Vocalist and guitarist William Hart Strecker’s father couldn’t play an instrument but he made sure that each of his seven children did. The elder Strecker, who was an accountant, was profoundly deaf from birth and could only hear out of one ear with a hearing aid. He loved music but he couldn’t hear it very well, says Strecker, a Cranbury resident.
Partially because of that, says Strecker, he emphasized musical training for all of his children. “He wanted to make sure we could all be able to do the thing he loved but lacked the ability to do.”
Strecker, who usually plays with five or six musicians live, has just released a new record, “Smoke + Clouds.” He appears on Friday. June 29, at Salt Creek Grille in Forrestal Village, which, since opening last year, has quickly become a legitimate venue for jazz, acoustic, and cabaret performers. Strecker will perform songs from this record and his two earlier CDs. He will also appear on Sunday, July 29, at Forrestal’s outdoor BBQ & Rib Festival.
Strecker grew up in Lake Ronkonkoma on Long Island. In elementary school Strecker started out as a trombonist, and he admits that he wasn’t all that good at it. It is interesting, then, that Strecker later ditched the horn for a career as a vocalist because many musicians believe the trombone is the instrument that is closest in character to the human voice.
“We listened to a lot of country at home — that’s what my father liked. He would turn up his hearing aid all the way in order to be able to hear,” he says. His grandmother was deaf-mute, and his dad and grandma communicated via sign language. After hanging up the trombone, Strecker went into singing, studying with opera singers and earning a full voice scholarship to Baylor University in Texas.
Strecker is classically trained as a vocalist, and he has played in rock, country, and R&B bands. His latest record, which was released this year, Strecker says, “has a bit more of a country-roots feel.” It was recorded with his band of regulars: Chris Eminizer on guitar and horns, John Putnam on guitar, Ken Rich on bass, Andrew Sherman on keyboards, Frank Vilardi and Greg Wiz on drums and percussion, and Drew Zingg on guitars. Both Eminizer and Rich also produce and help Strecker write.
On “Smoke + Clouds” Strecker also brought in musicians such as trumpeter Kenny Rampton, trombonist Clark Gayton, and accordionist Charlie Giordano, a former Pat Benatar sideman, who is also known for playing on Bruce Springsteen’s Americana-laden “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.”
The composition process for Strecker is one of collaboration, he says, chiefly with Eminizer, with whom he has been writing since Eminizer joined the band. “It has become very natural to write with him.”
Strecker takes a distinctive, personal approach to composing, and he extends that aesthetic to his collaborations with Eminizer. First the melody, then the chorus, then the lyrics and the bridge, if he so desires. Since Eminizer lives in Westchester County, NY, he and Strecker meet for a few hours every now and then at a rehearsal studio in Manhattan to write and bounce ideas off each other. “I do my homework before we even sit down together,” Strecker says. “I will come in with five different songs, those I will have gone as far as I can go with, maybe in different phases. We will piece together the best two or three and work with them.”
This approach paid off last year for Strecker when Mike Curb, the multimillionaire former California lieutentant governor, called him. Curb is now the owner of Curb Records, a powerful company in Nashville that boasts, among other artists, Tim McGraw and LeAnn Rimes. “He called me in December, said he loved my stuff and wanted to hear more,” says Strecker, who sent a rough mix of the new record. Curb called back and asked him to do a live showcase in New York.
After that showcase the two flew down to Nashville, where Strecker did another live show for Curb. “Later he called and told me he picked up eight of my songs for his artists to cover,” says Strecker.
Of course, Strecker might have hoped that he would be doing those songs on Curb Records but he has no problem lending them to others. “I don’t mind being the songwriter,” he says. “That’s a way to get my foot in the door.”
The 50-something Strecker has a wealth of experience in many different arenas of life. He began playing music professionally in 1972 after graduating from Baylor. After rejecting, at least seriously, the idea of becoming a classical tenor, Strecker, who fronted a band called New Hope, signed with Laurie Records, the company that boasted groups like the Chiffons and Dion and the Belmonts.
But after tiring of the music business in the 1980s he decided to let music go and devote his time and resources to another one of his loves — gardening. Strecker moved to Cranbury and established a landscape architecture firm on his farm, now called Strecker and Son (streckerandson.com), which he operates with his wife, Peg, and his oldest son, Aaron. Strecker says that the firm is one of the top five grossing landscape architecture firms in the state. “It saved my life,” he says. “Playing in bars every night is very unhealthy.
He credits his wife with convincing him to start his own business. “She asked me what — besides music — I really had a passion for,” Strecker says. “Well, I used to mow the golf courses when I was a kid.”
His clientele as a landscape designer includes upscale residential and commercial developments. “I’m digging this whole thing right now,” he says, no pun intended.
But in one specific way Stecker credits music with saving his life in a different way. In 1998 while driving his truck from a job Strecker had a serious car accident that left him in a coma for a month. “It was a late October night, and I remember just slightly catching a little bit of curb,” he says. “The car slipped and ran directly into a tree. Next thing I know, I’m waking up in the hospital. I had been in a coma for 25 to 30 days. I had a broken back and a collapsed lung, and I had to learn how to walk and talk again,” he says.
The clients he was doing work for when the accident occurred visited Strecker in the hospital and brought him a CD player and some discs. One of the discs was B.B. King’s “Deuces Wild,” a well-regarded near-classic recorded in 1997. One of the musicians on the record, along with names such as Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, was keyboardist Tommy Eyre, who had played with Strecker in one of his groups 25 years earlier.
Strecker actually began to cry, because he saw that his old friend had “made it!” “I just knew that I had to call him up and congratulate him, which I did, but it also made me realize that I had to get back into the scene myself.”
Despite his busy schedule with the landscaping business, Strecker says, he makes sure he has time to hop on his truck or tractor and tinker around on his farm. “It’s a gorgeous, little six-acre piece of heaven,” he says. “I make sure I have time for everything, the business, my family, the music. I just block out the time accordingly.”
He also enjoys his grandchildren, Brianna, 5, and Dylan, 6. “They know all of my songs, every word,” he says with obvious pride.
And that points out something for William Strecker. His music, he says, is for people of all ages, from one to 100. “I don’t think you can put an age limit to it,” he says. “When I’m playing at a club, like the Salt Creek Grille, the waiters and waitresses, they are all in their 20s. I am in my 50s, and the guys in my band are in their 30s. I just think we have a fresh sound. At least that’s what they tell me. The songs I write come from life experience. You know I’m no spring chicken. These aren’t the type of songs you’d give to Justin Timberlake.”
William Hart Strecker, Friday, June 29, 7 p.m., Salt Creek Grille, One Rockingham Row, Forrestal Village, Plainsboro. 609-419-4200. For more information visit www.williamhartstrecker.com. His CDs are available on www.cdbaby.com.