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Music community rallies around producer Steve Connelly

Steve Connelly, a longtime local musician and record producer, rehearses with his band Steve Connelly and the Lesser Gods. They will perform Saturday at Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa at a benefit for Connelly, whose studio roof recently collapsed.
Published Jun. 25, 2015

Musicians struggle to put the Steve Connelly touch into words.

"He records bands in this almost supernatural way," Robert Vessenmeyer said.

"Steve," Natty Moss Bond said, "goes somewhere the rest of us don't go."

Ask almost any local artist about Connelly, and you'll hear more of the same. Connelly, who turns 62 on Tuesday, has for decades been among the Tampa Bay music scene's most ubiquitous personalities. As a guitarist, he was signed to a national label, appeared on the Tonight Show and played a stadium with the Grateful Dead. As a producer, he's brought life to hundreds of songs at his Zen Recording in Pinellas Park, each bearing that hard-to-define Connelly touch.

This year, musicians are giving back to Connelly at a time he needs it most. He has hepatitis C, a diagnosis he chalks up to "the decadence of the punk rock era," that resulted in cirrhosis of the liver. He's awaiting a transplant that could come as early as this summer. And in March, a ceiling collapsed at Zen, effectively halting Connelly's livelihood.

Connelly's musician friends launched a GoFundMe campaign that has raised more than $12,000 since late March, much of it from other cash-strapped artists. And Saturday, 15 bands will take the stage for a benefit concert at Skipper's Smokehouse.

It's not easy, defining what a good producer means. The poster for the Skipper's show pictures Connelly, arms crossed and smiling, beneath a breathless string of hosannas: FATHER BROTHER UNCLE FRIEND TEACHER MUSICIAN GUITARIST PRODUCER ARTIST WRITER DREAMER LEGEND.

• • •

Connelly is a professorial fellow, slight and soft-spoken. His friend Ronny Elliott often calls him a "delicate genius."

He started out "a good Catholic boy" in Largo, the son of a pitching prospect in the Dodgers organization. Connelly was a pretty good ballplayer, too, but his life revolved around music.

At Largo High School, he was a straight-A student who excelled in music theory and played tuba in the marching band — at least until the time he skipped a football game to go see a psychedelic band at a local teen club.

In the '70s, he developed a taste for folk rock that informed his best-known band, the Headlights. Their jangly Americana sound resonated far beyond Tampa Bay, earning them $20,000 in a nationwide band battle and the chance to record at Willie Nelson's ranch. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds loved the Headlights so much he hired them as his backing band; together, they played for Johnny Carson and opened for acts like ZZ Top and the Dead.

When the Headlights signed with Nashville's Airborne Records in 1987, Connelly started getting interested in production. The band, he said, had a budget of $80,000 for its Airborne debut, but he winced at how much of that money was wasted on parties, fine dinners and drinks.

When the Headlights called it a career in the mid '90s, Connelly moved more behind the boards. A wealthy client in Seminole built a home studio for his wife and brought Connelly in as their resident producer. Zen Recording, they called it, a nod to a nearby zen garden.

Connelly advocates purity and simplicity, guiding artists toward what's right and wrong for a song in any given moment. Elliott recalls recording a song called South By So What that would've featured Connelly on lead guitar.

"When the guitar solo came, he just let the track go right through," Elliott said. "He didn't play a note for the solo. … I don't sit around and listen to my records, but when I hear that song, I realize how perfect that was."

• • •

Connelly and his landlords still aren't sure what prompted the ceiling collapse at Zen but say the fact that its tiles and walls were more than 30 years old had a lot to do with it. Connelly said the debris was up to his eyes.

Since the collapse, Connelly has considered offers to work elsewhere. His health is insured through the Affordable Care Act, but still, the bills pile up.

But Zen is his. Along with his business partners, he had moved it from that home studio to its location in Pinellas Park. A laundry list of local musicians have recorded albums within its cedar walls: Rebekah Pulley; Will Quinlan; Have Gun, Will Travel; the Ditchflowers.

Many of those who have donated to the GoFundMe see it as payback for all the times Connelly didn't charge them for studio time or took home raw master tapes to mix late at night.

"There's a million people who just adore him," said Bond, one of the concert's organizers. "I'm hearing from fans all day — 'How can I help? Can I do something at the benefit? I can work the door, I can do this, I can do that.' "

Connelly is humbled by the support, but he also feels energized. He's timing his many liver treatments so Saturday will be a good day. He tends to tire easily from the 65 extra pounds of fluid that built up on his angular frame, but he knows almost every artist on Saturday's bill might ask him to sit in.

He has a half-dozen or so projects on hold or in the works at Zen. The ceiling is barren of acoustical tile, but he's restored an isolation booth to record vocals and some instruments. Over the summer, as he awaits word on a liver transplant, he'll ponder whether Zen can and should continue.

"There's a certain point where it's foolish thinking I have a future in this," he said. "But I think I can make it happen for a few more years."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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