Steve Mellette – cat herder at Key West Musicians Festival
Steven Mellette was born in Iowa in 1950 and grew up in the DC suburbs of Bethesda, Maryland. He really wanted to learn drums but his school had purchased new French horns, so he started playing the French horn in the 4th grade. He graduated from Walter Johnson High School in 1968. Steve played in a band but admitted they weren’t that good. He grew up with great music in the DC area and got to see The Doors, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Judi Collins, The Rolling Stones, and many others.
He volunteered for the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE), trying to help save the world as many of us did in the 60s. He also volunteered on Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Steve wanted to attend school in the South to help register voters. He won a music scholarship to Ole Miss (University of Mississippi). Luckily, he became friends with a local police lieutenant that probably helped him survive the Klan.
Steve moved back to Maryland after a few years and was active in Northern Virginia politics, helping to run several campaigns. After a photo gig in Mexico, he returned to a roaring Virginia sleet storm and decided he was tired of cold weather. Next stop was Key West.
Through the years, Steve Mellette has been a bartender, cab driver, and long time Key West music aficionado. He worked at the BottleCap Lounge for over 20 years. It was there that he met Laura Floyd, whose husband was still working in Texas but had already started a move to Key West. Laura was a huge music fan that followed a number of local musicians and bands. Her husband Ken was always jealous that Laura knew so much about the Key West music scene. She wanted to throw a surprise musical birthday party for him and enlisted Steve’s help.
It’s hard to keep a secret in Key West, and Ken Floyd soon discovered the birthday plan and just loved the idea. So instead of hiring a few musicians for a birthday party, Ken wanted to showcase a bunch of Key West musicians in a full-blown music festival. Steve enlisted Charlie Bauer at the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon, Gary Ek, the first sound engineer who live recorded the event, and Ginger King from Sister Season, a non-profit foundation that helps people in the Hospitality/Tourism related industry. The festival turned into a fundraising event and the musicians, waitress, waiters, and bartenders were the recipients.
The festival concept of bringing a number of local musicians together in one location celebrating Key West music was exciting. Steve started calling every musician he knew. George Victory was very supportive along with Liz O’Conner, who became the first performer on stage at the first festival. Bill Blue, Alphonse, Ericson Holt, Larry Baeder, and many others soon followed.
Ken Floyd took an active role creating Singing Iguana Productions and promoting the festival. On September 24, 2011, the first Key West Musicians Festival took place with about 20 local musicians performing at the Smokin’ Tuna and a dozen more in the audience trying to get on stage. It was an all-day Key West music orgy. It was so successful that it was expanded to two days the next year. One heck of a birthday party.
Local Conch Jeffery Shenandoah, who played congas and ran sound at the Hog’s Breath, came up with the festival stage management. Each group got a half hour to perform and solo acts got fifteen minutes. Jeff’s design was “plug and play” – he setup a bass amp, a regular amp, a drum kit, with vocal microphones to minimize setup for all musicians to plug in and keep the performances rolling. Jeff Shenandoah got to perform with his all-time favorite Key West musician at one festival and unfortunately passed away shortly afterwards.
Eleven years later, they start at 1pm and host 20 or more acts each day for two days. One has to pace themselves to take it all in. The ‘best of the best’ of our many local musicians share their talents and original music. One music lover said, “Key West is swimming in music.”
If a group had a missing bass player or drummer, there was always a volunteer in the audience. Grammy Award winning Paul Cotton got out of the hospital on a Tuesday and came in on Saturday to play the festival that he loved. Rolando Rojas and Caribe would fill the Tuna with salsa and merengue music, and the crowd would always demand an encore. The festival even got Michael McCloud out of the ‘musician witness protection’ program to perform.
Award winning TV producer and local star of Club Hour, Will Thompson, along with his costar Tom Luna, were MC’s for most of the festivals. He called this, “the greatest experiment in cat herding ever attempted.” A live album, titled Key West Musicians Festival, is produced annually by Singing Iguana Productions. Will calls it “a Whitman’s Sampler of Key West music”. The CDs are available at: http://www.keywestmusiciansfestival.com
The Key West Musicians festival is a testimonial to the spirit and hard work of all the people that make it a success. By doing so, they have become the largest fundraiser for the Sister Season Fund. From the first note played to the very last sound, it’s a celebration of all the styles, genres, and musicality of Key West musicians.
This is my favorite music festival in Key West. I am always amazed at all the musicians in the audience supporting their fellow musicians. It’s one of the reasons that I was inspired to showcase, photograph, and write about our talented music community.