Swan’s Songs

25 Nov
Mike Swan

Mike Swan

Although he did not realize it at the time, playing with the Lester Lanin Orchestra at the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana was one of the highlights of Mike Swan’s professional music career. This was one of a number of international music venues where Mike performed that had a formative influence on his varied musical repertoire. Presently, Mike performs his entertaining and diverse songs on bass guitar and vocals at La Bellasera Hotel in Paso Robles, California, on Thursday evenings with guitarist Adam Levine and Judy Philbin.

Mike always loved music and started playing the cornet in elementary school, and then went on to play the French horn in high school. He developed an interest in Dixieland music; when he and some friends formed a Dixieland band and could not find a banjo player, Mike borrowed a tenor banjo from family friends. Then he used a book to teach him to tune it and play basic chords. Once he got to the respected Reed College in Portland, he studied philosophy but continued his banjo playing by joining a “jug band.” During this time in college when folk music was big, he started playing the guitar, and later began playing bass guitar.

He left school to move to the San Francisco Bay area where he played banjo in a trio at the North Beach’s “Red Garter” which featured Dixieland music. Mike described the music they played as “cornball sing alongs” dating from the 1890’s through the Great American Songbook era. In 1967, the owner, Jack Dupen, offered Mike a job at the New York City Red Garter. Moving to New York with its 13 degree weather during the 1967 Christmas/New Year’s holidays was “like running away to the circus,” Mike joked. He also did some stints at the Red Garter’s Niagara Falls and Florence, Italy outposts, and subsequently started playing for competitor “My Father’s Mustache” where he led the band for two years.

Mike realized that if he wanted to continue to make a living playing music he would have to become a better guitar player and singer, and to that end he began studying with talented professional musicians in New York City. He honed his skills and expanded his repertoire which included jazz and ragtime. He learned songs in Italian, Swedish, German, and Hebrew/Yiddish which he performed at special events. The venues in which he performed expanded to private “society” parties for affluent patrons, Jewish celebrations, a private Aegean cruise, and Claridge’s in London while there for the royal wedding. When asked to share an interesting or fun experience, he related that they when he was playing with the Lester Lanin Orchestra they had a gig in Gstaad Switzerland, the second night the venue was at Eagle Ski Chalet which necessitated transporting their equipment by ski lifts. The themed party was pre-revolutionary Russian, for which attendees and musicians donned period costumes.

Besides his musical career, Mike also did corporate and IT work to help pay for raising his children and their college. In 2006, Mike said he and his wife were tired of their corporate work and the hectic pace of living in New York City. He stated, “Like a salmon swimming upstream,” they decided to return to California. They settled in northern San Luis Obispo County where Mike’s brother was living. Taking a break from music, Mike helped his brother with his import business. Then he received a call from a local Dixieland band which needed a banjo player, and with that, he became involved in the local music scene.

Mike is presently working on two CDs, having completed his first CD in “the early 2000’s” which consisted of a trio with him on banjo, along with a tuba and mandolin. Besides his weekly appearances at La Bellasera Hotel, he plays at many wineries where he jokingly described his function as “sonic wallpaper.” He also plays with Jazz in the Vines, and at private parties. He has been playing solo for hospice patients which he described as “rewarding.”  For more information on Mike and his performance schedule, go to http://mike-swan.com.

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