Lebanon Daily News
Lebanon, PA
06 September 2003

At Singer’s Concerts, Fans Make the Music

By Howard Kolus

 John Cusatis is comfortably at home on stage singing his own compositions and strumming a guitar while surrounded by friends – who have numbered in the hundreds.

The 39-year old former Cedar Crest High School English teacher and track coach also finds marathon running to his liking, almost as much as he enjoys his students at the Charleston County School of the Arts in North Charleston, S.C., where he now teaches.  But Cusatis, a 1981 graduate of Hazleton High School who recently obtained a doctorate in English literature from the University of South Carolina, still finds time to visit Lebanon area nightspots, as he did during a recent appearance at Justine’s Place on North Seventh Street in Lebanon.

            Blending showmanship with an innate love of music, Cusatis turns the spotlight on those who have come to see him and, he says, the response has been overwhelming.

            “A set of Congo drums are set up next to me with a couple of microphones and various percussion instruments (such as) kazoos, tambourines, maracas and bongo drums,” he explained.  Cowbells and washboards are also part of the act.  From a song list of some 500 tunes, Cusatis asks the audience to select “the songs they want to hear and then I recruit a band.”

            “It just takes off from there,” he continued.  “It’s different every time even though it’s always the same format. … Very often there’s no one left in the audience (because) everyone’s on stage (performing).”

            Cusatis said the motto of his show is “I’ll bring the instruments, you bring the band.”

            But it hasn’t always been that way.

            “I started playing (guitar) in 1983,” Cusatis recalled during a recent telephone interview from his Charleston home, adding that his early performances didn’t stray far from that instrument.

            “I didn’t do it this way (with audience participation) until about 1990 or ’91.  A song needed a cow bell.  I couldn’t play a cow bell while playing the guitar so I got someone in the audience to ring the bell and it just grew.”

            In 1993, Cusatis moved to South Carolina to teach and perform for tourists in Charleston’s historic district.  A successful experience at a corporate party, when nearly 200 people packed the stage singing and playing instruments, led him to quit teaching in 1997 to concentrate on his music.

            “(Later) I played a party at Hilton Head,” he recalled.  “People in tuxes and suits … before it was all over they were disheveled up on stage taking their shirts off … You get a very rigid group and you can really get them to loosen up and surprise a lot of people.”

            Although he enjoys the limelight, Cusatis said he was extremely nervous when performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a small crowd at a minor league baseball game.

            “It was just too quiet and (there was) no guitar to hide behind,” he wrote in an e-mail message.  “And my voice is more suited for barrooms.  It was a thrill when it was over, but I was scared until I got beyond ‘the land of the free’ safely.”

            When the energetic Cusatis found the constant pursuit of music “wasn’t the healthiest lifestyle,” he began running to get in shape and raise funds for charities.  He has completed marathons in Ireland, Alaska and Jamaica and has organized several concerts for charities.

            “I’ve always got something going,” Cusatis said.  “Exercise is so important.  I run just about every day.  If I don’t feel good, I can’t do anything.”

            Married for three years, he returned to teaching in 1999, recorded a CD of reggae style music, and this year received his doctorate.  He also performs on weekends throughout South Carolina, plans to run a charity marathon in December in Sicily and recently completed a book on American poet Robinson Jeffers.

            Cusatis says his twin passions for music and education fuel a dual fire within his soul.

            “Music and teaching provide a balance for me.  Music is a nice release at the end of a week in the classroom,” he said.

            “My teaching schedule keeps my musician’s lifestyle in check.  And the music makes sure the academics don’t preclude having fun.”

            However, Cusatis admits that music has invaded his classroom, and that’s a good thing, he said.

            “I use music a lot in teaching literature,” he explained.  “I was inspired by Bob Dylan.  I use his songs in the classroom … For example, when I teach romantic literature, I play the song, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’  To me it’s the perfect example of romanticism. … At one time poetry was what people read … now we have recorded lyrics.  But it’s really the same thing.”

            “I just don’t like to get bored,” Cusatis said of his many activities.  “That’s the key … .  I don’t like my audience or my students to be bored.”

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