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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Tony Memmel Spreads Hope Through Music

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Not many Milwaukee area musicians are able to earn a living and tour the country as full-time singer-songwriters. And exactly one of them has managed to do so without a left arm.

As a teenager, Tony Memmel—who was born without a left hand and forearm—learned to play the guitar, using a guitar pick Gorilla Taped to his elbow. Now 27, the infectiously upbeat frontman of The Tony Memmel Band has played all corners of the country, released four albums and won a Best Singer/Songwriter of the Year honor at this year’s WAMI awards.

Most recently, Memmel found his music tabbing him a touring musical ambassador for Lucky Fin Project, an organization that provides emotional support and a positive outlook to children with Symbrachydactyly and other limb differences. Not only has the folk rocker written and recorded a song for the project, appropriately called “Lucky Fin Song,” Memmel just returned from a month-long jaunt that found him playing 19 shows in more than 10 states to help spread both his music and the project’s good work.

“I feel like my role in this organization is really to be the person who helps bring people together,” Memmel said. “Growing up, my family didn’t really have anything quite like this. So it’s been really neat to see the benefits for these young families to become connected to this group.”

The arrangement is a mutually beneficial one for both Memmel and Lucky Fin Project, wherein the organization helps get the word out about shows and the crooner’s fans learn more about limb differences. Through his interactions with children born with limb differences and their families, Memmel, too, has gained insight into the community that exists. 

“I definitely learned a lot more about it over the last couple years with my involvement in the Lucky Fin Project. Honestly, growing up, I didn’t really seek people like myself, I just tried to make friends wherever I was and connect and plug in regardless of whether people had physical differences or not,” Memmel said. “As an adult, it’s been kind of interesting to notice that my guitar playing has become a source of hope for some people. Something that started with me just wanting to learn how to play as a teenage has really blossomed into something special where I’m showing people that you can do things that you might not think you can do.”

Memmel’s mother, Katie Kolberg Memmel, had a front-row seat for her son’s lifelong showcase of his unique talent and work ethic. Her accounts of raising Memmel appear in her book, Five Fingers, Ten Toes: A Mother’s Story of Raising a Child Born with a Limb Difference, which Memmel edited.

Though his book-worthy origin story is uniquely inspiring, the budding singer-songwriter, guitarist, pianist and harmonica player seeks to show listeners he’s as much a skilled musician as he is an encouraging anomaly. This summer, Memmel plans to make a music video for “Lucky Fin Song,” begin tracking for a new album—which he’ll self-record—and play out frequently, including a guest speaker appearance at Helping Hands Midwest Gathering in Harrison, Ohio Aug. 3-4.

“I really like to show people what I can do as a guitarist and to emphasize what I call ‘ability over disability’ and to show people they can do anything if they put their mind to it,” Memmel said. “That’s just something I always try to live my life by.”

Tony Memmel and The Tony Memmel Band will play a homecoming concert at Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall (1920 S. 37th St.) on Friday, June 21 at 9 p.m.

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