Maynard Silva, the Vineyard’s homegrown, authentic American roots bluesman who was known and admired from Gay Head to Chappaquiddick with his National guitar, reedy harmonica, red high-top sneakers and growl of a voice, died Wednesday at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital after a three-year battle with cancer. He was 57. His wife Basia Jaworska Silva and son Milo Silva were with him at the time of his death.
A native Island son, Maynard had played with many of the blues greats, including J.B. Hutto, Bukka White, Buddy Guy and Rick Danko. He came of age as a musician in the early 1970s in St. Louis. “I played in this place called Alice’s Moonlight Lounge,” he told the Gazette in an interview in 1994. “I played for guys who were off their shift, they were factory guys who had been up all night. They would be in there, drinking their lunch, and it was a black bar. I’d play Jimmy Reed songs and Elmore James, ’cause that’s what they loved. They’d sit there and sing along with it.”
He bought his first harmonica at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore.
“This was 1971. Maynard Silva was a Vineyard kid in St. Louis, learning the blues the hard way — the right way, the only way,” wrote Gazette reporter Jason Gay in the 1994 interview.
“He was a wolf in every sense of the word at one time or another. He is about this world experience, raw, on-the-toes reaching-for-the-heavens kind of music,” said radio disc jockey and friend Laurel Reddington during a rich musical tribute to Maynard that aired on Vineyard radio station WMVY on Wednesday night.
“Yes, it’s a sad thing that we don’t live forever,” Maynard told the Gazette in 1994. “We don’t get to be with the people we love all the time. Bad things happen to people. How do you accept that? That’s a question I’m not equipped to answer. I’m not a philosopher, I’m a guitar player.”
Maynard Silva was born Feb. 20, 1951 in Oak Bluffs, the son of Frank and Mabel Porter Silva of Vineyard Haven. His father worked in a gas station and managed the town cemetery; his mother worked at Vineyard Dry Goods. His older brother Thomas died in the Korean War when Maynard was still a baby. (The album Exorcism and Guardian Angels is dedicated to the brother he never knew.)
He graduated from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 1969. His first introduction to the blues came from his high school English teacher Leroy Hazelton. “He played a Howlin‘ Wolf record for me. All I’d heard before was rock and roll and Wolf’s blues was so intense it scared me!” he said in a Gazette interview in 1987. Two other early Island influences were Gene Baer, an art teacher at the high school who was a boogie-woogie piano player and took the time to explain music theory to him, and Peter Ortiz, a professional sign painter on the Island. As a teenager, Maynard apprenticed to Mr. Ortiz.
“‘Don’t be afraid to improvise. If you can do that you can always get by.’ He used that word improvise a lot in sign painting just like people do in music,” Maynard once recalled.
He would later take up sign painting and music as dual careers.
After graduating from high school he entered Lindenwood College near St. Louis.
“I thought I’d be able to hear a lot of blues in St. Louis. I was wrong. So I started going down river to Memphis on weekends and hanging around the clubs on Beale street,” he told the Gazette in 1987.
He left college to study the blues and soon was getting work as a guitarist in Memphis. Of all the musicians he played with, he was most proud of his association with Bukka White, which began on Beale street in 1972. It ended four years later in Boston when he was supposed to play a gig with Bukka at a Boston nightclub, but the musician had a stroke as he was getting off the airplane and never played again.
Another early influence was Paul Butterfield.
“He was doing these slow blues. I just related to the whole thing . . . blues songs made me look at what I saw in my own life,” he said in a Martha’s Vineyard magazine interview in 2002.
He started his own band, the Maynard Silva Band, which cut a record in 1982 and was the subject of a television documentary.
“Fame and fortune, however, are not what Maynard considers the measure of his success in music,” the Gazette reported five years later. “He is proud of keeping the pure American blues sound alive, and of being able to hold his own on stage with people like Buddy Guy.”
In the late 1980s, tired of life on the road, Mr. Silva returned home to the Vineyard where he married and began to raise a family.
“I love the music but I hate show business,” he told the Gazette. “I played professionally for 10 years without taking a week off. Now I want to spend holidays with my family. It’s depressing to be on stage in a bar at Christmastime. Tragic heroes are great to watch but it’s not fun to be one. I’m lucky I’m still a sign painter.”
Over the next two decades he continued to play slide guitar, electric and acoustic, alone and in various bands. He played gigs in all the places where emerging musicians of the day were turning up to jam and perform, from Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, R.I., to the Agricultural Fair in West Tisbury.
He also navigated many rough spots in his life, including addiction. His first marriage ended in divorce. And in his music, he deliberately turned his back on what he called corporate blues.
“It’s hard to see this big explosion of BMW blues, you know? I mean Eric Clapton, a multimillionaire singing about five long years working in a steel mill?” he said in the 1994 Gazette interview.
In 1998 he met Basia Jaworska, an Island artist. Yesterday she recalled their first encounter: “I had been on a trip to Portugal and I met Silvas there and I thought, there’s that guy Maynard Silva on the Island, I wonder if he knows anything about his roots? He happened to be playing a rain date for the harbor fest. I went down there with my sketch book. I was being like a sniper artist and sketching him.”
Later she saw him at the post office and offered to send him the sketch. “He was so flustered he didn’t know his post office box number. But then he gave it to me and I sent him the sketch. We ran into each other again later at the bank — the Island is like that — and he said, can I call you. And that was it,” she said.
They were married in January of 2007.
“I’ve played with many blues players and Maynard was a true bluesman in the truest tradition,” said Al Shackman yesterday, a close friend and former session guitarist with Atlantic Records who lives on the Vineyard. “It was quite unexpected — one doesn’t come across true steeped-in-the tradition blues players anymore. He was like a throwback. I came to have the highest respect for him and put him on the same platform as those other bluesmen from the Four Corners to Chicago to Kansas City. He had it and there won’t be another one coming along very soon, if ever,” he said. They had planned to make a CD together. “Guess we will have to look forward to the flip side of life for that,” Mr. Shackman said.
“What kind of blues guitarist was he? The one I always wanted to be,” said Don Groover, an Oak Bluffs resident who was trained at Berklee College of Music and is widely regarded as one of the best professional guitarists on the Island. “What Maynard did for me was he made me realize that you really have to play from the gut. I’ve been trying to do what he does ever since — just play from the heart,” he said.
His solo albums were Maynard Silva, Dancing with El Distorto, Exorcism and Guardian Angels, Rocket Science and Blues Verite. With his band the New Hawks he recorded Wall of Tin and Howl at the Moon. He was also included in several anthologies, most notably Best of Slide Guitar (Wolf Records), A Beanpot of Songs (Blues Trust) and Best of Vineyard Sound (Rhino Records). His music was used for this summer’s performance of the play Rising Water at the Vineyard Playhouse. He loved war movies and the Boston Celtics. Bill Russell was one of his heroes. Fatherhood affected him profoundly and after his divorce he raised his son Milo alone. And he hewed to the simple Vineyard life. “I don’t own a cell phone because I lose things that are smaller than a guitar. I used to play a harmonica but I kept losing it,” he told WMVY in an interview that aired again as part of the radio tribute on Wednesday night.
Three years ago Maynard developed cancer and the Vineyard music community rallied around him, although he refused to allow any benefit concerts, continuing to play his own benefit gigs for others. Then in May this year Island musicians organized a special tribute and benefit for him at Outerland. Following the event, Maynard wrote in a letter to the Gazette: “For me the best thing was still the music. Hearing people who I’ve watched study roots music for decades cut loose and play it real not only packed the dance floor but warmed my heart. Thanks for the hard work, the love, the money, and most of all for the spirit.”
In addition to his wife and his son he is survived by an aunt, Barbara Dugan of Oak Bluffs; two cousins, Glenn Andrews of West Tisbury and Tom Anzer of Concord and their families; his mother in law Teresa Jaworski of Vineyard Haven, and two brothers in law and one sister in law and their families.
He was cremated. A memorial celebration of his life will be held at a future date to be announced.
Contributions may be made in his memory to the Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group, Box 2214, Vineyard Haven MA 02568.