WINTER GARDEN As a child, Tony Melendez dreamed of becoming a famous singer. What he never imagined was that he would spend his life traveling the world playing guitar - especially since he had no arms.
“It just kind of happened,” Melendez said. “I wasn’t even really looking to play the guitar. I just started messing around with it, and it just kind of worked.”
The Missouri resident has travelled to 44 different countries sharing his talents and love of music with others. And at 7:30 p.m. July 12, he’ll be performing at Resurrection Catholic Church in Winter Garden.
Melendez was born without arms after his mother was prescribed thalidomide, a drug used to help alleviate morning sickness, while pregnant. Although he was fitted with prosthetic arms as a child, he rarely used them and eventually discarded them in favor of using his feet.
Always musically inclined, Melendez began trying to play piano and the harmonica, with the help of his feet, then he discovered the guitar.
“I was able to play by ear and (play) simple music,” he said.
He never took formal lessons, but continued practicing using his feet. He adapted the guitar to use an open tuning as he progressed and even began writing his own music.
Then in 1987, he had the chance of a lifetime - to play guitar for Pope John Paul.
As he strummed the last chords with his toes, the Pope stood, applauded Melendez’s performance, kissed his cheek and told him to keep playing.
“That moment took me to a global status,” Melendez said. “I wasn’t prepared for what was to come. I had so many invitations (to perform) come in right away.”
After that day, Melendez’s musical career skyrocketed, more than he ever expected, he said.
“Music means a lot of things to me,” he said. “It’s prayer. It’s financially helped me. You can dance with it. It brings you back to moments in time. It’s a friend. It’s just a lot to my life.”
Although he loves sharing his story and love of music with others, he said that not everyone is excited to see a foot guitarist.
“I think for a lot of people who haven’t seen me before they aren’t too excited,” Melendez said. “Then within the first couple songs, people are clapping, singing. Then later in the concert I’ll see tears, depending on the song. They’re moved; they’re involved. It’s not a boring concert.”
And he occasionally gets awkward reactions to his lack of arms.
“I’ve gotten mixed reaction,” he said. “Some little kids are sometimes scared that I have no arms. I’ve had the uncomfortable situation where a person puts out their hand to shake my hand and i don’t have one. But a lot of people are OK with it. And if they spend more time with me, it gets easier and better.”
But in the midst of the concerts and traveling, Melendez said he has learned to balance it with spending time with his wife and children.
“The balance is hard because I do miss birthdays of my kids or maybe something they’re involved with,” he said. “It is hard, but we just have to love and trust each other.”
He said that it’s his faith in God that keeps him going every day.
“I really do feel like I’m being sent to do a mission of hope and that’s really what I try to do,” he said. “Is it easy? No.”
Although he’s used to an armless life, there’s still one thing he longs to do.
“I want to embrace my wife and my kids - a real hug,” he said. “I’ve lived my whole life not being able to embrace them.”
Contact Brittany Gaines at [email protected].