Kevin Cole is one of those rare breed of musicians & artists who – thanks to a combination of innate talent & disciplined determination - managed to break out of the tri-cities and achieve international acclaim. Born and raised in Bay City, three decades ago Cole rose to the top of penthouse of the East Coast Classical circuit with his impeccable talent and uncanny ability to 'channel' George Gershwin on the piano, and through the ensuing years has sold out performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, the London Philharmonic, and the BBC Concert Orchestra, to name but a few.
An award winning musical director, arranger, composer, and archivist, Cole has also garnered the praises of such legendary icons as Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, E.Y Harburg, and Stephen Sondheim, and just recently finished a stint as Musical Director for Bay City Players’ sellout production of Always, Patsy Cline.
So what’s next on Kevin’s musical agenda?
Rather than jetting off to Paris (the City of Romance) this Valentine’s Day for an exclusive engagement at Maxims, Cole has decided instead to adopt a different musical platform – one based in his own hometown, for an extremely rare appearance at Chet’s Corner Bar, located at 1001 S. Madison.
‘Chet’s Sing-a-Long Valentine’s Party will take place from 3 PM and roll until 2 AM, with Kevin mounting the ivories for an 11-hour stint playing your favorite love songs, which patrons can in turn sing their collective hearts out to - some voices filled with joy, others with heartache, with the goal being a hopeful harmony of balance.
According to Kevin, the genesis of this special engagement began when he first visited Chets in March, 2014; and had the pleasure of meeting new proprietors Matt & Amber Czerwinski. “I sat at the bar, got a drink, checked the place out; and the guy behind the bar introduced himself as the proprietor; which I thought was unusual, as it’s pretty ‘old school’ for a proprietor to actually be on site. I observed how he took care of customers; and admired how he could take care of any customer that appeared to become unruly – and I thought to myself this guy really knows what he’s doing.”
“After that I would stop there from time-to-time whenever I was back in town, “ continues Kevin, “and one day I told him to get an old upright beat-up piano and I would pull together a sing-a-long,” continues Kevin. “He didn’t know who I was, but I remember back in the day the Rathskeller would do these sing-a-longs, with people throwing peanuts on the floor. So I told him that I think people miss that around here and we should try something.”
The result was a December 20th performance that Cole conducted as a ‘Sing-a-long Christmas Party’, where he brought in an 88-weighted keyboard, brought along WHNN’s Randy Howell to stage a Trivia Contest, and Kevin tickled those mighty 88s for a jam-packed evening of holiday cheer. “Everyone remarked at the wide age group of people attracted to me; and there were many people who had never been into Chet’s before. I got there early and already people were sitting at tables and the place never got light. In fact, people couldn’t get in and there was no place to park, so it was a huge success.”
For Cole the greatest thing that happened that day was the sense of community that resulted. “Matt said he’d never seen so many different people have such a good time, all on the same wavelength – singing, drinking, no mishaps, no bad apples – and at the end of it, I had a really great feeling,” he reflects. “At that point I said: ‘When’s Valentine’s Day this year? Because we’re doing it again! I like Matt & Amber and want to see them succeed in their third year of business.”
For the Valentine’s Day Sing-a-Long, Kevin says he’s got countless hours of love songs pulled together along with a songbook of lyrics that will be passed out to patrons. “We have some funny songs, some sad ones, some famous ones, so it should be a lot of fun. And if this goes well, we’ll do another one for St. Patrick’s Day on March 12th with Irish Drinking songs.”
With anywhere from 60 to 100 songs he will be performing, Kevin says the itinerary usually begins with a few sing-a-long numbers, after which he’ll do about four to five solo numbers. Between his breaks, Howell stages a Trivia Contest. “I usually do about 5 sets between 3 pm and 2 am,” laughs Kevin. “
So what’s it like playing at Chet’s as opposed to The Hollywood Bowl?
“I’m still making music and getting people to reach with music in a positive way, so I really don’t distinguish between the two,” states Kevin. “The first bar I played at was when I was twelve at the old ‘Le Chateau’ on River Road between James Clemens and the KC Hall. It was falling on rough times at that point in the 1970s and when I walked in there it had this old beat up lime green upright painted piano. All the action was painted day-glo orange and they had a black light in there with thumbtacks on the levers, so it had a honky-tonk sound. My dad got to drink all the beer he wanted and I played from 6 pm to 12:30 am and got a total of $22.00. A few months later it burned to the ground.”
“People say why aren’t you playing at Mulligans or someplace downtown,” notes Kevin, “but Chet’s is six blocks form where I grew up and it reminds me of some of the really good pubs that I visited in England. It’s like a hub in the community where you can catch up on news, play trivia, play shuffleboard – it has that really good English pub feel, and I didn’t expect that.”
Still, aren’t five sets a lot to tackle – even for a concert pianist of Cole’s stature? “Oh hell,” he laughs, “I’m the energizer bunny. As long as the brain stays sharp my body is okay. I’ve cut my concert schedule back a little, as my Mom has been ill, but is doing great now; so half the month I’m in Chicago and half the time I’m here. I’ll be starting the touring up this summer again, plus I have this Marvin Hamlisch multi-media symphonic evening that I am putting together with his estate, so I want to do these types of shows at Chet’s now, while I can.”
“Selling out two nights at The Hollywood Bowl and selling out Chet’s really aren’t that different,” concludes Kevin. “I’m just doing what I do and it doesn’t matter the size of the audience as long as people are enjoying it and you get as energized and as fed as they do from it. It’s not just about me pushing it out there, because I get something back from the people I entertain. We need more of that. The great thing about a sing-a-long is that it doesn’t matter if you have a good voice or not.
“Plus, if people have a particular song they would to hear me play, they should bring the music!”
16th November, 2023