Update: Fellow musicians remember George Wesley, reggae legend and music ambassador
Friends, family and fans are mourning the loss of George Wesley, reggae musician and ambassador of the Northeastern Pennsylvania music scene.
The Wilkes-Barre resident and local music legend died July 19 after a battle with liver cancer.
Over a decades-long career, Wesley not only entertained countless reggae fans in the region with his original roots music but also mentored a multitude of young musicians who sought to be creative in the same arts community he called home.
Wesley was known for his kindness and his encouragement of a new generation of music makers. He was also renowned for his abilities as a songwriter and guitarist in projects such as the George Wesley Band and George Wesley’s Small Axe Orchestra, where he used a series of loop and effect pedals to create a symphonic sounding solo act.
Mountain Top musician Pete Terpak, who played guitar in the George Wesley Band over the last six years, said Wesley succumbed to the illness faster than expected.
Wesley was diagnosed with Stage I cancer a few days after the band’s last performance at the Fine Arts Fiesta in May.
“A lot of us were relieved and thought, ‘He’ll be able to battle this,’” Terpak said. “We thought he’d have some time. We didn’t think it was going to happen this fast.”
Terpak, who also plays in his own reggae outfit, Subnotics, considers Wesley to have been a great friend and influence on his career.
“This is a guy that changed the entire direction of my life,” Terpak said.
Terpak, a Wilkes-Barre native, got exposed to reggae while living in Ocean City, Maryland after college. When he moved back to Pennsylvania, settling in Harrisburg, he saw a George Wesley Band show at the Appalachian Brewing Company.
“I found out the guys were from Wilkes-Barre,” Terpak said. “I was just starting to play guitar, and I realized it was a reality, that I could actually do it.”
Back in Wilkes-Barre, Terpak started his own band, in which Wesley’s son, James, became the drummer.
“I told (James) what his dad meant to me,” Terpak said. “I was a hacker on guitar, just learning, and he gave me the inspiration to do it.”
Terpak said Wesley always took him and fellow musicians under his wing and that he’s able to do what he does today because of Wesley.
Sharing that sentiment, Subnotics singer and songwriter, Robb Brown said he wouldn’t be where he is without Wesley.
“I don’t think there’s a single person who has risen through the ranks of this industry locally who hasn’t had direct influence in a relationship with George,” Brown said. “George Wesley set an almost impossible precedent of professionalism, integrity and mastering his craft.”
More than six years ago, Wesley asked Terpak to join his band for full ensemble performances.
“I was totally humbled and honored when I first got the call,” Terpak said. “But I also knew with George … the guy’s a monster on guitar, and when his band is playing it’s a force to be reckoned with.”
Two weeks before the first show Terpak played with Wesley, he went to a rehearsal where Wesley handed him 10 CDs and 50 Bob Marley songs and told him, “I’ll see you in two weeks.”
Terpak quickly found out Wesley had a reputation for seeing talent in collaborators and expecting professionalism from those he selected.
“A lot of area people played with him, and that was like a badge of honor for many of them,” Terpak said. “You were expected to deliver.”
Terpak went home and pounded through the songs he was given, and ended up with Wesley throughout the rest of his career.
“There are 30 other guitar players who are better guitar players than me in the area, but he identified my passion for it,” Terpak said. “I was honored to be able to play with him for so long.”
Terpak said the pair would often talk strategy after gigs.
“It was plans to be successful to spread the message,” Terpak said. “The best thing you can ask for as a musician is that you change somebody’s life, even if it’s just for two hours during the show. My encounter with him totally changed my life.”
Brown, who sat in with Wesley’s band as a vocalist both before and after Wesley fell ill, remembered the artist as being driven by his connection with his audience.
“His life was music,” Brown said. “His life was positivity, and he lived it and breathed it. Some people put on a mask, and some people are that. And George was that.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or Twitter @TLArts