Musician ‘tenderizes hearts,’ shares hope

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ -- Tony Melendez, a Catholic musician born without arms uses his feet to play the guitar during a performance Wednesday at the Louis J. Roussel Performance Hall at Loyola University as part of its ongoing 100 year anniversary celebration.
Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ -- Tony Melendez, a Catholic musician born without arms uses his feet to play the guitar during a performance Wednesday at the Louis J. Roussel Performance Hall at Loyola University as part of its ongoing 100 year anniversary celebration.

Tony Melendez fell in love with the guitar at an early age, but he faced a unique challenge in teaching himself to play the instrument: The Nicaraguan musician was born without arms, the result of Thalidomide, a prescription drug his mother took during her pregnancy.

The accomplished singer and guitarist brought his music and his inspirational story to Loyola University on Wednesday night in a concert that is part of the college’s centennial celebration.

Melendez was brought to the United States as a child and fitted with artificial arms, but he said he discarded them when he was 10 years old because he didn’t feel comfortable and could use his feet more easily.

When he was 7 years old, Melendez said, he coveted his father’s guitar, and decided he was going to play.

“One day with my toes I got a hold of the guitar,” Melendez described.

His father told him, “Go wash your feet,” and told him to be careful with the instrument.

Melendez has traveled to more than 40 countries and is booked for 170 events a year. He lives in Missouri with his wife of 22 years and has two teenage children. His wedding ring dangles from a chain around his neck.

Melendez describes his genre as “pop acoustic,” and in 1989, he recorded his first album of contemporary Christian songs, for which he received nominations for best new artist of the year.

He also wrote a book that same year, titled “A Gift of Hope.”

Melendez said he always had a desire to accomplish things, a “hunger to play with kids my own age” and a “yearning to be part of this world.”

“Music opens the hearts to a deeper level that can take you back in time, or to a romantic place, or one of deeper prayer” Melendez said about performing for diverse audiences at corporate events, in Catholic churches, in venues celebrating “20 different religions” and for children.

“Music tenderizes the heart and leaves it more vulnerable.”

A defining moment in his career occurred in 1987 when Pope John Paul II “jumped off the stage” at a youth event and walked over to Melendez and kissed him. “He said ‘Tony, you are hope — continue giving hope to others,” Melendez said of the encounter. From then on, Melendez held the notion of hope as a defining message to others.

“I can drive, I’m married, I can string a guitar — if I can do these things, I know you can,” he said.

Ricardo Marguez, assistant director of the Jesuit Center at Loyola, said he crossed paths with Melendez in Venezuela, and was determined to bring him to campus for the evening billed as “A Night of Hope.” Giving thanks for the “miracles and mysteries of life,” Marguez said Melendez himself was a miracle and a living symbol of hope.

During concerts, Melendez said, he loves interacting with the audience and wants them to be involved, whether singing, clapping, tapping feet or praying.

He also said he finds inspiration in young people — watching them grow and “seeing them wanting to do good things.”

For anyone who faces obstacles in life, Melendez said, his advice is not to give up — that time and practice is all it takes. He has found ways to do almost any basic task without assistance.

“You don’t have to have what everyone else has physically to accomplish things in the world today,” he said.