Playing by Heart

Joseph Samuels never had any musical training. But five years ago he sat down at a piano, and people have been listening ever since.

"It's no big deal," he says of the performance. "I just got lucky and got in."

Joseph also owns a large vintage scrapbook where he has carefully pasted letters from fans. He's also saved the programs from some of his local concerts in halls that, like Carnegie, he rented out himself to be able to perform in. His résumé also includes notice of two self-produced CDs, To Heaven and del Castillo. Included in all this is a videocassette of a five-minute segment that appeared on the local PBS program Weeknight Edition in April 1998. He is quick to note the name of the short piece: "One Man's Miracle."

"It comes from my heart and my soul," says Joseph. "I think God is using me to get to people."

Joseph volunteers his time each Friday to play for patients and visitors at Memorial Hermann Hospital.
Deron Neblett
Joseph volunteers his time each Friday to play for patients and visitors at Memorial Hermann Hospital.

Joseph was born in Louisiana, but when his parents divorced he ended up splitting his childhood in half, spending summers with his mother in Houston and the school year with his father in Vancouver. His family was in the commercial and residential real estate business. Joseph's given name is Joseph Samuels Messina, but he uses Joseph Samuels for "the music."

"I was very quiet as a child," he says, although he admits one of his earliest memories is of cutting up all the screens in the house when he got angry with his mother. He played Pony League baseball and liked collecting antique toys. In addition to KISS and the Doobie Brothers, Joseph places U2, Annie Lennox and Adam Ant on his list of musical favorites. "Anybody with creativity," he says.

After getting a degree in marketing from a junior college in Canada, Joseph ended up in the family real estate business in Houston. Those were the years when he liked to party, he admits, and he was a bit of a rebel. He often threw lavish themed dinner parties where he would cook items like angel-hair pasta with scallops and raspberry crème brûlée. A connoisseur of good wine, Joseph also would serve bottle after bottle of the best stuff he had.

"By the time everyone eats, everybody is so polluted they don't know if the food is good enough," he says with a laugh.

Bruce Wolfe, a friend of Joseph's for almost 12 years, cops a California surf bum accent to describe Joseph's years before the music.

"Dude, party animal," he says, laughing. "Fast living, fast cars…he was more wild. He was in a pretty hip crowd."

Joseph dated members of that crowd too, and at the end of 1995 one woman he was seeing asked him if he would mind keeping her Steinway grand piano while she went to Europe on business for several months.

"She said it was too pretty to keep in storage," remembers Joseph. Joseph agreed to look after the instrument, and the mint-condition Steinway was moved into his living room in December 1995.

The piano looked nice enough, Joseph figured. Made of a rich cured mahogany, the piece looked pretty just sitting in his house like a piece of furniture. Joseph didn't even touch it until a few months later when he took both index fingers and played a few notes. He didn't know what he was doing, he says, but he thought he heard a resonance that sounded warm and peaceful to him.

He decided to go to a local Brook Mays piano store for lessons. At his first lesson, he asked the instructor to play "Moonlight Sonata" so that he might learn it too. After she showed him, he began to fiddle around on the keys. Nothing in particular, just what felt natural to him, he says. He claims the instructor, who no longer works at that store, told him that he didn't need to be taking lessons and that they might even stifle what she thought was a strong creative potential.

Joseph didn't think much of it then, he says. Although he was raised Roman Catholic, Joseph says, he's not particularly religious. But he thinks that something he chooses to call God was "preparing me for the impending tragedy."

The tragedy came unexpectedly a few months later in the middle of the night and in the form of a phone call informing Joseph that his older sister Tina had just died in a car crash in Brownsville. Tina, 15 months older than Joseph and the owner of a hair salon, came around a corner too fast, hit a steel mailbox, and her car flipped over several times.

"She was four foot nothing," says Joseph. "But she was like an angel on earth. A clown. Always baking cookies for people. She never had a bad word to say about anyone. She was full of life."

Joseph was devastated. He had always been close with Tina, and he couldn't believe she had died so suddenly, at the impossibly young age of 33.

On the night of her funeral in June, Joseph and his then-girlfriend (and now good friend), Julia Simpson, were resting in the living room. Eventually Julia fell asleep on the couch, only to awaken to the sound of Joseph playing the piano.

"When I first met him, he was just playing with two index fingers," she says. But that night it was an actual song of sorts, a sweeping piece Joseph would later name "Entre tormentas" (meaning "between storms" in Spanish) that he said described the phases of death.

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