At an age when most people are well into retirement, pianist Charles Segal is even more inspired and passionate than ever.
Filled with a zealous enthusiasm for life and the music he produces, 88-year-old Charles is a man who has lived a great deal and shows no signs of stopping soon.
"You’re as old as you think you are," says Charles, who vibrantly lives as if he were in his early thirties.
A South African Grammy winner and composer of over 10,000 individual piano compositions who has collaborated with great names such as Tony Bennet, Duke Ellington Marilyn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra – Charles has come a long way from the small Lithuanian town he was born in during the late 1920s.
With a life so accomplished, many may wonder what events lead to his tremendous impact in the music industry, including his ultimate accomplishment of becoming the world’s Most recorded pianist.
His journey began when he was forced to flee from his home country as a child along with his mother, Riva, and brother Louis, to evade the terror of the Russian Bolsheviks and impending threat of Nazism.
Riva’s sister-in-law lived in Pretoria, South Africa, and she opted to emigrate there with her sons to safeguard their future. Charles' father had already gone ahead to establish a home for the family.
Throughout the journey, she braved through Nazi-centered nations like Poland and Germany, before finally arriving by boat to the arid jungle refuge of Africa.
Whilst on the ship Charles received his very first music lesson from a pianist who was also onboard.
Sitting on the pianist's lap, he sat staring, mesmerized by the black and white keys and the different harmonies they produced.
After being exposed once, the toddler was hooked, proceeded to play the piano every day until their ship docked in South Africa – earning the sobriquet “Pinta Musica” from his fellow passengers.
Having already witnessed more than their fair share of tragedy, the Segal family might have expected to find solace in their new home. But the adversity was far from over.
Charles and his brother found it difficult to adjust to their new environment, and were ridiculed by other children.
Finding his obsession early on in life, Charles began to nurse his innate musical talent. His mother, an experienced mandolin player, was one of his first introductions to the world of notes, pitches, and cadences.
However, he began to take the piano more seriously in his teens and as a young adolescent, he was eager to attract the attention of girls.
Luckily Charles had a cousin in South Africa, Simmy Yuter, who owned a music school and was more than happy to develop his talent.
Eventually, he earned diplomas in musical performance and began to teach piano. He had come to master the classical sheet music he had been given by an array of teachers, but found himself craving something more. Bursting with a need to create, the budding pianist began to compose his own melodies.
Charles was fortunate to be surrounded by a wealth of musical culture, growing up in a hub overflowing with rhythmic African beats that would later influence his unique artistic style.
Charles went on to play regularly, and the years 1953 to 1986 marked his peak – he made recordings, opened a music school, appeared on radio shows and was featured in the USA on Supreme Master Television.
Throughout that time, his talent and passion to create presented him with a number of opportunities that would have been beyond the dreams of the average musician.
Shortly afterwards, he met Marilyn Monroe, whom he ran into while she was eating breakfast with Shelley Winters at Child’s Restaurant in New York City.
Privileged to meet her just months before her death, Charles sat down and spoke with Marilyn for an hour.
Remembering that moment, he said: "She was one of the sweetest and most genuine people I have ever met."
By now, Charles had become a prolific performer and was enjoying the height of his success.
He arranged over 50 long-playing recordings for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and was frequently asked back by the network to play for several productions. He also wrote several songs that he dedicated to his adopted country and which incorporated elements of the South African culture in which he had been raised.
They included titles such as ‘Africa’, ‘Kwela, Kwela’, ‘Sy Kom Van Kommetjie’, ‘Kalkoenkie’ and ‘Hy-Ba-Ba-Rie-Bab’ - many were performed by African and Afrikaans singers.
One of the most defining moments of Charles’s career came in 1973, when his song ‘My Children, My Wife’ (co-written with Arthur Roos) was voted Song of the Year by South African audiences.
Presented with the respected SARI Award (equivalent to a Grammy Award) by Dr. Christiaan Barnard, renowned surgeon, who had performed the world's first heart transplant, he had now received one of music’s most honorable awards at the age of 44.
Charles did not limit himself after earning the SARI Award, in fact, he pushed himself even harder, driving his career, music, and potential all the way to the top.
Decades later, after practicing three hours a day for three-quarters of a century, the professional had racked up over 15,000 recorded tracks, debuted at hundreds of concerts, and had become a resident pianist at the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes gifting lounges; ingraining himself into the Hollywood scene.
But the seasoned musician was determined that the legacy of his work should amount to something greater – so, in 2016 he applied for a Guinness World Records title, aiming to become the Most recorded pianist in history.
Discovering that he had indeed achieved a new Guinness World Records title, at the age of 88, proved to be a bittersweet moment for Charles: just before he received the news of his iconic record, he was diagnosed with a severe health problem.
Despite the hardship he currently faces, he admits the global recognition of a world record has sparked an inner strength that has helped him to persevere the excruciating symptoms of his illness.
In fact, having been informed about both his ailment and his newly awarded record title in the same week, Charles opted to continue producing the music that earned him world-class recognition rather than succumb to the illness.
He arranged to meet up with twenty-somethings David Keiffer and Joe Griffith from British pop group, Life of Dillon, to collaborate and compose more music.
After a few hours in the studio, he forgot his pain almost instantly. "Hey, I lose my pain when I’m with you!" he announced to the group, which prompted Keiffer and Griffith to continually polish a song with the experienced pianist for the next few hours until it became a sensational track.
"And suddenly there was born a song collaboration between young and old. It was about the battle we all face with one pain or another, either physical or emotional," said Joe.
Since that time, Charles has revealed no signs of halting his impact in the music industry, as he now oversees a music school in South Africa to encourage students in the area to lose themselves in the world of the piano. He also spends days coaching aspiring artsits and producers in his Los Angeles studio, motivating them to overcome their problems by way of music.
The pianist has made it clear he has much more to accomplish in his lifetime, including more records.
Of the countless honours he has received in his life, he believes that having a Guinness World Records title is one of the most exceptional, as it represents being recognised on a global stage.