When Sarah Newhard of New Tripoli asked her 9-year-old son Wyatt what he wanted for Christmas, she was surprised to hear him say a drum set. He had never been musical or particularly liked music, Newhard says.
But Wyatt, who since age 3 has battled stage 4 neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous system, has lived his life trying new things, his mother said: soccer, baseball, basketball. So with the help of donations, she got him the set.
Trouble is, Wyatt, who had never had a music lesson in his life, needed instruction.
So he got that, too: from Vini "Maddog" Lopez, the founder of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and drummer on Springsteen's first two albums. With the band, Lopez in April was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Lopez came to New Tripoli to instruct the youth in his home at the request of Mike Miller, a New Tripoli retiree and lifelong drummer whose grandson Andrew attends Weisenberg Elementary School with Wyatt and who has worked with the Newhard family on several fundraisers.
Lopez, 65, drove from his New Jersey shore home to spend an hour teaching Wyatt the basics of how to hold the sticks, how to hit the snare drum, how to use brushes and, most importantly, how to keep a beat.
Miller had met Lopez at the Lehigh Valley Music Awards, at which he was a celebrity presenter the past few years, and reached out to him through awards coordinator Gloria Domina, who also has her own production company, 13 Butterflies.
"All kids need a lesson," Miller said. "I thought he should get someone really good."
Lopez, who has donated him time youth instruction before — at the YMCA in his old Asbury, N.J., neighborhood, for example — said he agreed immediately. "I said, 'Let's do it,'" the drummer said. "It was just a matter of timing. I'm there."
Lopez said he started playing the drums as an adolescent after being shown similar tips by Buzzy Lubinsky, whose father, Herman, founded the gospel/jazz Savoy Records label. Lopez said he also was inspired by seeing a famous drummer, Cream's Ginger Baker, perform live.
Lopez later started the Jersey Shore band Steel Mill and recruited Springsteen as its singer. The band later became the E Street Band, and Lopez played on Springsteen's debut album, "Greetings from Asbury Park," and his sophomore disc, "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle."
He was fired after a run-in with then-manager Mike Appel's brother Steve.
Lopez since has played with various Jersey Shore bands and currently has Steel Mill Retro, a band that plays early Springsteen songs written for Steel Mill. He said he's now working on a new duo project with influential Jersey Shore blues guitarist Paul Whistler called Dog Whistle.
On Friday, Lopez, wearing a gray Steel Pier T-shirt and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame cap over his bushy gray hair and ponytail, assembled and toned Wyatt's snare drum, then sat next to it with the boy.
He showed Wyatt how to hit the drum head, relating how, in his younger days, he would snag his bushy hair with his wild am swings and rip out chunks by the roots. He noted that won't be a problem for Wyatt, whose mother said has been bald pretty much since his diagnosis, as he's undergone aggressive chemotherapy treatment.
Lopez also emphasized how everything in drumming works off a 1-2-3-4 beat.
"In concert, when you see Bruce turn around and go, 'one-two-three-four' it's not for effect," Lopez said. "He's getting everyone on the same beat."
He also told Wyatt how important it is to keep the beat consistent. He said that when he played with the E Street Band at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, it was the first time the band had ever used two drummers — himself and current player Max Weinberg — and they have different styles.
"Max had to speed up a little and I had to slow down, and we met on the beat," Lopez said with a laugh. "We certainly pulled it off. What's amazing is we're all still friends after these years — because a lot of bands aren't."
Wyatt's mother said he was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma in January 2008, when he began to have stomach pains, became dehydrated and couldn't walk. He underwent high-dose chemotherapy, two types of radiation and MIBG, a therapy that injects radioactive iodine intravenously.