By Julie Becker
Daily News staff writer
From an early age, Beloit native Mike Starling knew he had a gift for music.
Now an accomplished musician whose work has taken him through 49 states and four continents, Starling's musical foundation was first forged in Beloit and he hasn't forgotten that.
“I remember making my first recording. I was 12 years old and had gotten this little Panasonic tape recorder. Me and my two sisters played a little impromptu recording, with one sister playing the piano, one on the guitar and me using a copper pot,” Starling, 48, recalled. “We called it ï¿½Made in Japan.' I've always liked doing it ever since then.”
More than 40 years have passed since he first began strumming his fingers on his parents' kitchen table and banging pots and pans, and Starling's more recent recordings - a combination of blues and world music, dubbed “new world blues” - have now been heard in programs popping up on cable networks from MTV to A&E and the Discovery Channel.
Music hasn't always been his No. 1 passion. Before he went off to college where he earned his bachelor's degree in mass communications at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, and immersed himself more completely in music, Starling recalls being a sports fanatic.
“Sports was a big thing growing up. I lived over by Summit Playground on the East Side and I spent a lot of time there shooting hoops,” he recalled.
He eventually went on to become part of the basketball and swim teams at Beloit Memorial High School, where he graduated in 1977.
“When we (the swim team) won state for the first time, they picked us up on a fire truck and we all got a day off of school, so we were heroes for a day,” he added with a grin.
Growing up listening to tunes on WLS, a Chicago radio station, and Y95 on a transistor radio, Starling expanded on his interest in college, getting involved in broadcast radio.
He eventually began playing in bands with regular gigs in areas including LaCrosse, Madison, Minneapolis and Milwaukee - experimenting with genres including Rock, Reggae, Jazz and Blues - and composing music and lyrics, while simultaneously working as a photographer and writer. Since then, he has always kept busy with some sort of musical endeavor.
Most recently, “Funkee Monkee” - an instrumental composition from his 2003-released album, “Didjeriblue, Vol. 1” - was selected for use in a Bill Cosby special to be aired on the Biography Channel.
His popular “Didjeriblue” album features the distinct sound of the didjeridu (or didgeridoo) - an instrument crafted and mastered by aborigines in Australia that Starling fell in love with during his travels - mixed in with the sounds of guitar, bass and percussion from his extensive collection of instruments.
“I love the sound of it - it's just very primal,” he said of the long, hollowed-out Eucalyptus tube. “I kind of knew then that I needed to buy one, learn how to play it and put it in my music.”
His most recent CD release is his 2006 album, “Guitar Moods,” and his next project will be a photo exhibition from a recent trip to Greece, to be featured in Milwaukee in February. Titled “Blue and White,” the project also will feature Greece-inspired music as a backdrop.
For Starling, who also currently works as a photographer and editor for Northbrook Publishing, attention for his music was never anything he actively sought. But the satisfaction of knowing other people can enjoy his creations is extremely rewarding.
“You start off with nothing and start producing, and just to hear the finished product is the most rewarding part,” he said. “Many people who do this sort of don't have a choice - they feel compelled to do all this stuff, so it's nice when other people want to hear it, too.”
Despite his success, Starling remains grounded, something he also attributes to his Beloit upbringing - he comes from a working class family and his parents, Bill and Betty Starling, both worked at McNeany's Department Store. He maintains a Beloit connection through his father, who still resides here.
“I come back every few weeks to see my dad. We always go to Domenico's - that's our ritual, we've been going there for years,” said Starling, who has lived in Milwaukee for about seven years.
His father is equally proud of his accomplishments.
“It's really nice to see him get some recognition for what he's doing, because he really does enjoy it. It is a good feeling to see that what he does, somebody else does appreciate it,” Bill Starling said.
Mike Starling hopes that will continue for years to come.
“It doesn't seem like there's ever enough time to do all the things I want to do. I feel like this is something I could still be doing when I'm 80,” he said.