Text and Photos by Sarah E. Murphy
Jeff should be turning 50 today.
I know there’s a raucous party going on in Heaven, but selfishly, I think he should be here with us, ringing in his milestone birthday with a guitar solo, while his On The Rocks groupies raise our glasses during Friday Night “6 to 9 Action” at Grumpy’s.
It’s surreal to write about him in the past tense.
I’ll never forget catching his eye as he and Tricia waited in line at my dad’s crowded wake in October 2015. It was Columbus Day Weekend, when most people have holiday plans, and it moved me to even more tears that they had taken the time out of their busy lives to pay respects to our family.
Jeff enveloped me in a hug, unafraid of my raw grief.
“We’re so sorry for your loss, dear,” he whispered in his slight accent – “dee-yah.”
He always called me that, and it was one of the things that made him an old soul to me, a throwback to his Portuguese ancestors.
I can’t remember the first time I met Jeff; I just remember always knowing him. He was two years ahead of me, in my brother’s class, so it must have been when I got to high school in 1986. My husband, Chris, had already befriended Jeff by that time, when he was about 17 and Jeff was 14, spending hours in the Souzas’ basement on Acapesket Road, playing covers of their favorites by AC/DC and Black Sabbath. During that time, Chris was lucky enough to witness the musical chemistry between Jeff and his dad, a legendary jazz guitarist.
Falmouth’s Shellfish Warden by day, George Souza’s musical resume ranged from radio commercials to a stint in the Dorsey Brothers to his regular gig in the Frank Smoller Trio at The Flying Bridge, where the band recorded a live album. Mr. Souza was the first person Chris ever saw master two-handed rhythm and lead, and he did it effortlessly.
Chris would later come to know Jeff as a generous boss, when he worked for his friend at JD Souza Landscape Company. Because family always came first, one of Jeff’s most important accounts was his aunt, who lived near Falmouth Harbor. Eventually all the guys adopted Jeff’s name for her, referring to her in the same endearing way he did as simply “Auntie Carmen.” Chris and I still laugh about that to this day.
I always knew Jeff for his sharp observational wit, but I would later get to know him on a more emotional level, through my work as a reporter. I first interviewed him and his brother, Greg, in August of 2016, in the basement of the home he shared with Tricia, the walls decorated with a rainbow array of rare guitars. The article was to promote their upcoming “Souzapalooza” Charity Music Festival, with proceeds being split between the Fresh Pond Holy Ghost Society and local nonprofit Wings For Falmouth Families.
Jeff’s ancestors emigrated from Sao Miguel in 1907, and his Portuguese heritage was always a source of great pride. George Souza’s godfather built the original stone arches in front of the Holy Ghost hall, and years later, whenever it or the nearby St. Anthony’s Club needed to stage a fundraiser, Mr. Souza would assemble a group of musicians to play. Jeff was dedicated to keeping those contributions alive, and he believed the clubs represented an exceedingly rare connection to the Old World and simpler times.
“It’s a place you can go and have a three-dollar bowl of soup and see your cousins,” he said.
Jeff was candid about how much he missed both of his parents, and the many aunts, uncles, and other beloved relatives who had gone before him, much too soon. I could relate in a sense. As the one-year anniversary of my dad’s death approached, I was definitely struggling, and everything was a reminder – the hazy sun sitting high in the late summer sky, the melancholy quiet of approaching fall, the terrifying feeling that life goes on amid staggering loss.
Later that night, we shared some texts, as I had to follow-up with some fact-checking, such as clarifying the significance of the On the Rocks Teaticket Tour despite the fact the Souzas hail from East Falmouth. Any self-respecting townie reporter, especially one who’s married to a guy from Perch Pond Circle, knows never to confuse the two.
We continued our existential conversation, and I appreciated the chance to be vulnerable about the grief that was hovering just below the surface, waiting to pounce as the calendar turned to September. Not only did he understand, he wasn’t afraid to talk about it.
Seven months later, Greg sent us a message saying Jeff had been diagnosed with colon cancer.
Music provided a temporary but invigorating panacea for Jeff, and a chance to showcase the profound musical gift that flowed from within. Watching Jeff with his older brother, Greg, his cousin David Smoller, and his musical brother, Charles Williamson gave me (and countless others) more joy than I could ever articulate. On The Rocks was another avenue for Jeff to celebrate his roots, in many ways a revival of The Frank Smoller Trio, featuring Jeff and Greg’s dad, and Dave’s grandfather, and I could almost picture them watching in the wings with pride.
Jeff’s energy level was a thing to behold. He performed through it all, while recovering from surgeries and chemotherapy, even on nights he was especially tired and had to play while sitting down. Tricia’s calming nature was ever present, despite all that she was quietly dealing with herself.
I’m sure people wondered why I spent the shows wandering the crowd taking so many photos and videos. Deep down, I was afraid we were privy to something special and fleeting. Looking back, I wonder if Jeff always knew his time was limited, therefore he wanted to make the most of it. He’d flash that contagious smile, hamming it up for the camera, texting me the next morning. “Get any good pics?” I finally set up a Google folder for him because I took so many, and he wasn’t a social media kind of guy.
Jeff’s cancer was in remission in August of 2018, when I interviewed the brothers again for the upcoming Souzapalooza. Proceeds would help defray medical expenses for their nine-year-old great-niece, Madeline, who was battling non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the time. They raffled off a custom built guitar to raise even more funds – a turquoise Stratocaster with high-end components thoughtfully selected by Jeff and constructed by Bay Fretted Instrument & Repair Shop in Marstons Mills.
Thankfully, today, Madeline is thriving.
During that interview, Jeff was more focused on his niece’s prognosis than his own. He never once complained about his situation; instead he expressed gratitude for his immense support system, his family and bandmates – Greg, who was there every step of the way, for treatments in Boston and Falmouth – and the people he entrusted to run his company – Tricia, his partner in life and work, her son, Chad Enos, and his longtime employee, and oldest friend, Tim Simpson.
Born two days apart, their friendship began in the Falmouth Hospital maternity ward in 1970, and Jeff would quickly become an honorary Simpson.
Chris and Jeff got the chance to relive their youth during Jeff’s final year. Jeff had about twenty original songs for which he wanted Chris to write vocals, with plans to eventually record. My husband, who barely checks his email, was suddenly texting with Jeff like a teenage girl, laughing over long forgotten private jokes. He’d come home late at night, happy and inspired after once again playing in Jeff’s basement.
I texted Jeff on May 15, a Friday, to tell him I put another video in the folder, fearing it might be goodbye. Afraid to say it, or some variation, but more afraid not to.
“We love you,” was the last message I received from Jeff. Four days later, he was gone.
In a pre Covid world, Jeff’s childhood parish would have been packed, but due to restrictions, space was limited. As we exited the church on a flawlessly sunny Friday night, we joined the masked mourners gathering around the Souza family plot. I was overcome by the deafening silence – no screaming guitar or boisterous laughter. No 6 to 9 Action.
I’ve visited Jeff a few times since that night, once recently when picking up takeout from Golden Sails, and I could so easily imagine him sitting at the bar holding court. I think of him always, when I cross the Green Pond bridge, when I pass the house that was Auntie Carmen’s, and when I hear Billy Idol, Tom Petty, The Cult…
Words he once texted offering comfort once again ring painfully true.
“The more we love them, the more we miss them,” he wrote.
You can say that again, my friend.
If you’d like to honor Jeff, you can make a donation to: Fresh Pond Holy Ghost Society, Attn: Souzapalooza Charity Music Festival, PO Box 2204, Teaticket, MA 02536. Follow Souzapalooza on Facebook for more information.