By Steve Novotney
Ezra Hamilton traveled many miles in search of a defined purpose in life. He didn’t know what it looked like, whom or what it might involve, or where he would find it.
Family decisions removed him from big-city living in Chicago to a farmhouse in Sardis, Ohio, before 8th Grade and then to a doublewide trailer in New Martinsville, W.Va., where he attended Magnolia High School. That is where, in fact, he discovered his singing voice at the age of 15.
Following graduation, he attended West Liberty University, but he remained unfulfilled. His classes and professors, one after another, were instructing him how to be a music educator, so he dropped out.
“I knew that if I ever would teach music, it wasn’t going to be the way they were teaching me to do it,” Hamilton said. “Plus, teaching at the time didn’t interest me. I was there to learn about music so I could better my craft, my music.”
So it was back to Chicago, then a return to Wheeling before moving to Columbia, South Carolina … for a single day. Charlottesville, Va., held his interest for close to five years before a move to Atlanta for a few months. From there, Hamilton said he needed yet another “life change,” he said, so he returned to his native city once again in 2009.
“That’s where I met by wife, Audrey,” he explained. “She was the secretary, and I was the band leader at a church, and we were with each other every day. And we hit it off, thank God.
“But we were always working, and barely getting by,” Hamilton continued. “Her family is from the Washington, Pa., area, so that’s when we started thinking about moving back to the Wheeling area.”
Once Audrey secured new employment, the couple returned to the tri-state region, and Hamilton started working at a jewelry store at The Highlands, and playing gig after gig during his evenings. Following the couple’s wedding, and the birth of their son, Elias, last year, Hamilton ceased selling jewelry to remain home with his child.
Today, Hamilton is a professional musician, and his voice attracts much attention.
“I’ve learned that it’s a cruel world out there if you grow old without knowing your purpose. It’s a real cruel world,” he said. “So, because I’m so thankful, I know my purpose now.
“I do my best possible for the people who come to hear us perform. I give the audience everything I have as a performer, whether it’s 5,000 people or two people. I owe that to them, and I owe it to My Creator because of the gifts I’ve been given.”
Playing the Hits.
Soon after his return to Wheeling four years ago, he built a band, “Open Air Museum,” and he and his band mates performed both cover songs and originals. However, in 2011, he partnered with local musician Gregg Molnar for a duo act known as, “Hit Play.” Both Hamilton and Molnar are guitarists, so they added percussion using technology.
“At first, I wasn’t too sure about that project,” Hamilton admitted. “That wasn’t something I was completely interested in at the beginning. But we moved forward with it, more because I needed the money than anything else.
“Surprisingly, it was a lot of fun once we really got into it. We had a great time, so we have continued to do that, and we still are,” he said. “And now, I have a full book of scheduled performances that goes into 2015 already.
“The musicians I get to work with now are some of the best I have ever encountered in my lifetime,” Hamilton said. “Since the beginning we have had some member changes, but you’ll have that when you are trying to draft all of the best players in an area. Not everyone is going to be available for all of the gigs that the rest of us want to play.”
This band, with these musicians, has allowed that unfulfilled feeling to vanish.
“It does satisfy me when it comes down to financial needs and performance needs. I’ve realized that, after many years of stepping on stage, that it’s part of my identity and part of what I have to do to keep the ‘artist crazy,’ at bay,” Hamilton explained, “Because every artist has a little bit of crazy in them.
“I realized that about myself. I realized how much I love performing, and there’s something inside me that tells me that’s my connection to the rest of the world.”
Hamilton, however, is a songwriter. He has stories he wishes to tell. He has harmonies in his head. The lyrics and the notes are constant.
“The only thing about ‘Hit Play’ that is tough for me is that I have to tell other people’s stories and sing their songs,” he said. “And I have always been a communicator who can tell my stories, so I write songs. Imagine how cool it is when other people know and are singing your songs.
“My originals all tell different stories because I always try to step into someone else’s shoes when I write a song. They all come from my experience, but a lot of them come from my perspective of someone else’s experience.”
Both versions of “Hit Play” have become very popular throughout the Upper Ohio Valley with frequent performances at local venues, weddings, Wheeling Island Casino, private parties, and corporate functions. Hamilton and his band mates are often recognized, even when offstage.
So what keeps Hamilton grounded despite the local fame?
“Personally, I haven’t reached anywhere close to my dreams. In my mind, my goals are so sky-high that I’ll never reach them. The people I look up to in music are so far ahead of me that I don’t think what I’m doing is really that good.
“Egos, to me, don’t work very well,” he said. “If there’s a disagreement of some sort between the members of the band, the first thing I do is check myself. I have to think about business, and I have to make sure I am treating other people the way I would want to be treated.”
He readily admits the band business can be a tricky one.
“If someone has an issue, I feel as if they can always come to me to work it out. If it can’t be worked out – for whatever reason – we’ll still be OK. We stay friends. I will come to your funeral. I won’t spit on your grave, you know what I mean?
“The older I get, the more I have realized that friends are friends, and music is music, and music friends are music friends, and business is business,” Hamilton explained. “If I can compartmentalize like that, then we’re good.”
Different. Very Different.
The first occasion when Hamilton encountered any issue connected to racial relations was soon after moving to the Appalachia Region. As a child in Chicago, he was surrounded by diversity.
“I never really thought too much about race when I was living in Chicago. I was a city kid who was exposed to people of all races, colors and nationalities. And then I moved to New Martinsville. For the first time in my life, it was different. It was very different because I was very different.
“It’s taught me a lot. It’s made me realize there are still people who will not hire our band because of the color of someone’s skin,” he said. “And it’s taught me a lot about myself, too, so I have grown as a person because it.”
For now, Hamilton’s travels are over – at least for the next five years – and that’s because he now knows what it looks like, whom it involves, and where he can find it.
“In my five-year plan, I see myself growing ‘Hit Play’ into the most viable wedding-band business that it can be. And then from there, I have not looked any farther than five years. I’ve not looked at anything past my 40th (birthday),” he said. “I’ve been blessed to be part of creating something people want to be a part of, and people want us to be a part of their wedding day, or their corporate event, or their night out.
“That’s a blessing. That’s an amazing thing, so I’m going to continue down that path.”
Hamilton also believes the Wheeling area is finally moving away from the Rust Belt Era with a number of reinventions taking place involving people of all ages. While the pace of economic development and job creation remains slow, he has witnessed many moves that will lead to improvements in the quality of life.
“I would love to stay in Wheeling the rest of my life. I would love to be the guy who grows old here and watches Wheeling become the place I always thought it could be,” he said. “I’d really love to be here in 20 years and be able to go see a hip-hop band, a jazz band, a blues band, and a rock band all in the same night just a few blocks away from each other.
“Plus, we would have a ton of theatre and arts, and we do have a lot of that now. But we all know it’s not ‘there’ yet. Not yet. But it’s definitely getting there, and I’m proud to be a tiny part of it.”
photos provided by Steve Novotney