HE’S STILL STANDING…KENNY METCALF AS ELTON By Sandra Castillo
The air is electric-blue, crackling with much anticipation for the one who will soon take center stage, under the white-hot spotlight, to join the band for an evening loaded with some of the greatest music of the last century. He emerges from backstage, a spectacle adorned from head-to-toe in resplendent accoutrement and dazzling rhinestone eyewear befitting of Rock and Roll Royalty.
As soon as he sits down at the baby grand and assaults the keys, all 88 of them, thunderous applause breaks out from the audience. When he launches torpedoes into the song, the familiar sonic boom of yesteryear that suddenly rushes back to life, all are cast under his spell the moment he charges into the frenzied opening of “Pinball Wizard.” From where it came, and to where and what it is now, in the hands of the man recognized as one of the world’s greatest Elton John impresarios, this special night belongs to the extraordinary Kenny Metcalf.
Years before Metcalf ever carved out a successful career performing the British superstar’s anthology of hits throughout California, Arizona and beyond, he performed with the Heavy Metal Christian band Stryper, one of the most popular musical acts from the 1980’s, until he left the group to concentrate on his family and raising his two, young daughters with his wife.
RG Magazine recently spoke with Metcalf to get the lowdown on an incredible career inspired by the man he celebrates in concert with his own unique, dazzling brand of showmanship as “Kenny Metcalf as Elton.” Here is what he shared with the publication.
It was noted in an article online that you saw The Beatles on TV and chose to play the drums afterwards.
True. The guitar seems to be an instrument that would take longer to learn, and drums seemed to be instant gratification. So, I started playing drums at age six.
Someone at your school, a guy by the name of Marty Adams, started playing “Benny and The Jets” on the piano, as several females gathered around him. Was that the moment you decided to play piano?
Yes, I turned to my good friend, Michael Ferlita, in the Drama room and said, ‘I’ve never had that effect on a girl while playing drums,’ because you can’t serenade a girl over a drum set.
Did the transition from playing drums to playing piano come naturally for you?
I took lessons for drums. I learned to read drum music. I played drums until my freshman year, but when Marty got all those girls to sing with him, that was it! I changed directions and went home and taught myself to play piano by ear. My mother had bought herself an upright piano, and I would go home after school sometimes to practice it, while Michael was always bringing over girls to the house for us to sing to. I loved to write my own songs and lyrics as well, so Michael and I would write a song, play it at school for the girls, and we found a new form of romancing, via singing and writing songs.
The auto-immune disease, Pemphigus Vulgaris, that nearly claimed your life did not defeat you in the end. What happened after you were stricken with this affliction?
I was 46 years old when it appeared in my life. It took eight months for a doctor to finally figure out what it was. I went to so many doctors, and no one knew what it was. The doctor who finally diagnosed it told me this was going to kill me and there was no cure for it, and I was going to die a horribly painful death.
It finally took me to death’s door on February 6th, 2005. I had no will to live and was down to 125 lbs., losing a pound a day, due to the fact I could not eat from the sores in my mouth. Swallowing water was like swallowing broken glass. As my wife rushed me to the hospital on that day, I was fading. She got there, and they were waiting for me. The nurses knew I was coming and set it up to receive me. As they were rolling me down the hallway to the Burn Unit, my wife yelled, ‘You are not leaving me yet! Don’t die on me!’ The power of the spoken word or just plain miracle?
The doctors said they witnessed my spirit revive and that my turn around had nothing to do with what they were about to do to me. It was a miracle, they said. Then, from that day on, the medications they started to give me started to help me. Every day I was put into hydro-therapy, which is another name for a bath tub filled with water as hot as you can stand it, to soak your skin until it is soggy, to then deburr you of rotted flesh, so you don’t get infected, or in other words, scrub your flesh off. It was the most painful thing, even on 16 mgs. of morphine an hour during that daily treatment. But, every day, slowly, I was healing.
It’s nothing short of a miracle that you are alive today. You credit that performing and playing Elton’s music aided in your progress, from coming back from the brink of death to now selling out venues around California and beyond.
I wrote a legacy of songs that were based on my dying experience, but they were not doom and gloom. They were reflections of how, while I was dying, even though I was losing the battle, I was at peace with God in the midst of the pain. All that I held precious was fading to where you are willing to say goodbye to this life and all those you love. When I lived through the auto-immune disease there was no cure for at that time, I loved sitting down and playing those songs I wrote. After my recovery, I realized I had actually received a better voice that I ever had before, better vocal range, too. Playing music is healing, too, and Elton’s music was a part of that healing, and when I walk onstage, I get to play that music and make people smile, lift their spirits, and that is the best.
Once you were able to get back to playing, how did you come up with the idea to perform as Elton John?
After three years of being in bed recovering, a friend of mine, Joe Alessandro, said, ‘You need to have a purpose to get out of bed.’ He told me tribute bands that are “top notch” are playing the same kind of venues I played when I was touring with Stryper. He said, ‘You always kinda sounded like Elton John. Maybe if you studied his voice, you could do it and have a purpose to get out again.’
So, I recorded Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (the entire soundtrack of that song from my keyboards playing all parts on it and sang all the parts). When my wife came home, she asked, ‘Is that you or is that Elton?’ So, I decided to give it a try, but my life’s journey has never been just me and my family. I have always relied on my faith in Christ. So, I sat at my keyboard and said to God, ‘If I am going to do this, I don’t want to do this without You being a part of this part of my life. If I do this, I don’t want to do this half-assed either. I want to do justice to Elton and be the best in the world at it.’
I am not being preachy, no ulterior motive, just sharing a very private moment I had between me and God, just being honest, that was my real conversation. I am not a religious zealot or religious, just a regular person who had a one-on-one with God that changed me, and I never had a reason to doubt Him being there for me. So, I embarked on this journey and never looked back.
We were self-promotion, via calling people and venues for gigs and starting at the basic summer concert in the parks. As we grew in popularity, more doors opened where different agencies took notice that had better venues for clientele. They took us on, all the while we kept getting calls on our own, as well as for bookings.
When we walk onstage, we are Elton, Davey, Dee and Nigel until the end, when I introduce them to the audience. What we do is nothing less than a LIVE re-creation rock concert musical play, if you will, and this show has been successfully on the road for nine years now.
You and your band were chosen to perform on Mark Cuban and Ryan Seacrest’s network AXS TV Show, “The World’s Greatest Tribute Bands.”
Yes, it was December 2014, when we received an email from Katie Daryl, the producer of a show that was going to air in 2015. She said it was owned by Mark Cuban and Ryan Seacrest, and they would like to give us a one-hour LIVE national TV broadcast on the show “The World’s Greatest Tribute Bands”-Season One. She asked, ‘Would we like to be on the show?’ We said ‘yes!’ But we still had to prove ourselves on LIVE TV to tens of millions of viewers. We contacted Elton John’s original producer and original lead guitarist, our friend Caleb Quaye, and asked him if he would like to appear on the show with us to close out the show. He said ‘yes.’ Davey Johnstone (Elton’s longtime guitarist) was doing an interview for Caleb’s Rock N’ Roll documentary at that time, and they told him about us and Caleb playing in two weeks, so he sent us a video two weeks before the show, saying he was going to be watching us, so get it right! When the show was aired and was over, Davey called Caleb to say, ‘Tell those boys they don’t have to leave town!’ AXS TV brought us back for Season 4 for a 90-minute special to do our Billy Joel 2 Elton John alternate show.
We are one of the few who have the endorsement of Mark Cuban and Ryan Seacrest and their network AXS TV, Katie Daryl, Caleb Quaye and Stuart Epps from Elton’s early years at Dick James Studios, as well as touring with Elton as his personal assistant for four years, who recently contacted us to say the show is brilliant and our band captures that early years’ essence that Elton’s band was like in the early sessions, as well as my voice and playing.
Look back at the time you played your first show as Elton John. What was the reaction from the audience?
The first show we played was to 4,000 people at Hermosa Beach for their Hermosa Festival. We were on the main stage out on the beach boardwalk, and there were always a revolving audience in the back, walking the street to other events, etc. It was “raw” Elton, and we still had some glitches, but stuff always happens, and you learn to just roll with it. After three 45-minute sets, we packed up, went home, and I was in bed for the next two weeks, because my immune system was still fighting for my life. But, to put smiles on peoples’ faces that day was so rewarding.
Critics and fans alike absolutely love you as a performer. The fact that you’ve given such attention to the costumes you wear to the way you play Elton’s music is testament of your own musical achievements and gifts.
Thank you. We might feel worn out sometimes before a show, especially when touring night after night, but we always get energized before walking onto a stage. Adrenaline kicks in, and for me as the lead, I really walk onstage by faith knowing God and my band have my back. I have walked out onstage and had no voice, but the show goes on, and you push through it. To walk out on to a stage with viral laryngitis and see 8,000 people smiling, ready to sing, you can’t be afraid, you just press through, and I had to do that two summers ago, big shows and a battle to talk, and see a list of 24 of Elton’s hardest songs to sing-scary, but we did it, and the audience loved it.
There’s one degree of separation for you from Elton John, by way of guitarist Caleb Quaye, who played with the superstar for ten years. How did he become involved with your band?
I met Caleb at the NAMM show (National Association of Music Merchants) in Anaheim. He was performing on a Friday night after the NAMM show, nine years ago. He saw me dressed as Elton and thought I was a fan only showing up to watch him and his band, “Caleb Quaye and The Faculty,” perform. I met him afterwards, and we connected on Facebook. The next year, we were invited by NAMM to play on the outdoor stage at noon, and Caleb said he was going to come and watch us. He showed up and told me, ‘You’re great! I get what you are doing!’
The first time he played with us was on AXS TV to 39 million viewers. The next time he joined us onstage was at the OC Fair to play to 8,000 people in The Hangar. The third time was a fundraiser we played to help raise money for his documentary “Louder Than Rock,” releasing this summer. And the fourth time was June 29th, 2019 to a sold-out crowd at the La Mirada Performing Arts Theater. It was this show that world-renown Producer Stuart Epps (and friend to Caleb and Elton) saw video footage of Caleb playing “Ballad of a Well Known Gun” with us and chimed in on the Facebook thread, then spoke to Caleb, and then directly to us, giving us the highest of kudos.
You recently did an interview with the BBC that was aired on television. How did that come about?
Elton was honored recently in Paris, France with the highest award a private citizen gets. The BBC contacted us directly and said, ‘You are the “World’s Greatest Elton John Tribute.” Can we do a LIVE interview, via Skype, for our news, BBC World News London? We would like to interview you for about four minutes, then have you play us out for another minute and a half, singing “Rocketman.” I said ‘yes.’ It went live, and they repeated it in their news thread on TV for the next, three hours to approximately 220 million viewers. My biggest global audience so far.
Do you ever pinch yourself and wonder, How did I ever get to this pinnacle in my musical journey?
I do, and I love every moment and all the friends and fans. We are not Elton and his band, and we don’t walk into a venue or show with ego or attitude. We are truly grateful that we get to do this. We treat everyone from stage crew to staffing to fans like we want to be treated. After going through the disease and its pain, and overcoming it, the greatest gift I have been given back, other than my life and my family and friends, is to be able to walk out onstage and give honor to the artist who I met at Disneyland in the summer of 1977, who I asked him if I could shake his hand, and he smiled and said ‘yes.” I thanked him for inspiring me to learn the piano, and then I said, ‘Have a wonderful time here,’ and I walked away.
In those days, I only dreamed my voice could sound like his, and ten years ago, in 2009, that dream came true unexpectedly!
For more information, visit http://www.kennymetcalfaselton.com
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