Living Beyond the Scars
Joe Bates’ song of success
Photography by Robert Clark
Joe Bates belts out lyrics of classic rock songs in a deep voice as he strums vigorously the guitar strings and applies pressure for the chords. His longish bangs drape over one eye and he closes his eyes, feeling the music. This 51-year-old exudes confidence and spirit — despite having no fingers and a body swathed in scars.
Joe does not remember the explosion on a Saturday morning in October 1980 that forever changed the course of his life. He was 13. He spent that morning like many ‘80s kids his age did on Saturday, watching cartoons and being silly with his friend, Kevin Silvers, who liked the same things: music, art, and Star Wars. After cartoons, Joe decided to help his friend with chores. At the very instant he carried the lawnmower’s gas can into the utility room, the hot water heater’s pilot light came on and ignited the gas. The fire bomb engulfed him and the room. Although Kevin had the bravery to run in and rescue his friend as well as the presence of mind to spray him with a fire extinguisher, burns covered 90 percent of Joe’s body. Doctors expressed to his parents, Ruth and Keith Bates, that their son had little chance of survival. Within hours of the accident, Joe was transferred from Union, South Carolina, to Shriner’s Burn Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he spent nine months.
For a while, he was averaging two to three surgeries a week for skin grafts and says he stopped counting after 100. “Let’s just say it was not a fun time in my life. I learned relaxation therapy. The staff was trained to help keep my mind busy on other things. They brought a stereo into the ICU and played my favorite albums and danced around the room with scrubs on while they did my dressing changes. Music was a vital part of getting me through the worst days of my life,” Joe says.
Surgeries continued for nine years after he was released from Shriner’s. He describes the pain as constant and severe. After three years in a wheelchair, Joe, as a 16-year-old teenager, had to relearn how to walk. He underwent reconstructive surgery at Shiner’s Hospital in Greenville.
A turning point in his life came when he looked in the mirror and did not recognize his new reflection. He could either choose a life of solitude and despair or one filled with life and hope. Joe chose the latter. He realized right then that there was more to him than the image in the mirror.
Joe admits that the most difficult adjustment was amputation of his fingers. As infection from the burns developed, they could not be saved. Joe was not only faced with figuring out how to accomplish everyday tasks, but also the reality that his musical passion — the guitar — might be over. His childhood dream was to be a professional guitarist.
“I fell in love with music as a toddler. I can remember often being at my Aunt Joan’s house, and she had these big speakers with amazing music always flowing. All I thought about was playing in a band on a big stage with big speakers, lots of flashing lights, in front of a sea of cheering fans.”
He enthusiastically recalls, “I found my first guitar under the Christmas tree at age 11, and I was hooked. It was an Encore electric guitar with an Alamo Challenger amplifier. I didn’t know a single note, much less a chord, but it felt perfect hanging around my neck and gripped in my hands. My mother’s coworker, Johnny Biggerstaff, gave me my first guitar lessons and first recital, where I performed The Spanish Cantata and Mr. Bojangles."
However, Joe’s boyhood dream halted, at least temporarily, after his tragic accident. When he returned home after the long hospital stay, he faced years of complications, reconstructive surgeries, and rehabilitation. “I was bitter and depressed about not being able to play my guitar because everybody knows you need ‘fingers’ to play guitar. One day my younger brother, Jeff, pulled my old Encore guitar from the closet and starts noodling around and asking me how to make certain chords. I tried to explain to him where to position his fingers, how to hold the pick, and how to strike the strings. After his clumsy efforts he sat the guitar in my lap and said, ‘Show me.’ I pressed my left-hand nub down onto the fret board and felt the strings cut into me. Jeff helped work the pick into my right hand where I had enough thumb to get a good pinch. I started hammering on the notes that I remembered, and my brother said, ‘You’re playing guitar … you don’t need fingers to play guitar.’”
At that moment, Joe says a feeling came over him that is difficult to put into words. “I guess I felt I had a purpose.”
Enter instructor Robert Arthur, who had a music degree from the University of South Carolina. He decided to take on Joe as a music student, who was then 16 and three years into his recovery from the accident. “He evaluated how I wrestled to play the guitar lying in my lap and how I was unable to stretch fingers across the frets. He picked up my guitar, tuned it in open E, and gave it back to me.”
Joe explains, “The open E tuning allowed me to make a whole chord using one fret of the guitar. This tuning is popular with blues players who often use a finger slide to move up and down the neck of the guitar for a distinct bluesy sound. That catapulted me into a world of guitar I never knew existed and changed my life forever. This changed how I approached playing guitar and gave me my own unique style and sound. Sometimes I make up my own tunings.”
His tenaciousness was evident in bloodied fingers from hours of practice.
Joe performs with Bombshell at the 2014 “SOS BASH” on July 31 “Joe Bates Day” to raise money for Shriner’s Hospital for Children. Photography by Billy Liner.
Joe not only became proficient at the guitar, but he eventually joined a band, Bombshell, as a guitarist and singer. The band soared on the local music scene. Joe performed with them for five years and now calls himself a “fan and supporter.” His focus is currently on recordings and performances for another music project, Shot of Love, which includes Union friends Todd McGowan and Chad Russell. Shot of Love plans this winter to release a collection of original songs, and Joe says a launch party will be announced.
Joe credits guitar with not only giving him purpose, but leading him to his wife, Erin, also with Shot of Love. “I first saw her at Musician Supply, where I worked in the late ‘90s. She walked in one day and pulled an acoustic guitar off the showroom wall and started playing and singing off to herself. I was instantly caught in her gravity. We greeted, and I quickly pulled another guitar from the wall, and we started playing music together. ‘Wow, she really can sing and play, and she’s so pretty,’ I thought. But I found out she was dating a coworker/friend, and that was the end of that, until a year later.”
Erin remembers seeing past his scars to his confidence, or what she calls his “okayness.” She says, “I think all of us go through things in life that leave us with scars ... most of us wear these scars on the inside and frankly would never be able to walk around confidently with those scars exposed.”
They married in 2000. He calls Erin his soul mate. She shares, “Joe is an outward reminder to me and to so many others that it is possible to overcome, to say, ‘You know what, yeah, I’ve been through this horrible thing, and I didn’t let it stop me. I didn’t let it make me insecure. I didn’t let it define who I am. I didn’t let it steal my joy. I didn’t let it steal my talents.’ That is what I think is beautiful about my husband.”
They have two teenage children, Luke and Josie, who both take after their parents. Josie plays piano, guitar, and ukulele. She also sings and writes her own songs. Joe says of his daughter, “I love her personality and spirit about life. She reminds me of me as an early teen … young and free.” Luke plays guitar, bass, drums, and sings. “He is currently in a band project with his friends from high school,” says Joe. “I see him working hard at each instrument and trying to find his way. Both are way ahead of me when I was their age. They impress me somehow every day. I like being their dad.”
Joe’s other “children” are his guitars. He speaks of them fondly. “I mainly perform and record with my Aria Pro II / Les Paul, tobacco sunburst, electric guitar. I love to play and write songs on my wife’s Epiphone acoustic that was given to her by her father. I cherish both guitars. I relearned how to play guitar, after my accident, with my Aria Pro II. Also, it was the first guitar I bought with my own money. I have performed on countless stages all over the Southeast and have written most of my songs with that guitar. It has been with me since 1983. I love Erin’s acoustic because it has been in our household for 18 years, and we have all written songs with it. I have another Les Paul style electric, Hammer electric, and a classical acoustic.”
Joe and Erin with their two children, Luke and Josie, in 2016.
Besides a significant side career as a guitarist and singer, Joe is successful as a lighting and events designer for Ambient Media. In 2009, he and Rufus Carson realized event lighting and staging for events and weddings was lacking in Columbia. “We had worked together, in previous years, for other sound and lighting companies, doing big live stages and sound system installations. We have always been like minded when it comes to business and work ethic.” Joe says it is the “best job ever” to help set the stage for the special events in people’s lives.
Joe says he cannot lament the accident that altered his life because it led him to his wife. “I can’t be angry about that,” he says. Erin responds, “I know that God made him for me … and vice versa. He is my hero, and I draw from his strength every day.”
He acknowledges that, despite what the fire did to his body and early on doubting how anyone could care for him, he has been loved abundantly. “I’m grateful for a good mother who believed in me enough for me to believe in myself. She helped me overcome the major obstacles and take out the head trash.”
Joe says his mother, who worked in a cotton mill, also taught him he could accomplish whatever he set his mind to. And his father, who also worked in a cotton mill, instilled in him a strong work ethic.
In the face of ongoing physical challenges, such as having a mild stroke this past fall and learning to maneuver a new prosthesis fitted for him due to a below-the-right-knee amputation, Joe focuses relentlessly on entertaining and inspiring. He says that if those who watch him play the guitar are encouraged to pursue what they love, he feels a greater purpose in his surviving the blast 38 years ago. Sometimes after a performance, a young person will inevitably ask, “How do you play guitar without fingers?” Joe responds, “I usually tell them I wanted to play bad enough, so I figured it out.”
Another positive is that his life has gained him recognition in Union as a local hero of sorts. He was overwhelmed when, upon returning home after those initial excruciating months in the hospital following the blast, the whole town was at the airport to welcome him home. “There were lots of people cheering and applauding. Some were holding signs that said, ‘Welcome Home, Joe.’ I was escorted by EMS, Union Police, and Union Fire Department to my home. There was a parade of cars from the townspeople that followed.”
Even though he relocated to Columbia, the people of Union did not forget him. Erin decided to capitalize on her husband’s local fame in the summer of 2010 to organize a live music fundraiser event on the designated July 31 Joe Bates Day. Lifelong friend “Mama” Jo O’Shields tirelessly assisted.
“The event began with an all-day festival with food, games, and live music. Our main purpose was to raise money and awareness for the Shriner’s Hospital for Children, which operates on donations. SHC provides free quality medical care for children in need regardless of their ability to pay. We did this for five straight years and managed to raise more than $50,000 that was given directly to the Greenville Shriner’s Hospital for Children.”
He has also been a board member with Able SC for two years.
Joe is thankful music affords him an opportunity to give back. It is the music, he says, that was, is, and will always be a main theme of his story.