His surprising second act is where this musician found his true calling.
Stephen Lopez poses for a photo at Milano Italian Grille on Southwest College Road in Ocala on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.
When you see Stephen Lopez strumming his guitar and singing at a local venue, he’s going to have a big smile on his face. He can’t help himself. And this isn’t the pasted-on smile of a hired performer. It’s genuine joy reflected on the face of a guy who got a second chance at life and is making the most of it.
“I’ve seen this lift people’s spirits up so much, when you engage with a good crowd and have a lot of fun with them,” Lopez said before a recent gig at Milano Italian Grille. “All these people that I make happy, it bounces right back. It just gives me so much joy when I see people smile.”
About 10 years ago, Lopez had to go home early from his job as a restaurant cook because he didn’t feel well. Luckily for him, his wife took one look at him and rushed him to the hospital. At age 51, his heart ejection fraction was so low, it was barely pumping out any blood to his body.
“I’m a hardworking man. I believe in taking care of my family. I was forced to retire because my heart went so bad. I was almost dead,” Lopez said. “But, the way I look at it, it was a blessing. I got sick, but I was working myself to death to begin with.”
As he recovered, Lopez, who’s been playing music since he was a teenager, found himself picking up his acoustic guitar and taking comfort in ’60s and ’70s classics by Jim Croce and Paul Simon. It’s a much different sound than the hard rock Black Sabbath and Foghat he played on electric guitar with his band in high school. But, as he endured treatments and a long recovery, the slower-paced songs were just the right speed to help him find his new sound.
About two years after his medical scare, Lopez started playing at a coffee shop in Micanopy. His set would last just until he ran out of breath. But, before long, it was a two-hour show. As his health improved, the self-taught musician turned to YouTube to learn more complex styles of fingerpicking and expand his repertoire.
“I started learning Dan Fogelberg, an intense guitar player. It took me a year to learn a song from him,” Lopez said. “And James Taylor’s been a savior to me. I started picking up more acoustic music like that. I would practice over and over. And I told my wife, ‘I might get it together and do a show like this.’”
Several years after leaving his restaurant job, Lopez returned to local eateries—this time as the entertainment. And, although he still enjoys cooking for his wife, Wendy, he said loves his life now, thanks to the close call that forced him to slow down.
“It’s like an extra life I’m living. Every single day that I wake up, I thank God for it,” he said. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘I come to your shows to forget about everything else that’s going on.’ When somebody tells you that, it’s got to be the most magical thing in the world. And you’ve got to understand one thing as a musician: you would not be anywhere without those people.”
Lopez, who regularly plays four shows a week, said the growth in Ocala has created more opportunities for all musicians.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “Ocala is growing fiercely and there’s an amazing calling for live music. And it’s a beautiful thing. It’s not a competition; it’s a community. I’m going to spread as much joy, as much love, as much positivity as I can for my audience, for my fellow musicians and for anybody who comes to the show. If I can make ‘em happy, I’m going to.”
Find out more about the musician and his upcoming shows at FB.com/Stefan.lopez.9026.