Honoring Columbia’s guitar ‘guru’

otaylor@thestate.comJuly 27, 2012 

  • If you go A Tribute to Robert Newton When: 8 tonight Where: 5 Points Pub, 2020 Devine St. Tickets: $10 Information: www.connerfoundation.org

Robert Newton

Tonight, Robert Newton’s former students will pay tribute to their teacher in a concert.

GUITAR HERO: The smoke detector’s intermittent chirps — chirps — pierce the silence in the room as Robert Newton searches for the words. He tugs, he grasps. His hands fiddle in the air like he’s playing notes on an air guitar.

He’s talking about something called “The Now,” a theory derived from the book “The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment.” It’s a tool Newton used for his guitar students, something that sounds pulled from thin air to the unenlightened.

“ ‘The Now’ is a principle we use,” Newton says, his breathing labored. His eyes blink that there’s more he wants to say, but then he looks away.

Even if Newton hadn’t suffered three debilitating strokes in a four-year period, “The Now,” as taught by him, would be hard to put into words.

“Obviously, he was well beyond a guitar teacher,” Charles Funk, a former student, tells me. “He helps a lot of musicians understand a lot of the gray area of our music.”

Newton teaches how to approach, feel, hear and relate to music – and how music moves in time with the energy of the world.

“He had life-coach skills,” Funk says. “He encompassed so much. Of course, he was a friend, but he would introduce you to cool stuff.”

Tonight, Funk and several of Newton’s other former students – referred to as disciples – will display the skills Newton guided and honed at a tribute concert.

“It was just one of those cool things. It pays respect,” Funk says about being a Newton disciple. “He had such a guru way of doing his lessons.”

James Beresford echoes Funk.

“He is a guru in the truest sense of the word,” he says. “Guitar teacher was never an apt title the way that everything was personal and spiritual. He was teaching people about life.”

One can argue that simply suggesting Newton is an important figure in Columbia’s music history is a gross understatement. Has anyone had a more profound and direct impact on the music scene? Newton’s students have included Les Hall, Patrick Davis, Herbie Jeffcoat, Jeff Kozelski, as well as Brian Conner and his brother, the late Chris Conner. The benefit was organized by the Christopher Conner Foundation, founded in honor of Chris, who died in 2007 from lung cancer. The organization will donate $2,500 to Newton, the foundation’s Kelly Rodgers says.

“We’ve had this thing scheduled several times,” says Rodgers, Chris and Brian’s sister. “It’s been moved around for different reasons. This is the first time it’s gotten this far.”

Newton, 56, was always going to be a musician. He started with the trumpet in his early teens before picking up the guitar in high school.

“The guitar seemed natural,” he says.

After graduating from Dreher High School, Newton was a running back at USC before music carried him away from the gridiron to the Guitar Institute of Technology (now known as Musicians Institute) in California to study classical guitar. He plays a variety of instruments, but it’s the guitar that he featured in genre-hybrid bands such as the Robert Newton Group. He has taught guitar for more than three decades, and his lessons have been applied on stages throughout the city.

“I’ll accept it,” he says, with a shrug of his shoulder, when asked about being labeled a guru.

He kicks off the sandals he wore from his bedroom that is less than 10 paces from the love seat where he sits. His sister, Avis Newton, coaxed him from his room. She says she has cared for Newton, who had his first stroke in 1991, since his last, which was about three years ago. Several issues of Forbes magazine, stacked neatly in doctor’s office piles, share coffee table space with other titles, including Star Magazine.

Was it hard giving up football for guitar? I ask. Newton picks at lint on one leg before doing a thorough sweep of the other.

“It wasn’t hard,” says the father of five who has two grandchildren.

When we spoke on Monday, Funk tells me that Newton would “damn near make you cry while holding your guitar” if a student didn’t practice. Newton laughs when I retell the anecdote. His eyes sharpen and brighten whenever a former student is mentioned. His disciples perk up when Newton comes up.

In 2010, Columbia native Buck Sanders was nominated for an Oscar for original score. He had composed music for “The Hurt Locker,” an Iraq war bomb squad drama. Newton was in Sanders’ thoughts.

“That guy was really just so influential in me being a musician,” Sanders told me two years ago. “He really helped me find my own voice as a musician.”

“I think my students, they’re all great,” Newton says.

When asked about his health, Newton says, “I feel fine. They basically say I’m in the clear.”

He’s writing and arranging music for a new band, Phenyx 1, which features Avis on vocals.

“We’re all rising into one,” says Avis, who also writes lyrics.

The band, which, according to Newton, is going to “sound like my other bands,” also includes singer Christoff McFadden, keyboardist Russell Orris and guitarist Steven Samuel, Newton’s first student. Samuel must be pretty good to play Newton’s music, to fill Newton’s role on the stage.

“He better be,” Newton says, drawing laughter. (The band is looking for a drummer and bassist.)

When Newton had a full roster of guitarists, the waiting list to take $150 per month lessons from him was at times a year long. Beresford, who now lives in Charleston, was Newton’s partner for a few years before the strokes took their toll. Beresford says Newton is in tune with people’s lives.

“He wouldn’t have a student who had broken up with his girlfriend and he not know it,” Beresford says. “He acted as a therapist for people as much as anything else.”

When he was a student, it took him a year before he could have long moments of eye contact with Newton.

“Because it was that real,” Beresford says. “There was really nowhere for you to hide.”

Newton’s handshake is business-deal firm. Surely someone will be on the receiving end of one his famous bear hugs tonight. He smiles compassionately in conversation, and his laugh is head-thrown-back hearty. Newton moves much slower than he once did, but he’s still moving.

And he’s still thinking about and making music. If we’re talking music spirituality, as far as Newton in concerned, things are the same now as they were then.

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