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Everybody, even those high-up executives from the C-Suite, can’t help but tap their foot when they hear the intro to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” And if that exec knows how to play an instrument, well, there’s a good chance there’s going to be some air guitar or air drums being played on the desk, right between the company laptop and the rough draft of the annual report.
About seven years ago, Kevin Canafax, vice president of public affairs at Fidelity Investments in Covington, and John Domaschko, a former certified public account who now sits on many community and corporate boards, thought about putting together a rock band made up of corporate types like themselves.
“We looked for people who were suits by day and rockers by night,” Canafax says. “And we would bring them together for a jam for one night, charge admission and give the money to charity. That was the kernel of the idea.”
Little did they know what a success the newly formed band, Suits That Rock, would be. The group’s first show, in 2008, consisted of about 20 band members. Suddenly, as corporate musicians heard about the opportunity, they approached Canafax about signing on. The number of acts and the length of the show expanded. This past summer, the group performed two sold-out shows with a band made up of 44 members.
Canafax says the appeal of the whole concept is the shock value. The audience sees attorneys, doctors and politicians in a completely different realm. And the more high-profile, the better.
“What we thought was a lark turned out to be lightning in a bottle,” Canafax says.
Founding partner Domaschko, who plays bass guitar and sings, says there are advantages for everyone involved. The performances take place at The Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center in Covington, and proceeds support the children’s arts education programs there.
“Obviously, there are financial rewards for The Carnegie, but it is a near-religious experience for the musician who wants to play rock music again,” Domaschko says. “Plus, the audience gets to see onstage rockers they know in another context, while recapturing a bit of their youth by dancing in the aisles.”
The beauty of the show each year is how it varies by performer and song. Domaschko says he has played bass on songs ranging from The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” to “Cross Eyed Mary” by Jethro Tull and “I Feel Good” by James Brown. And he can’t resist singing lead vocals on an all-time favorite of his: Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.”
“Our audience and the other members of Suits That Rock have been very kind in their tolerance of such self-indulgence,” Domaschko says.
A few years ago, the group approached well-known Cincinnati DJ Ernie “The Fatman” Brown to emcee the event, which typically takes place in June. Now, Brown looks forward to it every year.
“I try to piece everything together between songs to fill the voids as the musicians and equipment are rearranged,” he says. “It is such a privilege for me to see these corporate execs, who are some of the best musicians in town, loosen their ties and have some fun, all for a good cause.”
The set list is compiled after the Suits, as Canafax calls them, come forward with a baseline of what they can do and play. In most cases, their act is a continuation of what they already know—not starting from scratch. Someone who has the lyrics down to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” is matched with a team that has the instrumental part down. They practice together throughout the year to perfect their act, and then all the groups come together to practice as the performance date nears.
In her fifth year as a Suit, Sheila Baker is on vocals. In her day job at First Title Agency, she crosses paths with other Suits and feels the connection.
“We’ve become like a family,” she says. “We support each other when we perform, but it is also a networking event that crosses over into our professional lives.”
Sheila says the logistics are a bit mind-boggling.
“It is hard to believe we can pull this off every year, bringing 40 busy professionals together for practices and performances,” she says. “To see it all come together, it is kind of like magic.”
This year’s concerts netted approximately $110,000, bringing the eight-year total to more than $500,000 for The Carnegie’s art programs.
Katie Brass, executive director of The Carnegie, says that thanks to the Suits, the visual and performing arts center has nearly doubled its operating budget, which in 2014, enabled it to serve about 51,000 children between the ages of 7 and 14. By comparison, when the shows started in 2008, The Carnegie was reaching roughly 7,000 children per year.
The Carnegie offers on-site after-school programs, summer camps and an outreach program that takes it into the schools for both in-class and after-school programs. All programs are free or offered at reduced rates.
“Our goal is never about the finished product,” Brass says. “We focus on building creative little minds, as well as self-confidence and self-esteem.”
Naturally, everyone at The Carnegie is happy with the partnership, but Brass says that this fun factor is what makes the event unique.
“This is a rock concert, not just a hired band,” she says. “These people are attorneys and vice presidents during the day and rehearsing musicians each night. They take it very seriously.”