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The 'Fifth Beatle'

Homer Glen's Zemanek is key man as American English invades Homewood

Thursday, July 27, 2006

By Myra Eder

Fans and insiders already know the answer.

But when an American English band member says, "Listen, do you want to know a secret?" audiences would do well to pay attention.

The secret? The Beatles tribute artists carry magic everywhere they go.

That wizardry is in the person of Homer Glen-based synthesizer guru Ken Zemanek.

Zemanek actually sees his music and goes from there.

The millions who have heard American English live or on CD know the instrumental sounds are rich, full and virtually identical to arrangements the Beatles recorded decades ago.

"We couldn't do it without our fifth Beatle," frontman Eric Michaels told Firstlook.

Michaels is left-handed bass man Paul McCartney in American English along with Young Hines as John Lennon, Doug Couture as George Harrison and south suburbanite Tom Gable as the ring man, Ringo Starr.

Zemanek is the guy dressed in black and always at the Korg synthesizer keyboard. Incidentally, he is endorsed by Korg.

"Ken's sounds make it possible for us to have all the instruments," Michaels said.

"He's a genius."

This Friday, American English performs at the second and final Starry Nights summer concert sponsored by the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District. Of course, Zemanek will be right in the bandshell with the group.

The band will end the show, which covers all the Beatle years, with a spectacular medley from "Abbey Road," again thanks to Zemanek's genius.

"We've been saving it for Homewood," Michaels said. "We haven't played this 12-minute segment for a long time."

The medley absolutely could not have been arranged without Zemanek, he said.

Though modest about his talent, fortunately, Zemanek also is very willing to talk.

"I wanted to start playing music when I first saw the Beatles on television," he said last week during an interview at The Star.

"I taught myself guitar. Never took a lesson.

"I can read some music but mostly do the work by ear."

Like many young people who dream of musical careers, Zemanek decided a "real job" might be a good idea.

He began studies in radiology about the time synthesizers started hitting the market in the mid-1980s. Intrigued, he bought one.

His life took a dramatic turn.

"I realized synthesizers create beams of energy, just as radiology works with beams of light," he said.

"I saw the X-ray and synthesizer as the same.

"So I went and got a book on the physics of sound and taught myself all about harmonics."

He began to apply this knowledge in the fledgling synthesizer industry, dropped out of radiology and went to work selling the electronic instruments.

"I learned to make the sounds people wanted," he said. That meant programming and reprogramming the electronic keyboards.

Eventually, computers hooked up to synthesizers. Meanwhile, Zemanek learned to do what few others could make synthesizers do whatever he wanted.

Many rock groups sought his expertise, and Zemanek's name became nearly a household word in the industry.

In the 1980s, while looking to find a lyricist, someone directed him to Michaels.

"Sure enough when I heard the guy, he sounded just like Paul McCartney," Zemanek said.

"When I heard the band (American English) I told them, 'You guys are missing George Martin.'"

Martin was the real "fifth" Beatle. He produced, remixed and made the instrumentals sound rich and big.

Zemanek has done the same for American English.

"Every song is programmed differently," he said.

"I analyze sounds from the records and draw pictures of the instruments I hear.

"I shade the pictures and analyze how each instrument was recorded. Some songs have up to 40 instruments different sounds.

"I really look at creating the sounds like a painting.

I see music in shades of color, numbers and shapes."

The result fans around the world celebrate American English for making the Beatles come together, once more.

"For me, the best is seeing the joy in peoples' faces," he said.

"It's all about the music."

His bandmates cherish their treasured fifth member.

"We call him 'the great one,'" Michaels said.

IF YOU GO ...

WHAT: American English Beatles tribute band.
WHERE: Irwin Park Bandshell, Ridge Road and Highland Avenue, Homewood. Rain location is Homewood-Flossmoor High School.
WHEN: 8 p.m.
ADMISSION: $10, $5 for children.
PHONE: (708) 957-0300.