Pickin' up where guitarist left off
Every musician dreams of getting a record deal. For Don Bikoff of Glen Cove, that dream came true 45 years ago, when Keyboard Records, an indie label whose specialty was producing Christmas albums for Firestone Tires, offered him a deal after seeing the 19-year-old guitarist perform one of his songs on "Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour," the 1960s TV version of "America's Got Talent."
Five thousand copies of "Celestial Explosion," a collection of Bikoff's fingerpicking, acoustic guitar solos that were heavily influenced by the Delta blues, American folk and Eastern classical music, hit the market with little fanfare. Bikoff figured the album would never be heard again, and until last year, he was right.
Jeffrey Davison, a DJ with Jersey City's WFMU/91.1 FM, an independent radio station, happened upon a copy and started playing cuts from it on his show. When Bikoff found out, he got in touch with Davison and they became friends. That friendship eventually led to Bikoff's album being rereleased earlier this year, and jump-starting the musical career Bikoff had all but abandoned more than 40 years ago.
Now Bikoff is garnering new fans, generations younger, with his American Acoustic tour, which is coming to the Landmark on Main Street in Port Washington Oct. 18 (see box).
At 66, his revived career has taken him to crowds at the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead and The Living Room in Manhattan. Best of all, he's finally finished his second album, slated to debut Jan. 18, the same day as his scheduled concert at the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts.
Bikoff has been musically inclined since he was a child growing up in Freeport and then Brookville. He started playing the accordion after a musical aptitude test revealed that was the instrument he should play. By sixth grade, he switched to the trumpet so he could join the school band, but a couple of years later, as his interest in rock and roll began to blossom, he asked his parents for a guitar.
"I think I had about three or four guitar lessons and didn't care for the regimen at all," he recalls. "So I said, this isn't working."
He continued to play by ear and, by eighth grade, gathered some friends to form a band. "Our name was Donny and the Tornados. We did Beach Boys covers and a few originals."
In his teens, his interest in acoustic guitar expanded. He would take frequent trips into Manhattan, where he spent countless hours at the Gaslight Cafe, listening to up-and-coming guitarists including José Feliciano and Mike Phillips.
"It was a little hole in the wall in the Village, and I saw guitar players and marveled that they used their fingers to play. I was using a flat pick. I didn't realize people like Andrés Segovia could use their fingers to play," he says. "I'd be sitting in the front row with a pad and a pencil, writing down chords and finger positions."
Eventually, he started penning his own compositions, including "Celestial Explosion," the guitar instrumental he played on "Amateur Hour," when he was a Hofstra University student. His performance, seen in a black-and-white video (donbikoff.com/news.html), prompted a perplexed reaction.
"Ted Mack was very nice, but he had no idea what I was going to do. His comment at the end was, 'That was unusual, to say the least,' " Bikoff says.
Still, the appearance did serve as a steppingstone to getting his album made. And though it posed no threat of knocking The Beatles off the Billboard charts, it gave Bikoff the impetus to head cross-country and get his music heard. In the early '70s, he and his future wife, Amy, hopped in a Volkswagen microbus, taking gigs -- and meals -- anywhere he could. "We'd stop at a club. My wife would come in and say, 'You got entertainment at this place?' If they'd say 'No,' we'd say, 'Can we pass the hat around and can you give us dinner?' We did that for months on end, until the engine blew up near Washington," Bikoff recalls.
He took it as a sign to return to New York and lead a more conventional life. Starting in 1973 and over the next five years, he worked in Oceanside, teaching seventh- and eighth-graders, and then as a linguistics instructor at what is now LIU Post. During summer breaks, he worked at his father-in-law's company, Carnegie Chemical & Color Co., a small distributor of coatings, lacquers, varnishes, solvents and paints in Glen Cove. He ran the company until liquidating it last year, but still works as an industry rep.
In all those years, he continued to play the guitar, mostly at home, before small crowds locally and occasionally on open mic nights at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Central Nassau's Garden Stage in Garden City. He didn't expect anyone beyond the patrons of that coffeehouse to hear his music.
That might have been his fate, if Davison, the DJ, hadn't gone to a garage sale in early 2012. Davison found "Celestial Explosion" while rummaging through record bins and was immediately struck by the album's cover. "It's so stark. It's a black cover with a drawing of this acoustic guitar," he says.
Record gets airplay
Davison liked what he heard and began playing selections on his Saturday morning program, "Shrunken Planet," which specializes in the musically eclectic. "Don loves to say I discovered him, but all I did was find his record. It's a beautiful record," he says. "FMU is made up of a bunch of people who are completely crazy about music. And this was like finding a lost gem."
Through a Google search, Bikoff found out his songs were on WFMU's playlist. He then emailed Davison and asked about doing a live session on his show.
"At the time, we were not doing them," Davison says. "Then last year, we started. I still had his email, so I responded and said I'm doing live sessions. Do you want to come in. We got an engineer from the station to mic it and record it."
Davison also believed that more people should hear Bikoff's music. He contacted Josh Rosenthal, a guitar aficionado and founder of San Francisco-based Tompkins Square Records, about reissuing the album. "I emailed Josh and sent him a link to Don on the Ted Mack show and links to specific shows where I played Don's music. I figured if anyone was going to put the album out, it was Josh, and he dug it right away."
Since then, Bikoff has been getting regular concert gigs. For the Vail-Leavitt show and upcoming Landmark engagement, he has been performing with Mark Fosson, a songwriter and fellow guitarist from Baltimore, who's also on the Tompkins Square label. At the Landmark show, Bikoff and Fosson, 63, will each perform a solo set and then do a set together.
"He's very melodic, and I'm a big fan of melody," Fosson says of Bikoff. "A lot of guitar players out there are just driving blind, just picking with no melody. With Don, he's old school."
And his old school playing is attracting new school fans, especially the college crowd. "The people I know who love a guitar are pretty crazy about it, so there will always be people who'll listen to acoustic guitar," Davison says. "College stations, independent stations, freeform stations, they're looking for music that has that substance to it."
The grandchildren like it
Among Bikoff's most loyal fans are his daughter, two sons and three grandchildren (Jackson, 6, Gavin, 3, and Liam, 1). "They were mesmerized from the time they could stand," he says.
Bikoff is now sharing his talent with Jackson. "He gets a weekly guitar lesson," Bikoff says. "To keep his interest, he learns 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' and 'Bad to the Bone.' "
And no doubt he'll get lessons on some of Bikoff's tunes as he gets older. While "Celestial Explosion" experimented with a lot of echoes and electronic overtones, Bikoff says his new album, "Hallowed Ground" will be crisper, as if he were playing in your living room. "We've created a sound so that it's almost like a house concert. Like the guitar is right there and fully rounded."
Bikoff also is hopeful that the new album clicks, and a third one will come a lot quicker than 45 years. "I'm hoping that there's enough of a resurgence to put me on a regular concert circuit again and to sell a lot of albums," he says. "I hope it enables me to not just have music as an avocation, but as a vocation."
WHAT The American Acoustic tour with guitarists Don Bikoff and Mark Fosson
WHEN | WHERE Oct. 18 at 8 p.m., Landmark on Main Street, Port Washington
INFO $25-$35; 516-767-6444, landmarkonmainstreet.org