Stefan George, a songwriter and guitarist whose music transcended genres and generations over a 40-year career that included international touring, prolific recording and appearing in festivals throughout the Southwest, died Monday.
George, a member of the Tucson Musicians Hall of Fame and The Arizona Blues Hall of Fame, collapsed at home. He was 62 and had been in rapidly declining health for the past year after the deaths of his wife and mother within months of each other in early 2014.
“There’s a huge gap in our music community and I think a few of us are still in shock,” said KXCI DJ Carol Anderson, longtime host of “Roadhouse” and a close friend since the 1980s. “He was an extraordinarily talented musician. I don’t think anybody can touch that kind of talent in terms of playing and songwriting.”
“Most people would think of him as doing blues, but he studied and he really worked hard to develop his own style,” said Hank Childers of the Bright and Childers Quartet. “ I always thought that Stefan, if it had been his choice, could have been a national level performer. He was that good.”
George moved to Tucson in the 1970s and performed and recorded with a number of bands over the years including the Swingtones, Stefan George and Songtower, White Bread, Four Corners, BK Special, and one of his final ensembles Stefan George and the Ditchriders.
For 10 years beginning in the early 1980s, George fronted the Brain Damage Orchestra, a group of eight musicians, many of whom learned to play their instruments after they joined, said founding bass guitarist Lori Zimmermann.
The band played in almost every venue imaginable in Tucson, Zimmermann said, performing original dance music — ska, country, rock, blues and reggae — written mostly by George.
“The motto of our band was ‘Brain Damage Orchestra: Serious Fun,’ and that’s what we had,” she said.
George performed in Germany and throughout the United States, including in Hawaii, Oklahoma and throughout the Southwest. He performed and competed in the folk festivals at Telluride in Colorado and Kerrville in Texas and was a finalist for a number of songwriting competitions. In addition to being inducted into the halls of fame, he won local honors including Tucson Area Music Awards (TAMMIE) .
But he was perhaps best known for his affiliation with the Tucson Folk Festival, often performing on several stages with different ensembles.
“He was a main fixture at the folk festivals,” said George’s close friend and musical collaborator Neil Harry, a Tucson Musicians Museum Hall of Fame pedal steel guitarist. “Whenever he would play, and especially when it was made to be a special event, everyone would come out to see him.”
“We called Stefan one of our legends,” Tucson blues singer and pianist Lisa Otey said. “He’s one of those masters you go to and say, ‘How is this supposed to sound?’ And when he sang, people listened to Stefan and it was like he was telling your story
“He just knew everything about the song,” added Otey’s partner, Tucson jazz singer Diane Van Deurzen. “You just felt every single note that he sang and every single note that he played. And the way he held the guitar, it was such a part of his body. … He and his guitar became one being.”
Otey and Van Deurzen invited George to share the stage with them last September at Z Mansion. It was George’s first concert appearance since losing his wife, Lavinia White, to cancer in early February 2014 and his mother, Emily George, a few months later.
“He just poured his heart out. He had been through so much,” Otey said.
“Lavinia was really half of him,” said longtime friend and KXCI personality Marty Kool. “The two of them together was one. Without her, he was half a man.”
Aside from a weekly Thursday night gig at La Cocina downtown, George rarely performed after White died.
“We were his sort of constant gig. And he didn’t play a whole lot at other places except the folk festivals,” said Allie Baron, La Cocina’s bar manager and chief talent booker. “His guitar playing was beautiful and the way he sang some songs was so haunting and emotional.”
In June, George no longer had the strength to perform a full night at La Cocina and stopped coming, Baron said.
“I believe there’s such a thing as dying of grief,” Zimmermann said. “He just never stopped playing music until his muse passed away.”
George is survived by his son, Josh Kelly of Vermont; and his granddaughter, Eden.
Arrangements for a celebration of George’s life are pending.