Music has always been part of former Onondaga student Ben Mauro’s life. In middle school he played French horn and was a member of All-County Band. At age 16 he started playing guitar wherever and whenever he could and never stopped. Today he’s at the top of his profession, a highly sought-after live guitar player who has performed in some of the world’s biggest arenas on-stage with industry giants.
During a break in his hectic touring schedule Mauro returned to the Onondaga campus in May. He visited the new Academic II building, home of the College’s signature Music program, and spent time with students, sharing his stories and answering their questions. “Anything’s possible,” Mauro told students. “Through persistence, hard work, and love of playing guitar, I was able to make a career out of being a musician. You can do it too.”
Mauro grew up in Camillus, the son of two teachers. His mother Dolores was a professor in the Nursing department at Onondaga, and his father John taught in the Liverpool School District. While Mauro was a student at West Genesee High School he formed a garage band. “We’d play at my dad’s parties and high school variety shows,” Mauro said. Despite occasional noise complaints from neighbors, he kept rehearsing late into the night. “My parents were behind me with one condition. They said, ‘If you make it your career, you make it your job, you have our support.’”
Mauro came to Onondaga in 1987 and began building what would be the foundation for his career. “The training I got here really prepared me to do anything.” Mauro studied classical guitar under Professor Joe Jewell and discovered he loved it. “If you can master classical music you can play anything. You need proper technique to play it well.” Jewell turned out to be one of the most influential people in Mauro’s development. “He didn’t give compliments easily. When he told you you sounded good, you knew youreally sounded good. His compliments meant a lot.”
Mauro had a strong bond with fellow music students at Onondaga. “We all had the same dreams, passion, and desire to get better. It felt like home. We were part of a community. I remember all of us hanging out in the cafeteria after class with our guitars out. We were all inspired by each other. It was very memorable.”
If you were in a band in the Syracuse area, one of the top local places to play was Shifty’s Bar and Grill on Burnet Avenue. One night a week Shifty’s was reserved for open mic night. “If you had the courage to perform solo and perform well, it was a great opportunity,” Mauro said. Eventually he got up the nerve to play solo there, and it had a significant impact on him. “It was huge in my development. It’s where I learned how to perform alone, and I met someone there I wound up forming a bigger band with.”
Eventually Mauro left Syracuse and went out on his own, playing with whomever he could, whenever and wherever he could. His goal was to play every night, and at one point he was a member of 10 bands simultaneously. “I was always happy playing guitar, no matter how much I was struggling financially. I was happy to be able to support myself.” For more than a decade Mauro would make his living crisscrossing the country, his life an endless string of hotels and highways.
Everywhere Mauro goes he shoots video and interviews on his cell phone and uses them in a show he posts on YouTube called “Let’s Go.” Mauro put together an entire episode on his return to the Syracuse area. You can watch it here. It includes visits to Onondaga, West Genesee High School, Liverpool Elementary, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park, Gannon’s Isle Ice Cream, Heid’s, and the Dinosaur Restaurant.
Mauro often scoured classified ads, searching for bands in need of a guitarist. In 1999 one of those ads turned into an audition to play with music icon Lionel Richie. His illustrious career included more than 100 million albums sold worldwide, and he was one of only two songwriters in history to have number one records for nine consecutive years. Mauro’s audition was in the theater next to New York City’s Madison Square Garden. He played “Brickhouse,” a hit song by the Commodores. Richie belonged to the Commodores before going solo, and Mauro was familiar with “Brickhouse” having played several Commodores songs during his days in Syracuse.
The audition went well and Mauro was invited to come see that night’s show. When he arrived Mauro was surprised to be asked to play live on stage! When the concert was over Richie passed Mauro backstage and said to him, “See you on the next one.” Just like that Mauro was a member of the band, packing up and heading to Dubai for their next concert. “Lionel has a reputation for hiring great musicians. Getting hired by him was validation of my entire career.”
Fifteen years later Mauro is still touring with Richie. But as was the case in the 1990s when he was in as many as 10 different bands at the same time, Mauro needs a steady income, and that means working when Richie isn’t. In his “spare time” he’s toured with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Prince, Peter Frampton, Don Felder of the Eagles, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the first American Idol tour featuring Kelly Clarkson. He’s also been able to showcase his talents on numerous network television shows including Saturday Night Live, The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The View, and Good Morning America.
Mauro’s return to Central New York in May also included a return to Shifty’s where he held a release party for his second EP, “Take Your Time.” Despite the tens of thousands of miles he’s traveled and the countless bars, nightclubs, and arenas he’s played in, places like Shifty’s and Onondaga still feel like home. “Seeing the College now and what it’s grown into is amazing. It wasn’t anything like this when I was a student here.”
During his conversation with students, they were very attentive and hung on his every word. Greg Terrill, a guitar player who came to Onondaga from Cicero-North Syracuse High School, found himself inspired by Mauro’s message. “I learned to succeed you have to make it your life. He gave me a much clearer focus on what I need to do. He came through here and experienced success. There’s no reason I can’t do the same.”