Sarasota street musician Charles Canterbury mounts a “stairway to heaven” at 60.

Sarasota police say there was “no evidence of foul play” in the death of Charles Canterbury, found on the grass, unresponsive, in J.D. Hamel Park last Sunday after a 911 call from a nearby condo resident.

The medical examiner reported the 60-year-old’s body showed no signs of physical trauma, and ruled the longtime Sarasota street musician’s death the result of “natural causes” — alcoholism and heart disease.

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But Jacqueline Bevan thinks when Canterbury’s guitar was stolen a week and a half ago — the second instrument in the past month — he may simply have lost the will to go on.

“That’s all he wanted, he just wanted to play his music,” says Bevan, who met the musician through the homeless street ministry she operates with her husband, Raymond. “Having his guitar taken away again ... that would have been the last straw.”

If you’ve walked down Main Street during the past decade, past the cushioned sidewalk outside Evie’s Tavern he called “my spot,” you knew Canterbury, even if not well enough to call him Charles, Charlie, Chuck or Chucker, as others did.

Golden wavy hair that fell beneath his shoulders. Scruffy beard. An inscrutable, enigmatic stare. Head down, strumming or picking the strings of an instrument wedged between his crossed legs. Many people thought he looked like Robert Plant, the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, an idol Canterbury claimed to have met on the sidewalk patio of a Main Street restaurant years ago.

He didn’t seem exactly homeless. He never carried a sign or asked for money. He almost never spoke to passersby, unless he knew them well enough to ask them to spring for a bottle of wine. He wasn’t interested in anyone who wasn’t interested in his original music, which was all he liked to play.

And according to Bob Apostol, a drummer who met the West Virginia native in the ’80s — when Canterbury was married and living in a Bradenton condo with a baby girl and a grand piano in the living room — that music was good. Very good.

“He was a very talented guitar player, one of the best I ever heard,” Apostol said. “He didn’t consider himself homeless, he considered himself a music writer. And everybody knew him for that. He got busted for smoking a joint once and even the judge asked him about his music.”

The songs provided a beat that steadied Canterbury through mental health struggles, a marriage that ended after four years in divorce and a total estrangement from his parents after they put him in a mental health facility, where he rejected psychiatric drugs and a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

It was music that brought Tyler Kelly and Vincent Lombardi into Canterbury’s select circle of confidantes. Both men, some 25 years younger, met him on the streets of Sarasota 15 years ago. Kelly had just been “disfellowshipped” from the Jehovah’s Witnesses and “even my own mom wouldn’t talk to me.” Lombardi had lost his mother and was soon to lose his father as well.

The trio became “like a little lost family” Lombardi recalls, though he admits it took six months before Canterbury stopped ignoring him. They spent hours listening to this “creative whirlwind,” learning foundational guitar technique and theory, experimenting, jamming, composing. Even when they left Main Street to sit by the bay on what Canterbury called “The Bench of Questionable Circumstances,” the talk revolved around music.

“He never got tired of playing guitar, he’d play that thing all day and night,” recalled Kelly, who now lives near Boulder, Colorado, where Canterbury spent several months two years ago. “All he ever wanted was to be a rock star. He just wanted the world to hear his music.”

But Canterbury’s demons were as deflating as his musical talents were uplifting. In the end, they destroyed the only other thing he cared about besides his music — his on again/off again relationship with Madeline Egan, the woman he called Magdalena and for whom he wrote an entire CD.

When they met at a Siesta Key drum circle in 2002, Egan, besotted by the “beautiful light” of his aura, asked Canterbury to play some Eric Clapton for her.

“Eric Clapton!” he huffed. “I don’t play Eric Clapton. I play me.”

Very quickly, he became “the love of my life,” says the twice-married Egan. Canterbury moved into her north Sarasota home, helped with chores, tenderly cared for her cats (“He loved animals”) and rarely drank more than a glass or two of wine.

But inevitably, he would return downtown, to play for a perambulating audience that seldom acknowledged his efforts. And over the years, he gravitated from glass to bottle, and from wine to vodka.

When he returned from Colorado in the summer of last year, Canterbury was in poor health. Egan took him in and revived him, “but once he went back downtown, it started all over again.” She told him he couldn’t return until he was clean; he tried a recovery program, but quit when they suggested psychiatric medication.

Last November Lombardi decided his friend deserved a better instrument and solicited funds for a special 12-string Martin, engraved with the names and a loving message from 20 contributors. After a “No way!” and a laugh of disbelief in the video shot of the moment the Christmas gift was presented last December, Canterbury simply begins to play as if the instrument had always been in his hands, a subtle smile on his face.

Now Lombardi anguishes that the guitar may have sparked the beginning of the end. In late July, someone stole the Martin and beat up Canterbury, sending him to the hospital for what were deemed “alcohol-related” injuries. The guitar was later traced to a pawn shop, purchased for cash by an unsuspecting buyer.

Canterbury drowned the loss and continued a downward spiral. On Aug. 14, he called Egan and begged her to let him come home. She said he had to clean up his act first. They fought. It would be their last conversation.

“I feel so bad we ended that way,” she says. “Just to hear him play again would mean so much to me. ... But maybe he died a long time ago.”

About a week and a half ago, a replacement guitar was stolen, landing Canterbury briefly in the hospital again. But the day before he died, he was back downtown, looking gaunt, but recovered.

His 35-year-old daughter, Amber Canterbury, who has had limited contact with her father since her parents divorced when she was 6, learned of his death last week. Her early memories of her father are mostly of him playing the guitar.

“There was a worn spot on the carpet where he’d sit and play all day,” said Canterbury, a freelance photographer who has lived in California for a decade. “I loved my father but our relationship was difficult and complicated. Though he wasn’t always present, I believe he loved me as much as he was capable of.”

Bevan, who is helping organize a memorial, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 8, said the last time she saw Canterbury, she was alarmed by his appearance. “I knew if he didn’t get back with Magdalena or into recovery, he wouldn’t be around much longer.

“That’s all he wanted, those were the only things he loved,” she added. “If I could pinpoint a time when he was at his best, it was when he was out playing his music all day, but he knew he had someone who loved him to go back home to.”


Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at or 941-361-4834. Follow her on Twitter @CarrieSeidman and Facebook at