Bob Desper is a patient man. In the 36 years since he forked over money out of his own pocket to make his first solo album, the 60-year-old blind singer-songwriter never lost faith that he would be discovered someday.
It looks like that day has come at last. With his 1974 folk album, New Sounds, now reissued on vinyl, a CD in the works, singles selling at online music sites and plans to record a second album, Desper is finally enjoying the acclaim he had hoped for nearly four decades ago.
“Some things are meant to be, you know,” says Desper, who lives in Albany, Ore. “But things happen in their time. I’ve been hanging in there with faith and hope.”
The phone call Desper had been expecting since the ’70s came two years ago. Paul Anson, co-owner of the Discourage Records label in Portland, Ore., which specializes in reissuing forgotten classics as vinyl albums, had found Desper’s phone number after months of detective work. He asked for Desper’s permission to reissue New Sounds, which over the years had become a cult classic.
“He didn’t really seem that shocked,” says Anson about his call to Desper. “He kind of felt like this had been waiting to happen.”
But Anson, who had been told that the singer had long since died, couldn’t believe that he had found Desper alive and well and just 70 miles away. The guitarist had never surfaced during the time that an international cadre of fans was uploading his songs to the Internet, extolling his musical talents and paying as much as $1,000 for pristine copies of the album.
Desper was living in obscurity and poverty, eking out a living from disability payments and his meager earnings from selling costume jewelry door to door. Two failed marriages and the end of one long-term relationship had left him lonely, except for his two cats and the regulars at his daily hangout, Roger’s Restaurant. Although he continued to compose songs and sing them into his tape recorder, he had no inkling that he was thought to be dead or, more importantly, that he had fans.
Desper has been blind since age 11. He was one of five siblings growing up in Richmond, Va., when he slipped and fell against a short fence post, hitting his head at the temple and detaching his retinas. Several surgeries were unsuccessful. When he was 12, his grandmother bought him a guitar that he took with him when the family moved to Oregon so that his father, a migrant farm worker, could earn money picking fruit.
According to his mother, Desper showed musical talent from the beginning. “He’s always been able to play,” says Phyllis Mitchell, 77, of Lebanon, Ore. “His sister always said that she thought he should be up with Bob Dylan and those guys.”
But the chance for another crack at stardom didn’t come until Anson’s phone call. He and Desper finally got together for coffee, and Anson later brought along his business partner, Paul Montone, to meet the man with the flowing white hair and the peaceful disposition. Desper had pawned his own guitar a year earlier after injuring the ring finger on his left hand, so Anson and Montone took him to a nearby music shop to watch him play.
“He took the guitar down from the wall and started playing,” Anson recalls. He and Montone turned to each other with eyebrows raised. “He sounded great. We just couldn’t believe what a presence he was. He’s just so unique and confident.”
Back in the spotlight
Discourage Records reissued New Sounds as a vinyl album last February. The first pressing of 1,000 copies has nearly sold out. To mark the June debut of the album’s singles online, a comeback concert was arranged.
Several weeks after the concert, Desper is still basking in happiness from his success. “People told me there was a lot more cheers when I came on than for the people playing before me,” he says with a broad smile. “That makes me feel good that I get to perform and see the happiness of other people.”
He made $200 from the concert and so far has collected enough royalties to keep creditors at bay. Anson and Montone hope a larger record label can eventually sign Desper and give him the exposure he deserves. They created a website, a Facebook fan page and a MySpace page to help more fans find him.
Desper is just glad to have a new opportunity to share his music. “It’s just good music, heartfelt music,” he says. “It would encourage anybody and motivate them in the right direction.”
And perhaps others can take inspiration from his long-awaited overnight success. “It’s fascinating,” he muses, “because it’s now what I would like to have had back then. But I kept playing. And then I just picked up the phone one day and there they were. That was all there was to it.”
Susan G. Hauser is a writer in Oregon.