You don't look like an angel!

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That's what Pope John Paul II once told guitar icon Angel Romero, who will appear at Rolling Hills Church on Jan . 21
by: MIKEL KELLY World-renown guitarist, Angel Romero, will perform with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra at Rolling Hills Church in Stafford on Jan. 21.  The 64-year-old  musical  icon will perform two pieces by Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo including “Concierto de Aranjuez” which Romero calls “his signature.”

The great classical guitarist Angel (pronounced 'on-hell') Romero - who Frank Sinatra called 'Maestro Romero,' who Jimi Hendrix claimed to listen to in his sleep, who wrote the Oscar-winning film score for Robert Redford's 'The Milagro Beanfield War,' who Pope John Paul II once joked, 'You don't look like an angel,' who was best friends in high school with Beach Boys guitarist Carl Wilson, and who helped formed The Romeros, the Spanish 'royal family of guitar' - was in Portland last week to promote his upcoming concert at Rolling Hills Community Church in the Stafford area.

A Milwaukie mom, waiting for her son to finish his guitar lesson, looked up from the book she was reading.

'You mean, Mr. Romero is here?' she asked, her eyes as big as tennis balls. 'Do you think I could introduce him to my son?'

Before settling down for his newspaper interview, Romero stood up to greet the boy, probably not more than 11 or 12, and who (his mom had explained) has autism.

'You're the reason he decided to take guitar lessons,' the boy's mother said to the musical icon, explaining that he had been at last January's concert here that reunited Angel Romero with his brothers Pepe and Celin, along with third-generation Romeros Celito (son of Celin) and Lito (Angel's own son).

'Well, it's a pleasure to meet you,' said Romero. 'I hope to hear you play some time.'

The concert at Rolling Hills, 3550 S.W. Borland Road, is set for 8 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 21, and will feature Romero performing two masterpieces by Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo: the 'Concierto de Aranjuez' ('my signature,' he said) and the 'Madrigal Concierto,' written for two guitars and featuring local artist David Franzen. Also part of the program will be the Columbia Symphony Orchestra.

'I'm opening with a bang,' said Romero of the Rodrigo pieces, his enthusiasm belying his 64 years. Then, he said, the program will move on to his wife Nefretiri.

'She's an amazing soprano,' he added. 'And then, as if that's not enough, I will conduct Beethoven's First Symphony.'

Tickets for the concert, ranging from $35 to $49, are available by calling 503-654-0082 or by visiting PortlandClassicGuitar.com.

The PCG studio (also site of a planned master class) is located at 11923 S.E. McLoughlin Blvd., in Milwaukie. The registration fee for the class is $20. More information can be found at the same website and phone number.

'I was very adventurous'

Angel Romero, who these days lives in San Diego with his wife and 9-year-old daughter Isabella, was born in Malaga, Spain, the youngest son of Celedonio Romero, who left Francisco Franco's Spain in 1957. He gave his first professional performance at age 6 and was an international touring artist by the time he was in his mid-teens. His first performance in the United States was at the Hollywood Bowl at age 16. He was especially close to Rodrigo and went on to study conducting with Eugene Ormandy.

From 1960 until 1990, he performed with 'the royal family of the guitar,' the Romeros, made up of his father and brothers Pepe and Celin.

Ask him why he left that group after 30 years, and you'll get an earful.

'Even at an early age - of 13, 14 years old - I was very adventurous, wanting to learn to conduct,' said Romero, and eager 'to explore cross-over things, like jazz and rock, so I was very much into discovery of new things.'

Evidence of that is the fact that he is a black belt in karate and a licensed pilot. He was curious and had trouble limiting himself to any one, or even a few, things.

'That was just my personality.'

He was one of the inspirations for forming the quartet in the first place, he said. His father, already a big name in the music world, encouraged his sons, and Pepe and Angel, in particular, shone.

'He let Pepe and me sit back and do our work,' said Angel. 'Pepe and I possessed an abundance of technique,' and they tended to trade off on first and second guitar parts of 'a lot of really tough stuff.'

So, he said, almost from the beginning, 'I was the captain of this ship.'

In 1989, he teamed up with jazz artist Dave Grusin to work on the score for the Robert Redford film 'The Milagro Beanfield War.'

'I did that whole score,' he said. 'And it won an Oscar. This was one year before I left (the quartet).'

At the same time, he added, he found himself doing a lot of recording at the EMI recording studio made famous by the Beatles.

'In the meantime, my son Lito, he began to play a lot, and my nephew Celino, he was also playing - and I was so busy. I was spending so much time in Abbey Road studios in London, by myself, that the quartet was being neglected.

'I said, 'I'm eating all this food, and the kids are not eating anything - it's not fair,' so I took the position of going on my own completely.' So, Celino joined the quartet and took over Angel's chair in 1990.

Then, in the mid-'90s, his father was diagnosed with cancer, and Angel found himself too booked up to get back to the quartet, so the decision was made to bring his son, Lito, in.

He does occasionally get back together with this new version of The Romeros (as they did last January at Rolling Hills Community Church), but 'only once in a blue moon.'

'I've been doing, mostly, a lot of conducting,' he said, adding that there's nothing about the advance of age, so far, that has hindered his performing ability. 'I'm playing better than I ever have.'

On work and fame

So, what does a 64-year-old music superstar do for fun?

'I make my work fun,' said Romero with a twinkle in his eyes.

He shrugged and explained that he has 'a gorgeous studio' in his San Diego home that was set up by his wife, full of music and trophies. 'But I really only go in there once in a while to get a piece of music,' he said.

His real work, he said, happens down by the waterfront, where the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk is docked. He takes a little table, his lunch and his guitar down there, sets up on the grass overlooking the water and writes and practices, whatever needs doing.

'The people there, they probably just think I'm some old homeless guy,' he says. 'And then, at the end of the day about 5:30 p.m., just like it was work, I pack it all up and go home' - where he has dinner with his wife and daughter.

What kind of music does he listen to?

'To be perfectly honest, I listen to the piece I'm working on, like Beethoven and those guys,' he said. 'And at the end of the day, I listen to Lady Gaga, because of my daughter.'

His daughter is always surprised to be reminded what a big deal he is, he said, because he'll make arrangements to meet an actor after a play, as happened recently with Angela Lansbury.

'She'll say, 'what a thrill it is to meet you,' and my daughter goes, 'Dad!' because she doesn't know why I'm so famous.'

His 'best pal' at Hollywood Professional School was classmate Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, who would later die of a brain tumor - 'God rest his soul,' he said.

'I've met so many people. Frank Sinatra was a big fan, and me of him.' They met in a Mexican restaurant in Palm Springs, he said, when he heard somebody shout across the room, 'Maestro Romero!' Sinatra had seen him at the Hollywood Bowl, he said. 'And we became friends.'

What he refers to as 'one of the greatest moments of my career' happened after an event, where he was meeting such jazz idols as George Shearing, Ray Brown and others backstage, when he noticed somebody hanging back, on the fringe of the crowd.

'I see this man in the background in a blue suit, looking very sharp, with a yellow tie and everything. And he comes up to me and kneels down before me and he says, 'Bless me because you are a god of music.' My reaction was to kneel down next to him because I was embarrassed.' Then, he said, they shared a hug. 'It was Mel Torme.'

To this day, said Romero, 'I can't get through Christmas without shedding some tears' - especially when he hears the Torme-penned 'The Christmas Song.'

'I remember that moment. I remember that hug, and I remember that humility he showed.'

Romero said he plans to write a biography, but the prospect caused him to flash that sly grin of his.

'I'm probably just going to call it 'Name Dropping,'' he said, breaking into a belly laugh.

He has, he admitted, met just about everybody he ever dreamed of meeting, including presidents and stars of all fields, and even the Pope.

A photo was taken of Pope John Paul II grabbing Romero by the lapel and pointing his finger right at the guitarist's face.

'And I am turning my head away like this,' he said, recreating the moment. 'And what he was saying to me was, 'You don't look like an angel'' - again that loud laugh. ''But you are.''