Velvet Sam serenades Duluth, 1980

Dec. 28, 1980

Michael Aguirre, alias Velvet Sam, performs a song-gram for Tom Pratchios (left) as Scott Campbell watches on Dec. 18, 1980. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

This music man turns songs into gifts

By Ann Glumac, News-Tribune staff

Guitar slung over his shoulder, music stand in hand, Velvet Sam heralded his arrival at Natchio’s Restaurant in Duluth by shouting for the owner: “Is there a Mr. Tom Pratchios in the house?”

Pratchios smiled as Sam — alias Michael Aguirre — set up the music stand before him. He laughed as Sam began singing the personalized song-gram chronicling — humorously — Pratchios’ life story. He was laughing, crying and kissing friends when Sam ended the song.

Pratchios’ friends ordered the “Unforgettable Gift Delivered Anywhere” from Velvet Sam’s Song-Grams, an enterprise begun a month ago by Aguirre, 27, and his wife Kitty, 22, of 17 W. Oxford St., Duluth. They have since delivered about 10 song-grams for $21.50 each, plus mileage.

Practhios’ reaction isn’t unusual, Sam said. “People just sit there in awe. It’s such a surprise. All of a sudden, their past is being revealed to all those people, but it’s a happy embarrassment.”

Song-grams can be written for any occasion — birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, thank-yous and I-love-yous, Sam said. The recipient of the song-gram receives a copy of the lyrics, also.

When a prospective sender calls, Kitty Aguirre said, they sell themselves as well as the song-grams. “We get the people into it and get information out of them,” she said. “We really dig to get neat things, but they’re all meant with love.”

The recipient’s history becomes the subject of the four- to five-verse song Sam takes about two hours to write. “The songs have a country flair because country music is fun, jumpy music,” Sam said. He forms a mental image of the person before he writes, picturing what the person looks like and even what kind of clothes the person wears.

Velvet Sam does his thing at a birthday party for Tammi Marshall at Duluth’s Town Crier Restaurant on Feb. 11, 1985. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)

A song-gram delivered to a UMD medical student during a lecture detailed the student’s habit of eating in his sleep — information provided by the student’s wife. Pratchios’ message included incidents from his military career.

Many of the songs contain “connotative adult humor,” which Sam said he grew to appreciate while writing comical songs for a Los Angeles television show.

“A lot of people have been helping us,” Kitty said, including an artist friend who designed the logo for the song paper. “They wanted to make sure we weren’t just talking. They wanted to see it happen in Duluth.”

“We have so much fun with it,” Kitty said. “I like the laughing while writing the songs and the anticipation because you know it’s a good song.”

Sam likes the reactions. After several years of playing original music in nightclubs with smatterings of applause, he enjoys being the center of attention, even if it’s only for five minutes.

“This is like a five-minute concert and you get a standing ovation every time,” Sam said. “You feel like you wrote a Top 10 song in the country. You have the number one song in that room at that moment. You leave, and you can still hear the people laughing.”

Sam’s wardrobe includes a tuxedo, a messenger’s uniform, and his cowboy outfit. He’s hoping to make enough money to buy an array of costumes to fit any occasion.

The customer chooses the costume. But, Kitty said, he or she must choose some costume — “Sam won’t strip.”

Sam won’t sing a nasty song-gram, either, he said. “I wouldn’t want to insult anybody or hurt anybody’s feelings. These are all sent with love.”

He’ll travel long distances to deliver the song-grams, although the customer must pay mileage costs. Long-distance song-grams are also offered at a lower rate, with the customer paying the telephone costs.

—-

Michael Aguirre continued to perform as Velvet Sam in Duluth through at least the mid-1980s. He’s the father of pro snowboarders Mason and Molly Aguirre. The family moved from Duluth to California in 2001.

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6 thoughts on “Velvet Sam serenades Duluth, 1980

  1. Velvet Sam,

    The second picture was actually in the Town Crier restaurant that was located in the Greysolon Plaza. (Where I had worked!). I still have the song and will try to find the box it is in and send to you! What great fun!!! Tammi

  2. Years ago, young Velvet Sam did my Mom’s surprise song at her 65th birthday party.It was awesome, when he came down the street (outside party with about 100 people). She said, “look, here comes a band director with a guitar!”. It was wonderful and several years later, I had him go over to the Shack in Superior to serenade my boyfriend, Dick, at his 50th birthday party. Velvet Sam brought the house down. What awesome memories, thank God we still have the tapes.

  3. Ha, what a trip. A friend of mine in Duluth, Mona Knutson, sent this me today. I remember these articles and have them in my scrapbook. But I didn’t know what this was that she sent to me so I called her and and she told me it was in the Duluth paper today. What a trip. I had such a blast back in those days. The top picture was the 2nd song-gram I ever did. I did it for Tom Pratchos at his restaurant, Natchos, that was on 2nd Ave West at the time. The other pic was taken at The Pickwick probably the same year. At one time, I had a copy of every song I had written from 1980 to 1993, that I had stored in several boxes. But over the years, I somehow lost them. I would love to get a copy of someone’s song-gram if they still have it, so I could re-create the artwork. I live in Oceanside, CA. now and would love to hear from anyone who might of hired me back then OR who had to sit in the hot seat. My email is: remodel@hushmail.com
    Love to you all,
    Velvet Sam

  4. That picture was MY surprise birthday party!!! OMG! I still have the song he wrote (with help from friends!). It was great fun!

  5. I received a Velvet Sam Gram during my Bachelorette party, 26 years ago. We still pull it out and get a good laugh! He was great!

  6. Velvet Sam sang for my husband’s surprise 50th birthday party. It was hilarious and the song he wrote was right on. Just like the article said, everyone stood around looking puzzled at first, and you could see the light bulbs coming on as people realized what was going on, especially the guest of honor! Sure made a good party even better.

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