Rockin' the engine block

For master mechanic/musician Charlie Pierson, it's all about fine cars and guitars. (Michael Bryant/Staff)
For master mechanic/musician Charlie Pierson, it's all about fine cars and guitars. (Michael Bryant/Staff) (Lissa Atkins)

For master mechanic/musician Charlie Pierson, it's all about fine cars and guitars.

Posted: April 05, 2011

Charlie Pierson has "an ear." It's what bridges his vocation and avocation. His ear is so exquisitely sensitive that he can parse the exhaust note of a vintage Ferrari and tell whether the engine is perfectly tuned.

His ear also guides him when he's playing his guitar, serving up blues and jazz with his band, Slick Mickey, and striving for that magic moment when phrasing and rhythm are just right.

His vocation and avocation share quarters in a converted horse barn at his woodsy retreat near Schwenksville, Montgomery County. Two automobile lifts are always occupied, supporting beautifully crafted Italian motorcars - Ferraris and Lamborghinis principally.

In one corner, the auto parts yield to amplifiers and guitars. This is where Pierson rehearses, where he seeks to make music that matches the artistry of the mechanical marvels that benefit from his careful ministrations.

An affable fellow with a mellow manner and merry smile, Pierson, 58, knows that he's a passenger on a limited express, and that the ride may end much sooner than he'd like. Yet he shows no sign of existential angst. Instead, he's dealing with his lot by living more deliberately, and generously, and by continuing to pursue his passions with steady excellence.

Tellingly, he specializes in Ferraris made from the mid-'50s to 1985, before they were adulterated by electronics.

"I like the engineering, the metallurgy, the quality. It's artwork," he says. "If I were working on Fords or Chevys, I'd be doing something else."

He tends to the functional innards - motors, transmissions, transaxles. His particular genius is "the V-12 stuff."

Each of those 12 cylinders is fed by its own carburetor, and Pierson's ear enables him to calibrate the entire dozen so the engine purrs. He is a symphony conductor with a wrench.

"I take a lot of time," Pierson says. "I'm a perfectionist, obsessed with details."

The cars he works on range in value from $20,000 to $2 million. They have appeared on magazine covers and at exclusive shows such as Pebble Beach. Entertainer Bill Cosby once flew Pierson to Massachusetts on his private plane to assess his collection. Advertising is by word of mouth, and Pierson's backlog is two years.

"He's got blessed fingers and ears," says John Gerhard, an Ambler real estate agent whose Jaguars have flourished under Pierson's care. "He can make the ugliest part look gorgeous and he can take a rough-running engine and make it play music."

The son of a General Electric engineer, Pierson began playing with cars when he was 12. At age 16, he bought a '59 Ford Galaxy 500 for $25, resuscitated it, and sold it for $400.

In high school, he excelled at lacrosse and was offered a college scholarship. Pierson declined. "I always knew I wanted to work with my hands," he says.

His father was supportive. "Whether you're a garbage man or a dogcatcher, just be the best," he counseled.

After two years of automotive training, Pierson toiled at various garages and dealerships, developing a fondness for foreign makes.

"Charlie sees through the eyes of an engineer," says Ken Grosslight, a Ferrari enthusiast who lives near Columbia, S.C. "He's got this insight into the mechanics of just about anything."

Grosslight collects rare guitars, and when Pierson visits, matters mechanical often yield to pleasures musical, as impromptu jam sessions erupt.

Smitten by the sounds of Motown, Pierson began beating drums when he was 12, around the same time he began messing with cars. Three years later, he sold his drums and bought a nylon-string acoustic guitar for $10. His idols were the Allman Brothers, and his guitar paid a price. Recalls Pierson: "I remember pounding it to death."

When he was 20, Pierson switched to the electric guitar and began a decade of lessons. In midlife, his interest waned, but about 15 years ago, he retrieved a neglected Les Paul guitar and began cleaning it up. He pulled out his lesson books and began practicing again.

Pierson plays rhythm and lead guitar for a homegrown band that goes by his nickname, Slick Mickey. The fare is blues and jazz, classic and Southern rock. The three-member band performs about once a month, usually at local taverns and inns.

"He's passionate and very expressive," says Julie Stevenson, 49, Pierson's romantic partner who met him when she auditioned for a spot as singer and bass guitarist. "He's completely one with the instrument."

For Pierson, the essential thrill is "the endless quest for tone" and "the challenge of seeing how good I can get."

Pierson was once known for his shoulder-length mane. Now those locks have thinned, the consequence of chemotherapy. Two years ago, Pierson, who has survived two heart attacks, began "coughing like crazy." In his lung, behind his heart, doctors found an inoperable tumor about the size of a tennis ball.

Pierson has reduced his work from 60 to 30 hours a week. He spends more time savoring ordinary pleasures, such as watching birds feed in his backyard.

"I have fallen in love with him all over again," Stevenson says. "I have watched him grow spiritually. The chemo causes constant suffering, but you'd never know it. He's always cheerful, always positive."

His heart, always soft, is even more so.

"I definitely look at the world differently," he says. "I feel more compassionate toward people. Maybe that person is that way because they have some cross to bear."

On April 21, Pierson and Slick Mickey, along with other bands, will present "Music for Mercies," an evening of blues and jazz at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville to support Traveling Mercies, a charity that helps people around the world with such projects as water systems, vocational training, and sustainable farming.

"It's an opportunity to do something for somebody else," Pierson says. "Maybe it'll help some people."


 "Music for Mercies":


Information is available from the Colonial Theatre box office at 610-917-1228 or www.thecolonialtheatre.com. Tickets are $28.

Contact staff writer Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or acarey@phillynews.com.

See PIERSON on E3

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