BY FRANK DROUZAS Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — Sitting cross-legged on a sidewalk in St. Pete is a familiar spot for Eddie Maultsby.
Strumming his acoustic guitar with a purpose and shaking his head back and forth to his own rhythm, the street musician belted out a spirited version of the Michael Jackson classic “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” while pedestrians strolled by in the twilight. He could not see the passersby coming and going, occasionally stopping to drop a few bills into his tip canister, but he could hear their footsteps.
A fixture of downtown for over 30 years, Maultsby lost his sight at age 11 when he was struck by sarcoidosis, a rare inflammatory disease.
“It stunted my growth,” he explained. “It strikes all your major organs, it takes your eyesight, it attacks your lungs, your liver, your kidneys, pancreas and heart. I’ve been through a lot of hospitals.”
Eventually Maultsby decided to turn to street performing to supplement his meager disability income.
“I was receiving a check but it was a very small amount,” he said. “I had a fiancée and I wanted to try to make a living for myself.”
His street performing days began at Williams Park, but he soon realized he had to compete with the loud buses that frequently made stops all around the park.
Someone suggested he take his act outside the McCrory’s store on Central Avenue where there was good foot traffic. With the blessing of the store manager, Maultsby started strumming his tunes in what became a regular spot for him from 1983 to 1999, even continuing to play in front of the store a few months after it closed that year.
Soon after he retired from playing regularly, but when First Fridays became a permanent part of the rebirth of downtown St. Pete’s nightlife, he decided to return to play for the weekend crowds. Eventually he moved to his spot on Central Avenue and Second Street.
A self-taught musician, the 52 year old generally plays about three hours or so at a stretch. He gravitates toward the classics that are crowd pleasers but also plays newer songs, dipping into the catalogues of artists such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Ritchie, Mary J. Blige and Beyoncé.
“People like new songs when they’re hot,” he said. “If they’re not hot anymore, then you can do some old classics and they’ll still love it.”
For many years Maultsby has wanted to break into mass media, and now cohosts a paid radio program with Larry Facyson every Saturday from 8:30-9 a.m. on WRXB 1590 on AM radio.
“It’s a Christian station, they play religious music 24 hours a day,” he explained, “but they do have paid programs. I’ve always been into gospel and the Lord, and I’ve wanted to start something where I can give back and help people and I figured I can on the radio and this is what I’ve been doing for the last couple months.”
On “The Florida Blind Boy Show,” as his program is called, Maultsby spins religious music, talks and gives away prizes such as gift cards for essentials like gas and groceries. Though he has an outreach website www.gofundme.com/tryuwc that he hopes will encourage people to donate and does receive help with his dues for the radio program through a couple local businesses, Maulstby puts up the money for the prizes himself from his disability check and tips he collects when performing.
“I come down here on Friday nights, and on that Saturday show, whatever money I’ve made I give away,” he said. “Not all of it, but the majority.”
With the help of Eric Wright, Maultsby has even arranged for groceries to be delivered to random callers. He specifically remembered how grateful an elderly lady was a few weeks ago when she was the winning caller. She asked how she would get them and Maulstby told her they’d be delivered right to her door.
“She was so thrilled!” he recalled. “I’ve given away a lot so far, but that was one person that I knew I made a difference.”
Performing for over three decades, Maultsby has touched many people directly with his gift of music—some who have found themselves at low points in life. Maultsby recalled one such evening when a man named John who had worked at the yacht club approached him as he played and sang.
“His wife had left him, he lost his job, he was really down,” Maultsby remembered. “He said, ‘Could you play me a song?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ and I played ‘Easy Like Sunday Morning.’ I got through it and he was crying. He said, ‘I was thinking of giving up on life. Since I met you, I just want to tell you thank you.’ I saw him much later, he had gotten a job, his life had turned around. You can imagine how those types of things can impact your own life.”
Maultsby also has his share of stories of people who have wanted to extend a helping hand to him, just like he is doing now with his music and radio show. He recalled a time more than 20 years ago when it had rained steadily all week and he couldn’t come out to perform. Consequently he came up short on the money needed for some of his bills, and the city shut his water off. When he finally hit the streets one day to earn enough money to pay the bill, a man approached Maulstby’s spot on the sidewalk.
“‘The Lord wants me to do something for you,” the man had told Maultsby. “Is there anything you need?”
Maultsby politely declined, so the man dropped “a little something” in Maultsby’s tip basket and Maultsby could hear him walking away and starting up his car a short distance away. A minute later Maultsby heard the car engine being shut off and footsteps approaching again.
“Look, I can’t leave,” the man had told him directly. “God wants me to do something for you. I cannot leave.”
Reluctantly, Maultsby confided that he was trying to earn the money to get his water turned back on. After getting Maultsby’s name and disappearing for a while, the man returned with a receipt.
“He said, ‘Your water will be on today,’” Maultsby remembered. “I said, ‘God bless you—what’s your name?’ ‘That’s not important,’ he said. ‘Have a good day.’ Those types of things make me want to give back.”
To reach Frank Drouzas, email email@example.com