amazing, sad and bittersweet

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Steve Mello     amazing, sad and bittersweet

Born March 10, 1954, Steve Mello was originally from Bermuda where his father owned several grocery stores. He had two sisters and a wonderful mother with strong family roots.

Steve Mello photo provided by Alex Okinczyc

The family moved to Melbourne, Florida where he finished school, graduating from Melbourne High School. Growing up, he listened to his mother’s records and became interested in music. This was not encouraged by his father who wanted him to work in his business. Mello learned to play percussion instruments and was an impressive talent. He was a four mallet marimba player.

Steve Mello at BO’s Fishwagon. Photo provided by Barry Cuda

Drummer, songwriter, and bandleader Buddy Rich, attended a performance in the area and recognized Steve’s musical talents. He recommended Steve attend The Juilliard School in New York to study the marimba. Steve attended but didn’t stay long – school was too much organization for him.

In the late 80s, Steve was living in Daytona Beach and performing at the Ocean Deck with Rick Steffen and Chris Case in the Windjammer group. Around 1990, Steffen with his acoustic guitar and Mello with his 4-octave marimba (very large and heavy instrument) moved to Key West to seek their musical fortune. The marimba-guitar duo quickly developed an island style and adapted to the Key West tropical music – Parrotheads with a touch of Reggae. Steve started playing drums and became a highly sought after musician with local groups.

Steve Mello at BO’s Fishwagon. Photo provided by Barry Cuda

Not sure if Steve’s IQ was ever tested but most that knew him thought it would have been off the charts. The late Chris Case always said Mello was a musical genius – he referred to Steve as “A Musical Being”. Steve could start with an idea and write a song with clever lyrics and great melody in minutes that would take other musicians six months. Mello collaborated on several songs with Hall of Fame songwriter Shel Silverstein.

According to Barry Cuda, Steve was the most versatile drummer in town, probably the best overall at the time. He could play almost any instrument – from drums to horns. One of his greatest talents was a wicked sense of humor. Cuda said Steve had a Robin Williams kind of “improv humor” with great comic timing and improvisation skills (musical improvisation was a specialty).

He recorded an 8-minute rendition of “Fish Nuts” that was almost entirely improvisation. Vicki Roush, who performed the song with Steve, was skilled at interpretation but was not ‘in the moment’ as Steve was.

Chief Billy played with Steve along with Marty Stonely and Barry Cuda as the Sharks. Whenever he performed with Steve, it reminded him of the Marx Brothers making music – Cuda was Groucho and Steve and Chief were two Harpo’s. There was a cosmic zaniness about Steve.  Once during a break Steve went outside and laid on top a dumpster, to change his frame of mind.

Chief Billy and Steve Mello at a graveyard gig – only in Key West. Photo provided by Alicia Earle Renner.

Carl Wagoner played guitar in Steve Mello’s Zydeco band Doghouse at Turtle Kraals with Chief Billy on Bass and Steve on accordion. Carl credits Steve with his nickname “Caffeine Carl” because of Carl’s famous auditory stammer that has now become his very popular stage name.

In 1993, Steve met Alicia Earl Renner at Turtle Kraals while performing with Din and Woody Allen. She loved his music, especially his marimba playing at the Pier House. Steve was the funniest person she ever met. Alicia says he was “brilliantly funny” and they had great fun together. They raised Jack Russell dogs together and Steve was a pretty good island food cook.

Steve Mellos and one of his Jack Russel puppies that he and Alicia Renner would raise. Photo provided by Alicia Earle Renner.

Steve wrote a song about Alicia called “Big Leg Gal” – it was a compliment. Artist/photographer Alicia operates a gallery near the corner of Elizabeth Street and Lazy Way, did the cover work for Cuda’s album Fish Nuts. Steve and Alicia traveled to New Orleans Jazz Festival several times. She met Steve’s family and introduced Steve to her grandmother, Betty Renner, a jazz pianist who also attended Julliard School and loved Thelonious Monk. Steve was expecting more Lawrence Welk and told Alicia that she had “the hippiest granny I know”.

Unfortunately, Steve’s alcohol demons started taking a heavy toll and he became very unreliable. They stayed together until around 1999 when Alicia could no longer handle his alcoholism. Neither one wanted to breakup and they kept in close contact.

Fantasy Fest 1997. Photo provided by Alicia Earle Renner.

Alicia got a disturbing call from Steve’s after his 4th DUI. He was driving his van with all his music instruments including his very rare Rosewood Marimba. She thinks he may have been in Georgia when the van was towed away, confiscated, and later sold to pay fines. He never found the marimba. It became a metaphor of this rare talent’s tragic life – to lose this rare instrument. A Greek tragedy.

Not long afterwards, Mello was in Daytona Beach celebrating a birthday with Rick Steffen. He was riding his bike later and was hit by a truck and killed instantly on March 22, 2005.

A well attended Celebration of Life was held at the Schooner Wharf Bar. Rick brought Steve’s ashes to Key West. Alicia took some of Steve’s ashes to Jackson Square in New Orleans and secretly distributed them down her pants legs. When Dora, their favorite Jack Russell passed, Alicia took some of Steve and Dora’s ashes together to Higgs Beach – Steve would have liked that. Alicia said “He was amazing and sad but funny as hell. I think of him fondly. It’s very bittersweet for me because I knew he could have been so much more with all that talent.”

 

Steve Mello in happier days. Photo provided by Alicia Earle Renner.

 

 

4 Comments

  • Ava Sandage says:

    Used to see him with Cuda every Friday night at B. O’s for years! One of the best songs he wrote was:” DUI BLUES”, & the still popular “Put Your Feet’s Up In the Air”!
    We lost a great entertainer & good guy! We still miss him!❤️🙏🦩

  • Steve Mellette says:

    Steve would come into the BottleCap in the afternoons when I first worked day shift. He would sit and read a newspaper and enjoy some solitude.

  • Greg Black says:

    I remember him 4 sure and his music was awsome.Saw him Cuda and Shel at BOs and they let a young friend of mine sit in with them.He had A Severe Case of Autism
    HE COULD PLAY ANYTHING.THOSE GUYS WERE SO NICE TO JOSH.GREAT STORY HERE.SAD BUT GREAT AT THE SAME TIME

  • Barry Cuda says:

    Very sweet piece, Ralph. I believe you mistook “These Cats Sho’ Be Having Some Nicknames” with “Fish Nuts”; an 8 minute Borscht Belt meets talking blues improv Steve committed to posterity on the “Fish Nuts” CD (downloadable from barrycudamusic.com). Also, I’d like to nominate “Where’s My Bike” as a backup Conch Republic national anthem with the immortal lines, “ I woke up on Whitehead naked in a tree, A bunch of Japanese tourists taking photos of me, My head began to clear my brain began to work, it said, “ Steve, you lost your bike again you’re such a jerk, Where’s my bike?

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