Feet that bring good news
LIFESTYLE | Guitarist and singer Tony Melendez doesn’t need arms to inspire crowds
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Close your eyes and listen to Tony Melendez. He’s warming up on his guitar and reverently singing a praise song. Soon he’ll be belting out the Mexican folk tune “La Bamba.” It’s hard not to get caught up in his emotional, clear-voiced renditions and spirited thrumming.
Now, open your eyes and take a look at him up there on stage.
Melendez is playing the guitar with his toes, both feet dancing over the strings, fretting, strumming, and plucking. He has no fingers. No hands. No arms. But as he likes to tell everyone, he has Jesus.
Hope in Christ is what Melendez says keeps him going. And it’s woven into his unusual life story—from his birthplace in Nicaragua, to a childhood in Chino, Calif., and then, astonishingly, to entertainment venues around the world.
As he prepares for a concert near Rochester, Minn., he explains God has walked alongside him as long as he can remember.
“Christ has been the meat—the meaning—of my life. The strength, the power, the everything of why I’m alive,” he says.
Melendez, 61, was born without arms and with a deformed foot. Doctors had given his mom thalidomide when she was pregnant. Physicians in the late 1950s prescribed the drug for morning sickness but stopped in 1961 after thousands of babies around the world were born with missing limbs or other deformities. Melendez was born in January 1962.
His parents didn’t treat him much differently from his brother or sister, he says. They usually let him figure things out himself, although he did need help—and still does—with buttoning and zipping.
He describes his father as one who’d gruffly say, “No, let him do it himself,” while his mom would remind her son God sent him to them, then smother him with hugs and kisses. Between them, he says, he got the right balance of encouragement and love.
But he also remembers feeling embarrassed as a child when others would stare. Self-consciousness sometimes prevented him from trying anything new or asking for help. He eventually decided he had to conquer his self-perceived shame, so even in public he began trying creative ways to do things.
He learned to do nearly everything with his feet—even holding a knife in his toes to cut a tomato.
At age 16, with no musical training beyond singing in choirs and watching his dad play the guitar, he decided he wanted to play the guitar, too. He learned to tune it himself and, after years of effort, began to play well enough that people wanted to listen.
After high school, Melendez found no jobs open for someone with no arms, so he and a friend headed to Northern California. When he discovered he could earn money playing the guitar on street corners, he thought God was showing him how he could make a living.
But it was 1987 when the direction of his life struck a high note. A youth organization invited him to perform at Universal Amphitheatre for Pope John Paul II, who was visiting Los Angeles. A speaker introduced Melendez as a young man who represented courage and family support.
As soon as Melendez finished playing, the pope, to the cheering audience’s surprise, hustled off his platform and over to Melendez, reached up, and hugged him. They exchanged a kiss on the cheek.
The televised program went global, and soon churches—both Protestant and Roman Catholic—and entertainment venues worldwide were inviting him to perform. He’d found his career and calling.
After decades traveling and performing, Melendez and his wife, Lynn, moved to Branson, Mo., where they raised their daughter and son. For four years he entertained crowds and gave his testimony during his morning music show, “A Gift of Hope.”
The couple has been married 33 years, but they’ve had their share of tragedy. Last year, without warning signs, their 24-year-old son took his life, leaving them devastated, with many unanswered questions. The soft-spoken Melendez says they are still grieving, but not without hope.
“I don’t know how people get through the death of someone and not have Christ. I’d be a mess right now,” Melendez says.
Bob Bardwell, a longtime friend of the musician, says Melendez’s faith runs deep: “Life hasn’t been easy for Tony, but the joy of the Lord is his strength every day.”
That joy includes a sense of humor. Melendez laughs when he tells me that despite his fancy footwork, Lynn does most of the cooking because no one wants to eat hamburgers he makes with his toes. (Appropriately, his albums are released under the label Toe Jam Music.)
Melendez says he’ll keep sharing his faith-based message. “As long as people keep asking, I’ll keep playing,” he says. “And I’ll keep saying they need hope. I’m not embarrassed to tell them, I love Christ. He’s my hope.”
Then Melendez heads onstage to tell the audience just that.
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