Neal Shephard: Determined to stay afloat, the voice returns

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Farmingdale musician and ex Alpha One employee, Neal Shephard

FARMINGDALE — The dream was a frequent visitor to Neal Shephard. There he was, in the middle of the ocean, wondering how long he could keep his head above water and whether someone would find him before his energy was sapped and he sank quietly into the abyss.

“I wasn’t afraid of sharks,” Shephard said. “I was afraid of no bottom.”

It’s a feeling that has shaped Shephard almost since birth. Blind since he was a few days old, Shephard had to learn to make his way in darkness. Music, which flowed out of him with ease and joy, has always been a refuge, a place where Shephard could run as wild and free as his fingers would let him.

But now, 62 years old and weeks removed from two massive strokes that threatened his life and continue to endanger his lifestyle, Shephard finds himself in deeper water than he has ever known. But he is determined to stay afloat.

He’ll prove that Saturday night when he returns to the stage during a benefit concert being put on by the State Street band at the Merriconeag Grange at 529 Harpswell Neck Road in Harpswell. The concert begins at 7 p.m. Admission is a $10 donation, part of which will go to help the Shephard and his wife, Julie, with medical costs.

Julie Shephard said the concert is much more about celebrating than raising money.

Shephard has had to struggle almost from the moment of his premature birth. Doctors, trying to keep him alive, put him in an incubator until his lungs grew enough to function on their own. But they gave him too much oxygen and destroyed what had been healthy eyes.

When he was 8, Shephard’s parents, hoping to give their hyperactive child some focus, bought him a piano and signed him up with the only person willing to take on a blind student, an area nun. Two years later, a neighbor introduced the boy to jazz, and Shephard jumped headlong into the rhythm bubbling up from his soul. The nun, who scolded Shephard for playing boogie woogie, had to go.

Music took him across the paths of some of the best musicians in the world, even as it led him away from his first wife and children, and eventually carried him to Maine, where he landed a regular job playing on the Scotia Prince as it shuttled passengers between Portland and Nova Scotia. “I’ve definitely had a colorful life,” Shephard said. “I’m not afraid to try anything.”

NASHVILLE, THEN MAINE

That fearlessness led him smack-dab into the life of his future wife, Julie Shephard. She was a manager at a local bank when Shephard came in one day and struggled to write a series of money orders. Julie asked if she could help. Next thing she knew, Shephard had given her his checkbook and was telling her to whom to write the checks and the amounts.

The Shephards married 17 years ago and settled down in Farmingdale. They have a daughter, Leah, 6. He has two grown children, Sarah and Tamarah, from his first marriage.

Neal Shephard said he went to Nashville in 1994 at the urging of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, who heard him play at an Idaho pub. He said he spent about a year there before moving to Maine, making music and partying with the likes of Mark Chestnut and Tanya Tucker. Shephard said he had a chance to talk to Ray Charles, whom he described as a perfectionist, and even opened for him.

“He’s got that soul,” Julie Shephard said of her husband. “You can play a song and he’ll play it back for you, no matter what it is. You get that pure music, and the interpretation is amazing. ‘Georgia’ is a staple. It’s even purer than what you used to get from Ray Charles.”

Neal Shephard has played off and on with the State Street Traditional Jazz Band of Portland since 1997. Susie Hodgdon Higgins, who has managed the band all of those years, said Julie Shephard’s comparison of Neal Shephard to Ray Charles is more than just spousal bias. “He’s on that order,” Higgins said. “Only his voice is much better than that.”

After leaving the Scotia Prince, Neal Shephard promised himself he would spend the rest of his days playing only the music he wants to play, which primarily encompasses jazz, blues and rock. He played in pubs and establishments throughout the region. He had lined up regular appearances at The Old Goat in Richmond.

All of that ended June 2.

NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE

Shephard was in California visiting his ailing mother. He spent much of the day playing music with a high school friend before returning to his mother’s home for the evening.

The first sign of trouble was an uncharacteristic fatigue and chill. Puzzled, Shephard chalked it up to being tired and went to bed. Nobody saw him again until his mother tried to wake him the next morning.

Shephard had two strokes that plunged his body into septic shock. He fell into a coma that he recalls as a dream of something chasing him. “It was just crazy stuff,” Shephard said.

Julie Shephard was grocery shopping on the other side of the country when a family member called to say her husband was in the hospital. A doctor called later to tell her what had really happened. Neal Shephard’s systems had all shut down. “They really thought I was bringing his ashes home,” Julie Shephard said.

Shephard spent 60 days in the hospital and getting therapy. Other than struggles with balance, there is hardly a hint of the strokes that nearly killed him. The strokes affected parts of the brain that control Shephard’s vision – a fact that they’ve managed to chuckle about – as well as his speech and reasoning.

The doctors prepared Julie Shephard for her husband to spend his life muted.

“They took the ventilator out at noon and he never stopped talking,” Julie Shepard said. “A lot of it didn’t make sense, but it never stopped. They were all absolutely shocked.” The doctors who treated Shephard believe that his brain had already rewired itself due to his blindness and music. “He can play thousands of songs and never miss a note, never miss a word, because he’s got that memory,” Julie Shephard said.

Neal Shephard’s physical therapy began the day he got out of the intensive care unit when a friend brought him a portable piano. Shephard, hampered by an index finger and thumb on his right hand that won’t respond to commands, is still unable to make music.

“We’re getting there,” Julie Shephard said. “Physically he’s about 75 percent. Piano wise we’re not there. Vocal wise he’s spot on.” “Until I get my piano back, I’m going to learn the words to a lot more songs,” he said. “I’ll continue with singing and telling my stories.”

At the grange, Shephard plans to sing “All of Me” and his signature song, “Georgia.” “I’ll be doing at least two songs if not three or four, if I can convince them,” Shephard said. “But, you know, I’m going to be there and we’re going to have fun.”

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