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Lifelong musician, Jim Van Valkenburg plays for passers-by in Hyde Park

Jim Van Valkenburg, 67, plays his guitar every morning on the sidewalk in front of his Swann Avenue house in Hyde Park.   On the Web To hear Valkenburg singing on a recent morning, go to links.tampabay.com.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

Jim Van Valkenburg, 67, plays his guitar every morning on the sidewalk in front of his Swann Avenue house in Hyde Park. On the Web To hear Valkenburg singing on a recent morning, go to links.tampabay.com.

HYDE PARK — The sun comes up, Jim Van Valkenburg comes out. Out to his little corner of the world, the southeast corner of Swann and Newport avenues, guitar in hand.

For the next hour or two, he'll entertain a mobile audience, strumming and singing from the sidewalk in front of his house.

The 67-year-old father of two college students sings of love and romance, freedom and nature. Only his own compositions, except for the occasional Amazing Grace or Mariah. A ballad about Clark Yellowstone River is a driveway favorite.

Drivers honk en route to the office, Pilates or Publix. Joggers wave and shout "Thanks" for the musical interlude. Families whistle on the walk to school or church.

"I'm shocked at the response," says Van Valkenburg who began adding his soundtrack to the daily hustle on Gasparilla morning. Since February, his 7:30 a.m. ritual is a mug of coffee and an outdoor concert.

"People call if he's not out there," says his wife, Heidi Reidel.

One friend compared him to famed violinist Joshua Bell — except Bell was actually ignored when he performed in the Washington, D.C. metro.

• • •

"I told my wife last Christmas, my life was going to change,'' Van Valkenburg says, "I just didn't know how."

He knew music would play a role. It always has.

"I decided to get my guitar out, and sing for people on the street," he says. "All of a sudden you know 20 people today that you didn't know yesterday."

Apparently, he struck a communal chord. Neighbors toot applause and brake for requests. A musician he hadn't seen in 10 years drove by one day, and now he's helping Van Valkenburg by allowing him to use equipment to record some songs.

"I remembered he has a studio just down the street. I looked him up and we'll have some fun making music together," he says. "If I hadn't been out on the corner that day, I wouldn't have thought of him."

Van Valkenburg's next step could be marketing his talent.

"I wouldn't mind making some income, somehow sell my songs on the Internet," he says.

Riedel supports the new venue.

"He used to play on the front porch or in the backyard,'' Riedel says. "But it's so interesting to watch people go by. When he comes in after a couple of hours, he feels great. He loves it, and it's good for him."

And what do the neighbors think of the daily strummer?

"Who cares?'' she asks, defensively noting his outdoor concerts widened their contacts on both sides of Swann. "He probably knows 80 percent of our neighbors now."

• • •

Van Valkenburg grew up in Fond du Lac, Wis., studied opera at Drake University in Des Moines and earned a music degree at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Marriage to a classmate took them to Los Angeles, then New York, in pursuit of theater work.

Their divorce left him plenty of material as a taxi-driving songwriter.

"Many people instigate a conversation and then you listen. I got life stories and song ideas,'' he says.

He would follow his heart again to Quebec, working carpentry and other jobs. On a visit to Toronto in 1973, Van Valkenburg stopped at a Captain Audio, a recording studio. He hit it off with the owner and stayed nine years, renovating, then managing the studio with the obvious perk of unlimited recording time.

"I lived on a tugboat,'' he says, "so they called me River Jim."

He still gets royalty checks from one of the tunes he published, I'll Never Come Waltzing Your Way.

Some of his best years, Van Valkenburg says, were spent taking care of his late father, first in Wisconsin, then in Florida.

"When he died at Tampa General in January 1986, I wrote a song for him called Soul Travel."

It was through his father's illness that he reconnected with Reidel, an old college friend from his days at Baylor. She offered him her garage apartment and set him up on dates with her girlfriends. Until they realized she was becoming his muse.

They married in February 1986 and Van Valkenburg put his music on pause, "other than singing at weddings and funerals,'' he says. The couple, now retired, bought and sold real estate in Florida and built "spec" homes in Texas. Both daughters are majoring in communication, Amy, 22, at Baylor; Eryn, 21, at the University of Tampa.

Todd Walker, CEO of Imagine Companies, has been enjoying Van Valkenburg's voice for years at Bayside Community Church where he has sung as a soloist and in the men's quartet. Now, Walker often drives by to hear the baritone's latest song.

"He's a very prolific songwriter, especially about the environment and patriotic songs." Walker says. "I always pull over and get out to hear his new material. Rain or shine, he's out there.''

The minstrel of Hyde Park plans to keep up his gig on the corner.

"Music is in my soul. Been there forever,'' he says. "If it makes other people happy, what a deal."

Amy Scherzer can be reached at ascherzer@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3332.

To hear Jim Van Valkenburg singing on a recent morning, go to links.tampabay.com.

Lifelong musician, Jim Van Valkenburg plays for passers-by in Hyde Park 05/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 7, 2009 4:01pm]
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