Ted Stern: Chasing the Allure of Universal Magic
I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning. —J. B. Priestley
From an early age, many of us learn that it is easy to become accustomed to the grand allure of American culture. Ted Stern, however, chose to cultivate his lifelong pursuits with a deep understanding of the importance to both grow and develop without constraints of traditional mainstream influence. With little more than a love for learning and violin by age five, Ted found early clarity in the idea that an individual’s life should prioritize exploration. With it comes a playful curiosity that takes you on a seemingly never-ending journey to find the ever elusive “next right note.”
Early on it was apparent that a school environment that trumpeted modern/popular music would be agonizing for Ted. While excelling in his studies, advancing ahead of the other kids by two years, he found refuge in endless hours of classical music. Like many children of post-war refugees, Ted had trouble fitting in. His brother, Victor, was the only one Ted could turn to, but there was no way Vic wanted his kid brother hanging around him. Ted’s affinity toward musical instruments became his calling. Great Aunt Blanche had gifted him a violin. Visiting her was always a special treat, with Ted immediately gravitating toward his new-found love, the piano. It was the only thing he wanted to do.
Walking the streets of Boro Park (Brooklyn) with his violin in tow, Ted surely didn’t come across as one of the cool kids. His parents knew the value of a musical education and got a retired jazz saxophonist to patiently show him the value of technique. “It sounded terrible when I played it, and the exercises were boring,” Ted lamented. The teacher eventually saw an opening in his desire to explore actual music and attempted many Beethoven, Mozart, Shubert, and Handel pieces for violin and piano. Modern music still eluded Ted until his brother got cassettes of The Who (Tommy), Blood Sweat & Tears, and vinyls of Vanilla Fudge and Steppenwolf. So as not to rouse his big brother’s wrath, Ted would carefully sneak around the house, hiding behind doors to listen in.
Breaking his leg when he was 12 provided the perfect excuse for quitting violin lessons forever, since getting on a bus with a violin and a cast was a reasonable excuse for never doing it again. His best friend, Bob Tuber, brought him his homework and, with it, “modern” music for the 12 weeks he was stuck at home. Ted played the sympathy card, getting his parents to buy him a Sears Silvertone Guitar. Ted spent the next several years teaching himself guitar. It would be another seven years before he would pick up the violin again.
Ted was only 16 when he graduated high school and went on to Princeton. “If I hadn’t had my best friends in high school and college to guide me, I would have never learned anything,” he offered. College buddy Lee Cohen, well-versed in all kinds of music, was an exceptional guide for Ted. They were both disc jockeys at Princeton’s Radio Station, WPRB, a progressive jazz station.
Bob introduced him to pedal steel music from the ’60s folk-rock acid-rock scenes, and Ted fell in love with its sound. “When I found pedal steel, I found an instrument that I love the sound of. It worked with a bunch of really cool music that I loved, and it was a cool instrument!” So, he went ahead and bought himself an ancient Fender 400 pedal steel guitar and sat in his dorm room for hours, picking licks off New Riders of the Purple Sage, Doobie Brothers, CSNY, Joni Mitchell, and, of course, from his idols Buddy Cage, Skunk Baxter, Ben Keith, and Sneaky Pete. He slowed the vinyl to 16 rpms so he could dissect some of the more difficult and complex quick licks and adored the new sounds. Ted’s very first gig on pedal steel was at the Princeton Terrace Eating Club with a band he formed along with a couple of other students, called the Citizen’s Band.
With a degree in computer science and a plan to drive cross-country to attend Berkeley for grad school, Ted’s “spirit guides” led him to take a little detour. What would be considered a gutsy move for most, Ted packed up all his belongings in his ’73 gold Dodge Dart and headed to Nashville to check into a motel and look up agents in the yellow pages. Thanks to dumb luck he got an audition with the management of then yet unknown, the Hank Williams Jr. Band, but the audition was in Huntsville, Alabama with the Price Mitchell Band. The audition didn’t go over well. “I was a Deadhead pedal steel player who didn’t know the ‘Pedal Steel Rag’ from ‘Under the Double Eagle.’”
The very next morning he headed to Austin, Texas, where he was only supposed to stay for two nights. He didn’t really want to go to Berkeley and into computer science. “I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was on my way to California, and I stopped in.” But Ted realized that he needed to be able to learn something new. He ended up spending the next year in Texas, selling solar hot water heaters door to door and living the life of a progressive country musician, playing with a band called Caught in the Act.
The first Earth Day was created to increase public awareness of the world’s environmental problems. It made a big impression on Ted. “We were starry-eyed in those days, if you look back, compared to how people feel today. We were totally full of hopes and dreams and making the world better.” Not believing he really had the tools to make it as a musician, the time had come for Ted to head on out to Berkeley to study the environmental sciences. It was electrical engineering, but it was surrounding solar Energy and solar electric conversion.
Still, music was something he loved, and it helped to make some extra money to pay the bills. Ted got a regular gig, five nights a week, five hours a night with the Stone Country Band. “That’s when you really understand what you need to do to have the chops and the stamina and the listening skills and the ability to get along with other musicians and band leaders, and understanding what they want, what they need, and understanding that you know they’re right. No matter how good an instrumentalist you might be, you were a sideman. I only considered myself a sideman. That’s what I wanted to be more than anything else—to play a beautiful instrument and to play with a great singer, which is one of the greatest gifts that has happened to me.”
Engineering brought Ted to San Diego, where he was recruited by Convair to work on space solar power systems. With his spiritual mentor and supervisor at Convair, Mickey Cornwall, they traveled all over the country selling solar panels for 15 years. Mickey was both an engineer on the Atlas program that launched John Glenn and a Minister of Science of Mind / Ernest Holmes, Miracles Belief System.
Looking for something new musically, Ted started playing whenever he could in San Diego. Ted created a band with his neighbor, Tami Morrissey, which turned into the 91X-featured Tami and the Monthlies. Their single, “Invade Me,” which was the first release on Ted’s newly formed Stern Pursuits Records, appears on the 91X Rock to Riches Miller High Life album and its associated video. It was also at about this time that Ted married his loving wife, Pam, who designed the artwork for Invade Me and for the Stern Pursuits logo. From the very start, Pam has always been supportive of Ted’s musical trajectory.
Ted went on to play in a variety of original bands and record in local studios as a pedal steel, violin, bass, guitar, and banjo player backing up many local original artists including – WC Spencer (Blues Cat), Country Rockin’ Rebels, Hatfield Rain (with singer/songwriter and owner of Jackson Steel Guitar Company), Dawn Jackson, Kathryn Cloward, and Amber Star, to name a few.
Dawn Jackson had this to say about their musical journey together.
Ted and I first played together in our band Hatfield Rain, and I have claimed him as MY steel guitar player ever since. In my opinion, he competes with the top dogs— from the West Coast to Nashville, while maintaining his unique style. Regardless of his instrument of choice (he plays quite a few), he adds the perfect trademark personality to a song. The thing I love most about performing live and recording with him is he doesn’t let his vast knowledge of music theory get in the way of his playing. His passion for the moment of feeling and creating always trumps that. Our recordings wouldn’t be the same without Ted Stern’s tasty flavoring, and I am ecstatic about the future release of Hatfield Rain’s sophomore project, which has his fingerprints all over it. I couldn’t wait for him to make the move to one of our guitars, which he finally did a few years back. He was like a kid with a shiny new toy, and it has been fun to watch his playing catapult. As he becomes increasingly recognized in the steel guitar community, we’re proud to see him sitting behind that black Jackson Steel Maverick.
Michael Head played and recorded music with Ted for almost 30 years in many different forms. They met while in different bands, playing a mutual gig. As soon as they heard him, the band said, “We have to get that guy!” and they did. Ted played bass with Nocean, a well-known local cover band in the mid-’90s. An original member of Country Rockin’ Rebels, Ted was known as their secret weapon. He appears on most of their recordings, playing steel pedal, fiddle, and banjo. Michael said, “In live situations he mostly played fiddle. I think that was when he had the most fun and was always a highlight of the Rebels’ performances.” With the Moneymen, he performed and recorded on bass, slide guitar, and lap steel.
Michael has been a great influence on Ted. Michael taught Ted a lot about how to record and how to relax in the studio. Recording at Michael Head’s Cabeza Records Studios on a multitude of projects over the years Michael noted, “He’s always been my go-to session guy on pedal steel, fiddle, lap steel, and even banjo. His parts have helped me take my recordings to the next level.”
Busy raising a family with the addition of daughter, Ariela, and son, Ethan, Ted still kept busy on the career front as well. He holds 17 patents in the areas of solar energy and optics. Something in Ted always drew him toward wanting to combine learning with music and a love for solar energy. In 2004, he was invited by TH Culhane to go to Egypt on a State Department Goodwill Renewable Energy and Music Tour, his “dream gig in so many ways.”
It all began one night, when Ted was playing fiddle with a Grateful Dead cover band, Forgotten Space. Ted’s friend TH Culhane, who worked on sustainable city planning at UCLA, also in a Grateful Dead cover band, just came down that night to sit in on guitar. Chatting during the break, TH asks Ted, “Hey Ted, you do solar power, right? I just got a funding offer from the State Department to do a Goodwill Ambassador Tour of Egypt with music and renewable energy themes.” At first, he thought it seemed a little sketchy. After all, it was right after Fallujah. But the trip involved teaching students about solar energy through “Edutainment.” TH had been writing songs about solar, hydrogen, and how Egyptians could benefit. Always wanting to go to Egypt, and the idea of being able to combine his passions, this was Ted’s dream gig.
Embodying their ideas into a musical group called Circus Guy, Ted was to take his lap steel, fiddle, and laptop with a slide projector so they could show educational slides during gigs. He had a Roland Cube attached to a solar panel and joined Michael Culhane (NY musician, circus performer, and brother of TC), Anais Mitchell (musician), and James Dean Conklin (artist, videographer, musician, and creator of Beavis and Butthead Do America), who made a full-length documentary on the project. His film, Solar Circus, can be previewed at the Greenhead Media website.
The theme of the Circus Guy Goodwill Tour was renewable energy for sustainable development. They played all over Egypt from Alexandria to Cairo, Zigazag to El Fayoum. Three of the concerts were completely solar powered. At the other concerts, clean energy and water purification technologies were on display. In addition to the performances, TH and Ted presented formal papers on technology transfer and new solar electric and solar thermal technologies at the world conference. They also conducted workshops at local schools and science centers, played for inner-city Egyptian kids, and interacted with the next generation of Egyptians. This was during the Arab Spring, so it was very prophetic. As Ted recollects, “It was the most amazing gig of my life, the perfect combination of solar energy and engineering without borders and music and working with bright young minds who want so desperately to learn. We had a whole big show that really went off well. And so, that to me is the expression of what I would hope music would always come to… some way that you can reach out to people that make their lives just a little bit better somehow.”
Back at home, while Pam was not only supportive of Ted’s musical ambitions, but also encouraged her children to do the same. Both started piano lessons early. More of a visual artist, Ariela works for Sony Electronics in video technology. Just like her dad, she is always looking to learn something new. Now a parent herself, she and husband, Andrew, recognize that their daughter, Eliana, is already exhibiting similar traits indicative of a strong desire for exploration and is very rhythmic, loving her little piano, purposely choosing the keys she touches.
Ted’s Son, Ethan, was starting to play guitar, piano, and record his own music at a young age when Ted found out about the Stanford Jazz Workshop. “You’re really not supposed to go there with your kid, but I thought, what a great experience.” The program doesn’t recommend it, but they did it anyway. They ended up in the same combo and then the same master class taught by New York jazz master Vic Linn. A master on both violin and piano, he helped them both. Ted learned so much, but not just about violin, but about how you approach an instrument and how to learn to accept whatever you are. “Embrace the crazy scientist in you.” –Vic Linn
Ethan ended up majoring in jazz performance piano at Tulane University. He also leads and scores for a popular band called Doombalaya. But once again, the Stern Pursuits pattern of seeking the new emerged… Ethan went on to pursue a medical degree. Dr. Ethan Stern and his wife, Sarah, reside in New York.
Ted decided he needed to meet more musicians, check out local talent just starting out, and that he just plain needed to get out more; he started back-lining on violin at the Parkway Bar in East County for a few years until it closed. The weekly open mic at Parkway drew all kinds of talent. Ted first played violin backup for Sande Lollis at Parkway and more recently contributed on her album Being Human.
Ted has always been a gracious contributor. I first met him at the infamous Parkway Bar—I think in early 2014—and asked if he would accompany me on violin on a cover song I had just learned. He didn’t hesitate to do it and his part was beautiful. Since then, I’ve had many opportunities to be on stage with him, both at open mics and formal gigs. He is a master at listening and fitting in; he throws himself into the part fully. He’s able to hear the feeling of a song and emote that with his playing. In the studio, Ted is conscientious and willing to go where he needs to contribute his best to a project. He clearly loves the musical side of his life and shows a sense of gratitude for what it brings him. He is deeply philosophical, has a complicated sense of humor, and a spontaneous and boisterous laugh.
Ted had the pleasure of collaborating with a lot of well-established locals there, including Sven-Erik Seaholm, Jessica (Hull) Dorado, Mockingbird, and Jeff Ousley; after it closed, the best Open Mic in East County moved to Navajo Live, where he met folks like Amy Day, Scott Walsh, Sara Jade, Claire Walding, Daniel Westrick, and many, many others… So many others who were just beginning or restarting their singer/songwriter or instrumental desires, many who needed only a little encouragement to break out and fully express themselves. The Open Mic provides that. It’s what brought him back every week. It was also a great place where he could try anything. Back-lining allowed Ted to meet so many different musicians and his network really took off from there. A few more recent projects with Stern’s signature artistry are Love Angeles—the Scientific Route to Mars,” which was nominated for Best Pop Album of the Year, SDMA 2021; Encanto by Claire Walding with their band StereoClaire were nominated for Best Americana Album of the Year, SDMA 2021; The Jade Theory—Live by Sara Jade, in 2022.
During the long period of isolation, Ted got to thinking, “I’ve always wondered about the oldest melody that we still have in existence today, like what is the oldest melody that you can point to? And that’s what got me first, the Songs of Solomon, because I knew there was a trope there… “Song of Songs, Shir Hashirim,” is also known as Songs of Solomon. The way it was flowing together and touched on his personal family history, this new project evolved. Song of Songs of Love for All by the Universe Channel. Working on the project, he set the Songs of Solomon biblical love songs to Americana instrumentation using the traditional Masoretic trope in several languages—Hebrew, Spanish, English, Arabic, Yiddish, and German parts. “It’s a quest for universal love.” Hanan Lieberman, Stacy Antonel, Marie Haddad, TH Culhane, and Cheryl Katz all collaborated with Ted to provide his interpretation of this beautiful love song.
These days, Ted is having a blast as a member of Jeff Berkley & the Banned. An all-star band, driven by the songs of award-winning songwriter and producer Jeff Berkley. Berkley called Ted one day unexpectedly and asked him to be in the new band he was forming.
I asked him to join the Banned. He’s a hap-hazard visionary! His textures and tone are left of center and full of character and beauty. He has a plan, but the plan is to be ready for anything and to try and fly in every moment. He’s always looking for somewhere authentic and outside. He’s reaching for something with his soul. That’s where his performances come from. Some cosmic place inside.
Ted instantly felt that he was able to communicate in a way that he has never encountered before. All his incredibly experienced bandmates—Dylan Ankney, Jason Cox, Josh Hermsmeier, Ric Nash, and Josh Weinstein—seem to feel it, too, when expressing their unique merging of musicality. Ted pictures, “Everybody is kind of listening at the same time, then every moment becomes a big picture moment, not an individual moment. In a second, every femtosecond, every quantum unit of time, getting everything in the moment, down to that one second and being in that moment at that moment, then when you do that, you can feel it. You’re on stage and that happens out of the blue and you all just look at each other in awe of what just happened, and maybe the audience doesn’t realize we become one organism in a way. It’s an extremely emotional moment, too. It can be intensely emotional, especially with Jeff Berkley’s music.”
Sometime around 2016 Ted was starting to wonder about songs he kept hearing in his head. They were just little snippets of songs, random phrases. No real connections, but rhythmic and lyrical. He thought, “…suddenly words were starting to take on more significance inside of me, but in a way such that they were returning to me.” He thought about it for a while and decided he wanted to understand what songwriters go through. Working with GarageBand, he started writing a bunch of “crappy” songs, instrumentalizing all the parts and calling his band Friends of the Universe. He also envisioned a Universe Channel and registered UniverseChannel.com. Noticing patterns in some of the songs, he started to understand why he had to write. It was sort of a Zen moment for him.
By 2019, the songs evolved into stories that were somehow related. “This is where my spiritual mentors came in… because if you can visualize something and realize that we are not separate observers but rather integral parts of the universal mind in motion in time and entropy, then we can tweak that motion for our own purposes.” Never imagining that the songs would end up in an album, he is grateful for such supportive musical friends, new and old, to co-write, or co-compose, or sing his lyrics. He got to understand what recording artists do and how songs evolve into works of art. Plus, getting to work with Jeff Berkley at the wonderfully equipped Satellite Studios with Sande Lollis, Sandi King, Josh Taylor, Carrie Shannon, Claire Walding, Josh Weinstein, Josh Hermsmeier, Ric Nash, and Jason Cox all helped in the creation of the upcoming album.
Berkley is honored to be producing Ted’s first solo record. “His tunes are really great!!! It’s a concept album or even a rock opera! It’s sci-fi and heartfelt and really fun! It’s a world-class effort full of great tunes and playing by some of San Diego’s best! Most of all though, Ted Stern is my friend. He’s my brother.”
Ted describes the album, The Universe Channel—Clue to Another World, as “a collection of songs about the future, the present, and how the past created it all. Nine stories about how to take the present and create your own future.” It is his vision of a joyful place, that he would like to leave as a legacy, in song and with hope. All involved anticipate its release.
More musicians than you can shake a stick at have worked with Ted in some capacity. Whether it’s one of his or their own projects, this multi-instrumentalist is always at the ready to seek the magic offered by collaboration. “I love to sing, write, and arrange songs; play the violin, pedal steel, banjo, bass, and guitar; and collaborate with other creatives.”
Ted’s philosophy ~
At any given moment, you’re living your life. You’re either increasing the amount of goodness or grievance. You are either creating or consuming. Nothing is static. Every day is a chance to make that choice. You make a million choices every day. If you’re looking for opportunities to learn from people, how to make something positive out of every situation, then you must be open to a lot of different people. Otherwise, you never learn. What is it that they see that you don’t? I mean, there’s something good in everything. In any kind of music you can find something that is good because that music was meant to communicate some sort of feeling or make some sort of difference. I think that’s what most musicians really, really want to do in the end.
The excitement of exploration, to freely seek out and find the new. The glory and challenges of life, that weave through every facet of Ted Stern’s passionate life adventure. A creative innovator who looks and wonders “what else can I do with it?” Creative play doesn’t fit a known pattern but into something that leads to people finding useful insights to act on. So, like Ted, let’s strive to be confidently unpredictable and think about things in ways you might not have dared to explore.