John O’Toole picked up his first guitar when he was about 7 years old, and hasn’t stopped playing since.
O’Toole is an Island music man; he loves to play songs that surprise people, and maybe even bring some folks back to some of their fondest memories, with a Steely Dan hit or some tracks from the Police.
Currently, O’Toole is playing gigs at the Cove mini golf course in Tisbury every Friday, from 7 to 9 pm, but he also plays at Bad Martha’s, and looks forward to playing at the Ritz again, whenever folks can be in a close environment again.
But a lot had to transpire between the time when O’Toole got his first guitar and his first live performance in front of a crowd at the Ritz back in 1978.
“I pretty much just went and sat in front of the jukebox. Whenever the song that was playing stopped, I would pick up my guitar and start to play,” O’Toole said. “The first time I ever sang in front of people was at Cranberry Acres, a venue I think people who are more your parents’ age would remember.”
O’Toole said that, although he never learned how to read music, he has an entire setlist of tracks in his head that he can play and sing to. He said some of the early inspirations who encouraged him to learn songs and then eventually perform in front of a live audience were Joe Cocker, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Guess Who. Later on, O’Toole said his stylistic interests switched to the rock gods of the ’60s and ’70s with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin and Queen.
“I really got into Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix’s “Smash Hits” was the best album out there,” O’Toole said. He also is a self-proclaimed Beatles fanatic, and said that the first time he knew he was going to be a musician was when he was watching TV with his babysitters and the Beatles came on. “I am nothing if not a Beatles person. When they came on the TV when I was 6 years old, the babysitters screamed out loud and kissed the TV set — that’s when I knew I was going to be in music,” O’Toole laughed.
At a certain point, O’Toole knew that he had to diversify and broaden his reach if he was to be successful in the Island music scene.
“It got to a point where it was really obvious how much competition there is in what I do,” O’Toole said. “There is staying current and there is not staying current.”
Then, O’Toole started learning popular songs he heard on the radio during trips to the beach, or evenings making dinner in the kitchen.
“It was like Chicago, the Spinners, and some stuff that I really turned away from when I was like 15 or 16. In my 20s and onward, I always had an interest in songs,” O’Toole said.
Depending on the audience, O’Toole will either play something more current, or a throwback to send folks back in time. But O’Toole also creates his setlist based on what he enjoys playing, and says there is always a decision to be made there.
“It’s a 50/50 tossup between what the audience wants to hear and what I feel like playing,” O’Toole said. “One of the greatest compliments I get is someone saying, ‘I haven’t heard that song since high school.’ It just makes me happy to think they are reliving a time in their life or a memory from their childhood.”
For O’Toole, the money from playing gigs helps him along, but his main ambition is to entertain and give people respite from the stresses and anxieties of today.
“I am an entertainer, I am a performer. I love my craft because it is my place in the community,” O’Toole said. “Last year, I was playing seven days a week. This year, I might play one or two days a week. But honestly, I wasn’t sure I would be able to perform at all this year.”
According to O’Toole, from what he has seen at some of the small venues he has played at recently, people are starved of the live music experience, and “are hungry for it.”
O’Toole said his favorite thing about music on Martha’s Vineyard is the diversity, with so many incredible musicians coming from different backgrounds and filling different roles.
“It’s such a special thing on this Island. There are some real, true cats out here, especially the people that are just coming up. There is some incredible young talent here,” O’Toole said.
Although he said the future is still very uncertain for Island musicians and performers in general, he is confident he will continue to do what he loves.
“I recently had some health issues, and the first thing I did when I got back home was check and make sure I could still play guitar,” O’Toole said. “Everything seemed to check out, so I’m gonna keep on rocking.”