After 30-plus years, a Princeton musician is performing again
On a Sunday afternoon last fall, about 20 people gathered to hear Stu Nunnery ’71 perform music for the first time in more than three decades. People piled on the couches, sat on dining-room chairs, and perched on the staircase overlooking the living room in Providence where Nunnery had set up his new Yamaha digital piano. Track lights overhead pointed in his direction like spotlights. A reporter and photographer from the local paper came to cover the story.
“I’m sure this was a huge, terrifying step for him,” says Jennifer Quigley-Harris, who hosted the house concert. “I thought, well, if it can be my living room, and I can put as many faces out there that are at least familiar to him ... then I thought it would be fun and also an honor to do it.”
Nunnery, who had a promising music career in the 1970s, suffered severe loss of hearing in his late 20s and early 30s. Now, thanks to new technology and rehabilitation exercises, Nunnery is trying to rebuild what he calls his “musical self.”
“The one thing I’ve wanted to do for 40 years, more than anything, was just to sit down at a piano, not worry about anything, and sing,” says Nunnery. “That’s all I wanted to do.”
In the 1970s, Nunnery was riding the same folk-music wave as James Taylor, Cat Stevens, and Elton John. After graduating from Princeton, Nunnery took a job teaching special education in the Berkshires, and started playing Friday- and Saturday-night gigs at The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Mass. It was the perfect place to be if you were a musician in those days.
“Every artist of any kind passed through that thing during the years that I was there,” says Nunnery. Alice’s Restaurant, made famous in the song by Arlo Guthrie, “was out the door and around the back of the alleyway,” and “Norman Rockwell lived across the street.”
Nunnery released an album, Stu Nunnery, in 1973, and two of its songs, “Madelaine” and “Sally from Syracuse,” made the top 100 on U.S. pop charts. Another song, “Lady It’s Time To Go,” hit the number-one slot on the charts in Brazil in 1976 and was the soundtrack of a popular Brazilian soap opera. Around that time, Nunnery opened two shows for Gordon Lightfoot at McCarter Theatre.
“When I had heard James Taylor do some performances, I couldn’t help but think that that could be Stu up there,” says David Chamberlain ’71, who ran track with Nunnery.
In his mid-20s, Nunnery headed to New York and started writing and singing jingles for commercials. Soon after he recorded the iconic Disney song “I’m Walking Right Down the Middle of Main Street USA,” which he also wrote, Nunnery woke up from a nap and his life changed forever.
“I stood up quickly and an air horn went off in the left side of my head,” says Nunnery. His hearing was gone. “These loud noises started in my ear and I’m thinking, ‘What is this?’ ”
Nunnery says he has never received a confirmed diagnosis of what happened that day in 1978, but he says doctors suspected that a burst blood vessel caused the hearing loss. At the time, Nunnery was making good money singing jingles, and he could still hear out of his right ear. He kept singing, but the hearing loss and “the confusion and cacophony of the hissing and tones caused by the tinnitus” made it difficult to find the pitch in the recording studio.
He had been assured by a doctor that what happened to his left ear wouldn’t happen to his right ear. Then, when he stood up quickly while painting his apartment in 1980, it did.
Doctors put Nunnery on steroids; his right ear stabilized with partial hearing, but he remains deaf in the left and still suffers from tinnitus. “Music,” he says, “was gone.”
The loss of music, combined with the loss of hearing, made Nunnery feel as though he had lost his identity. “It seems like you’re slower,” he says. “The person with hearing loss does not appear to be the person he once was. And I wasn’t. I think I did change.”
He shifted his energies, researching hearing loss and falling in with “food crazies” — “people for whom food was the answer to everything.” Nunnery learned about macrobiotics, medicinal cooking, and Chinese dietary regimes. He functioned with the use of a hearing aid.
Then, in 1985, both of Nunnery’s retinas detached during another sudden and unexpected episode. Emergency surgery saved his left eye, but his right eye was blinded.
Walking down the street had become a sensory challenge, as had talking on the telephone. He no longer was able to spend time with friends at loud bars and restaurants. But Nunnery made adjustments and continued to work. He led two nonprofit organizations dedicated to nutrition, sustainable farming, and children’s health. “You do whatever it takes,” he says.
“It’s only in retrospect that I look back at how much of a challenge it was back then,” Nunnery says, “and how much of a challenge it’s been the last 40 years negotiating life.”
In 2008, a music blogger called Nunnery and asked for an interview. The blogger had found Nunnery’s vinyl album in a remainders bin at a record store in St. Paul, Minn. He listened, thought it was great, and wanted to know what happened to the man behind the music.
Nunnery shared his story and was delighted when people posted supportive comments underneath the interview. He mounted a Kickstarter campaign to reissue his one vinyl record as a compact disc, Deja S2, and he began working with a hearing-rehabilitation specialist who gave him listening exercises and a voice coach who reminded him how to breathe correctly while singing.
“I knew all this stuff from years ago, but I had to go back and learn it,” he says. “I had to rebuild each of these pieces myself.”
Nunnery can hear both his voice and his instrument with his hearing aid, and is looking forward to an upgrade that will give him a sense of sound from his left side. It will also enable him to hear the lower keys on his digital piano.
Since that first house concert, Nunnery has performed four more times, and he says he’s ready to start recording again. It’s a work in progress, he says. He played for his class at Reunions in May.
“All of us who went to Princeton had plenty of kudos to fall back on, but what happens when you lose some of them is the real key to character,” says Chamberlain. He says Nunnery has been an inspiration to him and his classmates.
Nunnery is grateful to have music back in his life. He says he has learned how much of his emotional and physical well-being is tied to being able to listen and play.
“I had a serious joy deficit for a long, long time,” he says. “It was music that gave me a lot of that back.”
Ibby Caputo ’03 is a multimedia journalist.