Tony Melendez of Branson, Missouri, naturally strums the guitar with his toes.
“I had to learn and face head on. There are no arms on this body,” the musician said. “What am I going to do? Am I going to cry about it or am I going to get up and start doing things about life? I chose to do about life more so than crying about it.”
Melendez says medication his mother took for morning sickness may have kept his arms from developing.
As a child, he knew he was different but never felt like an outcast.
“In my eyes, it was normal. I never had arms. So, it’s not like I lost them. I never had them.”
“Did people make fun of me? Yes,” Melendez recalled. “But it was always in the background for me. That’s their problem, not mine.”
He credits family for his confidence and ability to thrive.
“There were four of us: two brothers and two sisters. There were times that they didn’t want to help me. There were times that it was not super easy, but as a family, we started working together and kind of learned how to help each other.”
Melendez tried artificial arms at age 6. He manoeuvred them well. But after a few years, the spirited boy realised he could do just as much without the prosthetics.
“I just felt they (artificial arms) were too heavy,” Melendez said.
He was able to do much more with his feet and his mouth.
Melendez finds music through ministry
“At first, my dream was to become a priest,” Melendez said. “I always had kind of that ministry heart. I wanted to help others.” However, at that time, priests were generally required to have thumbs and index fingers to give communion.
“I didn’t have the hand. I didn’t have the arm.” Melendez realized he would have to go a different direction.
He was 16 years old when another musician showed him how to tune the guitar differently. That’s when he realised he could use his toes to strum the chords.
“People would come to the house and ask who’s playing the guitar, you know. My family would have to walk them in the bedroom and say ‘Tony’s playing.’ And then they would believe it,” he said. “Music became another way I can serve others.”
A kiss from the Pope
Melendez recalls his 1987 performance for Pope John Paul II as a “moment I will never forget.”
“I got a letter in the mail asking me to come to the diocese,” he said. “I showed up thinking I would be a part of a large choir.” He soon found out that it was an audition to perform for the Pope.
“I always have the spare guitar in the back of my car. And that’s the only reason I had the guitar, but it didn’t say to bring it,” Melendez remembered. “I went home thinking ‘Why didn’t I write a special song? I didn’t prepare. They’re not going to call me.’ “
“Three weeks later, I’m in front of the Pope, singing for him. It just kind of happened.”
He was 25 years old at the time and says the words to the song he performed were perfect.
“It’s called ‘Never Be The Same.’ My life was meant to be different. Never to be the same.”
After he sang, Pope John Paul II kissed Melendez on the cheek.
“That moment led to a lot of things,” the musician said. “I’ve recorded now six different albums. I’ve been offered to go to 44 countries. I thought I would sing for him that day and it would be done. I’m 55 now, and I’m still going across the world. I’m still being invited.”
Even though Melendez is very happy, there are two reasons he would like to have arms if he could.
“If I could play the guitar with my feet and do the lead part with my hands, I think I’d be the only one in the world that could do that,” he said. “But one that’s even better: embrace my wife.
“I would love to just be able to wrap my arms around my honey and hold her. That’s one thing that, you know, I wish that I could do.”