If you haven’t yet met Martin “Marty Taters” Tatro, you are probably still a relative newcomer to the Sacramento open mic community. Just know this: if you sign up at an open mic hosted by Marty, he will soon know you, and will do his best to make sure you are welcomed into our motley crew of downtown Sacramento’s open mic regulars.
Some guys have a passion for golf, or for watching pro sports in front of the TV on weekends and evenings. Marty’s passion is music. And he loves to share that passion with others, by collaborating onstage with a rotating group of friends who enjoy playing together, harmonizing together on backup vocals, and all the other configurations that can be enjoyed when you invite others to join you on stage. An otherwise solid set can become a surprise hit involving the entire audience.
Many people in our community go to the open mics not just to play, but often for no other reason than to hang out with people like Marty and other characters, to catch up on breaking news within the local musician’s grapevine, but more often than not, just for the enjoyment of talking music and playing music and listening to people play, just as they do. It’s more than an avocation or pastime, it’s a lifestyle. At open mics at several venues around town, you’ll find Marty hosting, co-hosting, putting together fun events like the songwriter showcases which he initiated at the Blue Lamp, the BBQ and Music parties at Old Ironsides on his birthday, and anything else that strikes his fancy. And always, he plays and sings, and laughs, and is the sparkplug who keeps other people smiling and laughing along with him.
Marty was born in the early 1950s at Sacramento’s Mercy General Hospital. Think of someone who I have no doubt was clearly an intelligent child, but one who was also inquisitive, creative, and leaned toward the wild side. He eventually became a handful to raise for his single-parent mother and at various times lived in San Diego, San Francisco, and Davis, with an uncle or his grandparents, who by the way, fled New Mexico in the 1930s for California, as on-the-run bootleggers who had operated the town’s still. It was a nice family tradition while it lasted.
During his teen years, probably due to a combination of his mixed Anglo-Latino heritage and his attraction to fighting and hanging out with youthful troublemakers, someone working in government social services labeled Marty an “at-risk” youth. He was eventually invited to live in a UC Davis dorm for several years as part of an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) experiment. The program was designed to expose “disadvantaged or at-risk” high school students to college, and to determine what, if any, degree of success might result from the experience. It was intense. Marty spent all week soaking up UCD’s influence, then came home on weekends to spend much of his time in classes that were required to earn his high school diploma. He took on his first tastes of responsibility, and over time learned how to handle it well.
EOP had a carrot: it was a federal program that came with federal money, and the kids in the program were able to collectively vote on how it should be spent. Anything was okay, as long as it was educational. At some point, after enjoying some highly educational field trips, the group voted to purchase instruments for those students who wanted to learn to play music, augmented by twice-weekly music lessons provided by a UCD music student. Marty enjoyed a solid year of guitar lessons before moving on.
The administrators of the EOP program probably lost track of most of the kids, but they would be gratified to learn that Marty made the most of his experience and now considers it a turning point in his life. By the time he graduated from high school he’d already earned some early college credits and wasn’t intimidated by the transition from high school to college. Hell, he was already there. He’d learned how to handle responsibility, and it was already becoming a matter of personal honor to never be accused of being a flake.
Post EOP, Marty moved in with his grandparents in Southport, West Sacramento, and lived with them for a time prior to joining the workforce, when RT made him a job offer at the age of 21. He was ready, having taken a sabbatical of sorts before beginning his new job, spending several months with wife-to-be Pam in Hawaii, and then in the Los Angeles area to see the Long Beach Grand Prix live.
Music classes at Sacramento City College opened his eyes to the mathematical side of music but also showed that taking that approach could be sterile and lacking in heart. He likes playing the blues for the feel of it — the note-bending and the other musical staples of the blues genre. Generally, though, anything with a melodic line will catch his ear.
Songwriting is a personal effort that each person approaches in a unique way. In Marty’s case he’d write musical phrases when the inspiration struck, and then gradually piece together whatever pieces fit well together. Eventually a completed song resulted. That approach worked then, and it’s the way he still writes songs today.
Relative to playing covers, Marty makes no attempt to recreate the original. His approach is to listen to a variety of cover arrangements of a given song, by different artists, then use the best of each to find an arrangement that best fits his playing and vocal skills. In that way, the song is immediately recognizable, but my own ears tell me that the arrangements are “pure Taters”.
Major influences on Marty’s cover playlist include such artists as Tom Petty, and the Doobie Brothers, along with a significant influence by the 60s-era free-form, psychedelic hippie rock, and a major influence by 70s-era rock, which seemed to Marty to have been tighter musically. He will freely admit to wearing out one of The Doors early LPs, playing it over and over and over — “Break on though to the other side…”
Sidebar: Unfortunately for Marty and other Doors fans, front man Jim Morrison broke on through to the other side much too early, dying in Paris at age 27 due to what officials listed as “heart failure”, without the benefit of an autopsy, which was not required by French law. Morrison’s own keyboardist, Ray Manzarek, had another theory, attributing Morrison’s death to excessive drinking. He told the story about being with Morrison one night when Morrison downed 27 rum-heavy Mai Tai’s in one sitting. Dying at age 27 gave him automatic membership in The 27 Club, a group of famous musicians who died at age 27. To read more on that:
But back to Marty…
Marty was asked to describe his ideal “dream” band, one that he would play in. IF he would have constructed a band from scratch, Marty would have had a horn section and backup singers, but coordinating that kind of talent quickly becomes laborious, similar to herding cats. So putting that aside, Marty has been satisfied to accompany himself vocally on guitar, and occasionally on the kalimba, which is simply described as an African finger piano, and then join musical talents with many other friends for ad hoc performances at open mics or other shows.
By the way, the backstory of Marty and his kalimba is worth relating: the kalimba was discovered when Marty asked about a strange-looking device he saw at a friend’s home. At the time, it was used to hold incense that had been lit to throw the friend’s daughter off the track about their pot smoking. Soon, the friends were trading each other lessons, on guitar and on the kalimba. Before long, they were busking on the mall at 9th & K St. during the lunch hour. Marty proudly recalls that they made enough in tips to buy their lunch on practically every outing.
So what was the first cover song that Marty ever played? That would be “For What It’s Worth,” by Buffalo Springfield. That song has stood the test of time as a crowd favorite, whenever it’s played, and Marty still plays it frequently. It lights up the room. When he was young and money was scarce, his grandmother had given him a 78 RPM (that’s revolutions per minute, if you didn’t grow up playing records made of vinyl) record player, and once he had that record player, Marty haunted area thrift stores, buying up anything that remotely looked promising, usually at about a nickel a record. Records by artists like Jerry Lee Lewis and many others whose career success had been measured in record sales found themselves being used in Marty’s continued musical training.
In 1976 Steve Jobs founded the Apple Computer Company, Sylvester Stallone starred in the first Rocky, a major box-office hit, and the new Concorde rolled out New York-to-London air travel in just under three hours. Marty was fortunate to have survived beyond that year.
Returning from a music show on Halloween night, a freak accident with a cattle truck put him in the hospital where he spent just over a month in traction, with multiple fractures involving his skull, ribs, hip, arm, and injuries to his face which almost cost him his right eye. But that happened in his mid-20s, and he bounced back. Even though, Marty wouldn’t go out on Halloween for the next five or six years. Too many bad memories associated with that night.
So what’s the backstory with Marty and open mics? Maybe 10 years ago he was spending quite a bit of time at The Blue Lamp’s open mics, listening to local musicians playing their music, but he was at that time a performance virgin. For a time, his enjoyment of the music was negatively affected by another regular, a young woman who claimed to have had formal musical training as a classical pianist. She was often heard making critical comments about other pianists as they played and sang on stage. Marty finally challenged her to put up or shut up, and said that if she’d go up and show what she had, he’d sign up to play and do the same. She agreed. They were both going to play for the first time the following week.
The following week, Marty got up with his guitar and “stumbled through” (his words) the Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”, but he felt a new and strange sense of accomplishment and pride in having done so. But although the young woman had brought her piano, she blew him off with a simple “I’m not in the mood”. She flat-out reneged on her promise to him. Trust and reliability — as Marty related this story I could see that these were two character traits that he had demonstrated that night. She had failed herself on those scores.
Even though the young lady continued to return for a period to the Blue Lamp, Marty’s continued comments in subsequent weeks apparently shamed her, and eventually she quit coming. But then, unexpectedly, she came back about a year later. To her shocked surprise, Marty was there also, as though he’d never left, and he picked right up where he’d left off the last time, reminding her, “You still owe me that song.” Marty now guesses that tore it: she never played, and never came back.
Every newcomer to open mics has to learn the routine, and how those routines vary from one open mic venue to the next. The first thing that needs to be remembered by newcomers is that people come to open mics to be supportive, above everything else. You just give it your best to try and enjoy the experience. Every time on stage is a unique learning experience.
While on the subject of fun and open mics, a note of appreciation must go out to Marty’s wife Pam. The two of them have different passions but have always allowed each other to follow their own individual passions without guilt. Marty does spend frequent nights at open mics, but his wife trusts and encourages him, so there is no friction on that score. It doesn’t get much better than that in a relationship. He has showed his appreciation for Pam by writing a song about how he met her. He also wrote one song on top of a Whirlpool dryer, while waiting for his clothes to dry. One promise: Marty does not like boats and will probably never write a song about the joys of being on a cruise or a sailboat or anything else that floats on the water. Everybody draws a line in the sand when it comes to something…
In his early days working at the Blue Lamp Marty’s love affair with music caught fire, as he learned the ropes of major music show production, moving well beyond the walls of The Blue Lamp to book acts at major venues in our region, including Cal Expo and many others. His organizational and deal-making skills got honed through those projects, and the lessons learned prepared him well for putting on those special smaller-scale Sacramento shows that are always well-attended and thoroughly enjoyed.
Every songwriter eventually reaches the point of wanting to record, and Marty has lately been involved in recording his first EP, with the help of friend George Jenkins. At some point he’ll commit to a date for an EP release party, and will hope that his friends will all be there to celebrate the event with him. I suspect that he will not be disappointed with the turnout. His friends will want to be there to celebrate the event with him.
For a guy who once enjoyed fighting and ran with a pretty tough crowd, Marty Taters has mellowed out and left that “at risk” label far behind him, in the dust in fact. The only thing he’s at risk of now is not getting enough sleep due to staying up too late at open mics.