papal kiss spurs a man's guitar feats

A kiss is still a kiss, but when it comes from Pope John Paul II on worldwide television, it carries a little more impact.

Just ask Tony Melendez.

Melendez is the armless guitarist and singer who learned to play the instrument using his toes.

His 2 1/2-minute performance during the Pope's 1987 visit to California so moved the church leader that he left his platform and walked over to embrace and kiss the musician on the cheek.

Lifted from obscurity, Melendez, 26, said he is now on the road performing at least three weeks out of every month.

San Luis Obispo was his stop Saturday, playing for students inside the Mission College Prep school gym.

With his 12-string guitar lying prone at his feet, Melendez deftly tuned the instrument to an open chord. Then, using a pick between his big toe and the one next to it, the guitarist launched into a sing-along.

"I really love the kids," he said later.

Melendez said he once dreamed of becoming a priest when he was in high school. Church leaders, however, said that was not possible because a thumb and forefinger are needed to perform the various ceremonies.

"I was hurt, but I wasn't disappointed," he said.

Instead, Melendez said he has used his musical skills during church services.

Born without arms in Nicaragua to a mother who was prescribed the drug thalidomide — later found to cause birth defects — Melendez was brought to Los Angeles and fitted for artificial limbs.

He said he wore them until he was 10, but then threw them away.

"I didn't feel comfortable. I used my feet more."

He began playing the guitar 10 years ago.

"There was always a guitar available" in his home, he said. "It just worked."

He was able to earn some money playing before the invitation came to play for the Pope. But, he said, "I didn't consider it professional until things started going crazy."

Now represented by the William Morris Agency, Melendez has an album of religious and gospel music — titled "Never Be the Same" — due out in March. That will be followed by an autobiographical book expected to be published in July, and an hourlong television special about him is also being produced.

He said he is also working on another album featuring Spanish songs — mostly ballads. About half the songs are ones he's written.

On top of that, he begins a tour of the Holy Lands in April.

Like others who suddenly vault into the public eye, Melendez said there are some downsides. "You lose a lot of privacy, in a sense," he said. "People see you and they come up and say, 'you're, you're ...'"

Melendez, however, is not complaining.

Before he began his performance at Mission Prep, Melendez told the kids watching that "what happened to me is proof that you can overcome anything."

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