Steve Connelly

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Soaring Guitars and Other Wonders. 
For a man described as the “linchpin of the (Tampa) Americana scene” and “the premier guitarist in Tampa Bay for the past thirty years,” fans of Steve Connelly might expect to find a readily available body of his recorded work. In fact, a trove of Connelly’s performances—on everything from organ to mandolin to pedal steel and whatever else might be leaning against the walls of his studio—can be found ornamenting the work of dozens of the bay area’s foremost acts. Folks like Ronny Elliott, Rebekah Pulley, Ted Lukas and The Ditchflowers have benefitted from Connelly’s midas touch. Yet his own music has been in frustratingly short supply.

That hasn’t always been the case. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s and into the early 90’s, Connelly’s old band The Headlights were a mainstay on stages throughout Florida and the southeast. Connelly’s galvanic playing lifted them from the realm of rootsy folk-rock into another sphere altogether. With a focused intensity, Connelly’s soaring flights of fretwork had the power to transport audiences on a nightly basis.

Eventually, the music industry began to notice. After winning the “Willie Nelson Talent Search” in 1986, a flurry of record company interest began to stir. Eventually signing with Airborne, a fledgling Nashville label, in 1988 the band flew to Music City to record their debut LP, Test the Spirit, only to watch it die on the vine as the record company folded before its release.

Back to the Clubs—and Back From Rio with Roger McGuinn.
Steve Connelly had devoted his life to the pursuit of musical excellence. With or without a record deal, he and the other Headlights—Steve Robinson on vocals and acoustic guitar; Scott Dempster on bass; and Danny DiPietra on drums—could make a living doing what they loved to do, so they headed back into the clubs. Once again, they drew the attention of a music industry notable—this time in the form of rock royalty. On the verge of mounting a comeback tour in support of his well-received Back From Rio album, former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn caught a Headlights set in a bar near his Florida beach house and knew that he had found his ideal backing band.


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For Connelly, this turn of events was unbelievable kismet. As a 12-year-old kid hearing the bracing jangle of the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambouring Man” on his transistor radio, McGuinn’s music had had an immediate life-changing impact on Connelly. “He was my hero,” says Connelly, “When I had just started playing guitar, I used to tell people [McGuinn] was my cousin. The Byrds were my favorite band.”

The Headlights toured America and Europe with McGuinn, sharing stages along the way with other greats including The Band, The Grateful Dead and ZZ Topp. They played The Tonight Show (still under Johnny Carson’s reign at the time), and for many of the tour stops, they opened the shows playing their own material.

Back from the Road and into a Zen State.
Home from the tour, Steve Robinson decided it was time for him to bow out of The Headlights and begin a new chapter in his life, settling down to start a family. Connelly enlisted his old friend, Ed Woltil of power pop trio Mad For Electra, to fill in on rhythm guitar and vocals for a handful of bookings. The pair had earlier teamed up to form a side project called Drive Thru Church. Ultimately, however, the rest of The Headlights decided the time was right to start something new.

For those who knew Connelly well, it seemed fitting that his next step would be to start his own recording studio. After all, his four-track demos often sounded better than the output of many of the area’s professional studios. Dubbing his basement studio the Zen Den, over the next decade or so Connelly’s client list grew steadily along with his reputation as one of the Tampa scene’s preeminent producers. He eventually outgrew the Den, moving into the former American Music Works—now called simply “Zen Recording”—where he still engineers and produces bands from throughout the central Florida region and beyond.

Generous to a fault, Connelly lavished his talents not only on his clients’ recordings, but at their live shows as well. Connelly’s legend as a jaw-droppingly good guitarist continued as he often sat in with a variety of friends and clients, including Ronny Elliott and The Nationals, Rebekah Pulley and the Reluctant Prophets, Uncle John’s Band, and dozens more. In 2007, Connelly officially joined Woltil’s acclaimed band, The Ditchflowers. And once every year or two, the opportunity would arise for a Headlights reunion. The band were usually happy to oblige. Eventually, keyboardist Brad Trumbull joined Connelly, Dempster, DiPietra and Woltil to round out the current lineup of Steve Connelly and the Lesser Gods.

© Mark Stephenson/Andrew Appletree 2008-2013