John Cruz may be a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, but a prestigious award, several albums and growing popularity isn’t fogging his vision of what’s truly important: the music.
Cruz is a singer from Hawaii, who has dedicated his life to making a career in music. He’s played everywhere from the beaches of Hawaii to subways and coffeehouses in New York’s Greenwich Village. Tonight, Cruz is bringing his guitar and island sounds to Hutchins Street Square for a one-night performance.
Though he’s never played in Lodi, the city is close to his roots. After all, his father, Ernie Cruz, is from Manteca.
As a young boy, Cruz was inspired by his father, who sang country music and taught him to perform live.
“I grew up on a healthy diet of Merle Haggard and all the okies,” he said, referring to other “pre-Kenny Rogers” country artists.
Ernie Cruz remembers his sons performing for crowds at a car dealership when they were just five or six years old.
“I used to dress them up in three-piece suits and have them sing,” he said, adding that’s how they would earn a burger and fries.
Over the years, Ernie Cruz has gained respect for his son, not just as a father, but as a musician.
“I’ve been a musician all my life, and John’s one of the finest,” Ernie Cruz said.
But the soulful sounds John Cruz brings to the recording studio with his messages of love, family, spirituality and romance come from his Hawaiian roots, too. His Hawaiian grandmother sang in church and his mom influenced her children with her extensive collection of Motown records.
Stirring the music
Today, Cruz lives alone at his home in Hawaii, in a house in the same valley he lived in as a child. He’s close to the ocean, one of his favorite places to spend time.
“If I jump in my car, in 10 minutes I can be putting a line in the water,” he said.
Cruz is a fisherman — for anything that might bite, he jokes. And though he grew up in the water, those salty waves have never lost their beauty or thrill.
When he’s not at the beach, he’s making music — either writing or playing it on his guitar.
Nowadays, most of Cruz’s songs are co-written with his friend, recording artist Mark Herschler, who lives in upstate New York and has a recording studio in western Massachessettes. When Cruz is in middle of a project or working on an album, he trades the lush island for Herschler’s studio on the East Coast.
Herschler says the visits are productive because the two musicians can completely focus on writing and playing for days or weeks at a time. His favorite songs — some done by Cruz alone, and others done as a duo — are “Broken in Three,” “Beautiful World” and “Priests and Pirates.”
When it comes to the music, Herschler says his friend adds a golden touch.
“Musically, he brings a warm and glowing musical vision to the table,” he said. “He’ll take the music and stir it.”
A hard road
Cruz didn’t escape the hardships that comes with being a musician — that is, making money in the beginning.
“It’s been extremely challenging, but at the same time, very rewarding,” he said.
After a childhood in Hawaii, Cruz moved to New York in 1983 to play bars and clubs, where he hoped to get noticed and make it as a full-time singer. He attended University of Massachussetts at Amherst, where he played music when he wasn’t studying acting and dance, which helped him with his stage presence. He spent six years with a theater company, and then returned to Hawaii to help his brother make his own record.
In 1996, Cruz released his first album “Acoustic Soul,” which he produced and released on his own label, Lilikoi Records. In Hawaii alone, the album has sold more than 150,000 copies.
It’s just now that Cruz is starting to feel that he’s made it as an artist. He never thought of giving up on music, but he did wonder if it was a sufficient way to make a living.
But a little recognition feels good sometimes, and it was great when his song “Jo Bo’s Night” (featured on the compilation CD “Slack Key Guitar, Vol. 2”) won the first Grammy ever for Hawaiian music.
It was a huge honor, but still the ever-so-realistic Cruz was humble.
“Awards are great, but they happen for only a day,” he said. “The next day, you’re still the same.”
The blessings are here
As Cruz continues to throw his fishing line in the water and write his music every day, his songs are becoming more popular around the world.
Singer Jack Johnson released Cruz’ song “Island Style” on several of his own albums and sometimes sings during concerts. World champion surfer Kelly Slater featured Cruz’ music on his DVD “Letting Go.” With Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, Cruz sang his hit song “Missing You” on a radio compilation CD, “Fresh Produce, Vol. 4.”
In October, Cruz’s traditional Hawaiian song “Hi’ilawe” gained national recognition when it was released on the official “Hawaii Five-O” soundtrack and featured on an episode of the show.
“What a blessing,” said Cruz, adding that his email inbox is full from people who heard “Hi’ilawe” during last week’s airing of the TV show.
Tonight, Cruz will bring a mix of his own soul and Hawaiian sounds. Ernie Cruz says you don’t want to miss it.
“If people miss seeing John, they’re missing out. He’s a very special person,” Ernie Cruz said.
Contact Lodi Living Editor Lauren Nelson at email@example.com.