Editor's note: Throughout the summer, Sentinel reporter Dusty W. Sipes will write a weekly feature on local artists who perform various genres of music. This week's feature reviews the wide-ranging career of Adam John Becker.
Adam John Becker is a renaissance man of musical genres; he has tackled jazz, classic rock, 1980s hair metal and the drop out culture of 90s grunge. With a musical career spanning more than 15 years, Becker shows no signs of slowing down. He is married, works a full-time job and typically performs six days a week. Despite a grueling schedule, he speaks comically about his playing, his looks and crowd expectations.
"Nobody expects you to play as well or sound as good as you do when you look like me. It just doesn't happen. People don't walk in and go, 'this guy is going to be good!' They are more like, 'sigh, this guy looks like he just ate 24 wings and one is hanging in his beard," Becker said.
Adam John Becker has tackled a wide variety of musical genres during the past 15 years, ranging from jazz to classic rock, 1980s hair metal and 1990s grunge.
Long before Becker made a career out of entertaining strangers in smoke-filled dungeons, sleepy afternoon festivals and private parties, his childhood house was filled with a dichotomy of piano hymns and Van Halen.
"I grew up in a musical family. My mom and grandmother were pianists and singers. So I was brought up learning piano by my mom and I remember her taking me to piano lessons and being so excited that I couldn't sit down and actually play. He (the teacher) had to have me stand beside the piano bench and march to take up the time. I would get so excited. I was very rambunctious," Becker said.
In the basement, Becker often heard the faint drifts of Van Halen and Metallica coming from the tube as his middle brother would watch MTV with his friends. Becker often snuck down and caught glimpses of the music that would initiate his love of rock. His favorite music up to that point was anything that could be found on the soundtrack to the classic 1980s movie "Ghostbusters."
Even after his introduction to MTV, Becker managed to retain his love of classical music, most notably the Baroque period, and he began to beg his parents for a guitar to extend his musical curiosity.
"I fought hard with my parents to get me a guitar. I remember asking for one for years and one year they got me an electronic keyboard, and then something different after that. One year I got a rainstick. My brothers finally said, 'why don't you just get him what he wants?' When I was in high school my mom finally broke down and bought me one, but by then my friends had guitars so I already knew how to play. My mom had this chintzy little traveler guitar that she had from when she was young, and I would play and that, and it probably had the same strings that came on it in 1952. The back brace was broken so I thought it was the coolest thing ever cause you could bend the body and it gave it a whammy bar sound. Thinking back, I have no idea how I learned on that thing with the strings up as high from the fretboard as possible," Becker said.
In 1998 Becker says that he "weaseled" his way into his first band in high school. The group consisted of Mike Delvecchio, Nick Barger and Mel Hesser. He told the group that he was able to "play the solos to whatever." He said he arrived at practice and did not know how to play anything. In typical rock fashion, those who are struggling with guitar tend to get demoted to bass and Becker was content with that.
"We called ourselves The Norman Invasion after an inside joke. Our first show was for Habitat for Humanity and we played alongside The Jellybricks, an older band, and we were telling everybody, 'Hey! We played with the Jellybricks!" Our schtick for that show was that we each started out on a different instrument than usual. We played MXPX, Aerosmith, and others and you could tell which member picked each song because they were so different. We had one original song," Becker said.
During high school, Becker performed extensively with the school band and choir, and was eventually allowed to play bass for a song in the jazz band. "At that time, I lived and breathed playing bass," Becker said. Though he did not necessarily have dreams of becoming a rock god in high school, Becker knew that he wanted to make a career out of music one way or another.
"I wanted to be a music teacher because I was in love with (music teachers) Art Belfiore, Lynn C. Phillips and Vicki Festerbush. They were my idols. I thought these people are doing this all day, teaching people who really want to learn and it's not like a math class where you have to be there. You either put a check in the box or you don't. At that time, I was planning to go to college for singing, not bass guitar," Becker said.
In his sophomore year, Becker wrote his first song about what practically every musician with raging hormones does: a girl. He called it "What You Mean to Me."
"I gave her a tape of it and the person who we were both taking piano lessons from had two daughters and they were making fun of it and she was making fun of it along with them. That was pretty much the end of me talking to her for a while. Then I ended up marrying her years later and she still has the tape of it," Becker said.
Becker attended IUP for music education with an emphasis on voice. He was in the program for about a year and decided to switch majors after seeing that many of his graduating friends were unable to find work in their field. He switched to performance, endured two semesters and ultimately decided to drop out.
When Becker returned to Lewistown, he began playing with a jazz trio called Apollo 3 and played at local venues.
"We used to play at Wagner's Cafe downtown to get free food and coffee. They had us every week and didn't have to pay us," Becker said.
Shortly after returning, Becker exploded on the Mifflin County music scene, playing in a series of bands and performing almost exclusively on guitar.
He says he borrowed a lot of his early playing from the blues: Stevie Ray Vaughn, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Clapton.
In recent memory, Becker is perhaps best known for playing with the Mifflin County traveling cover band, Johnny Unit. Like many bands who decided to quit their day jobs and dedicate themselves to life on the road, internal disputes often arise. Becker reflects on the band with a sense of nostalgia and doesn't appear to be bitter about the disbanding of a group that was like a family for a period of time.
"Johnny Unit was probably one of the best times of my life. A lot of bad things happen with a traveling cover band, people's lives get torn apart, marriages end up in divorce. It was a full-time job. We did it for a living," Becker said.
The group, which had Ryan Russler on vocals, Justin Bumgardner on bass, Becker on lead guitar, Jordan Krepps on rhythm guitar and Jeb Stroup on drums, broke up in 2011.
Currently, Becker is playing with an all-original rock pop group, The Goodnight Revelry, an acoustic group, His Boy Elroy, and occasional shows with his life-long friend, Aaron Bossinger.
"Bossinger and I have been playing together since I was 15 and he was 13. We never really worked together, though. He was always pushing the originals and I was saying to him that we should really play some Iron Maiden because people will love that. They didn't. We've finally come together over an acoustic thing," Becker said.
In addition to these three acts, Becker is an acting "hired gun" for a series of local bands and artists. He plays every other Sunday with Chad Capprio, every Thursday at the Bierhaus, a weekly show at St. Charles Cafe, in Clearfield, and another upcoming weekly show at The Saloon, in State College.
The Goodnight Revelry, His Boy Elroy and Adam John Becker can all be found on Facebook.
Sentinel reporter Dusty W. Sipes can be reached