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Lakesider News

Michael Cavanaugh returns to Hoover

By Kevin Greer
Lakeside Communications Manager

Michael Cavanaugh played Billy Joel’s classic hits in Hoover Auditorium last summer to rave reviews from Lakesiders. The dynamic performer and lead in Joel’s Broadway show “Movin’ Out” that ran for over three years, returns to the community hub for another concert on Saturday, June 15 at 7:30 p.m.

Of course, Cavanaugh will again perform songs from his idol, but he’s adding a few more legends this time around. He has a couple different shows and will take some snippets from each of them. Among the icons will be Elton John, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon and James Taylor.

“I have so much to pick from,” Cavanaugh said. “I might not even run a setlist on this show. My guys are just going to be ready, and I have a little microphone off to the side that only goes into our ear monitors, and I’ll tell him what the next song is. I’m probably going to read the crowd as I go.”

Starting young
Cavanaugh grew up in the Cleveland suburb of Middleburg Heights and attended Midpark High School, which has since merged with Berea, the rival school that’s also the alma mater of his wife, Karen.

He got his first piano at age 7 and was playing and singing his versions of Billy Joel songs before taking piano lessons. Even though he was figuring out how to use the piano on his own, he said lessons helped him with something very important.

“I’m glad I took lessons because it put my fingers in the right place,” Cavanaugh said. “I see a lot of tremendously talented kids on Instagram or YouTube and I can tell they’ve never taken a lesson because their hands are in the wrong place, which is going to make it tougher as they go on.”

Cavanaugh’s first band was in fifth grade when he joined a couple friends for a school talent show. They bought a strobe light and did instrumental versions of a couple The Rolling Stones’ songs. He knew immediately this is what he wanted to do.

“All the girls screamed,” Cavanaugh said of his stage debut. “I said, ‘Oh, wow, I never made girls scream before. I think I’m going to keep doing that.’”

Cavanaugh was only 12 when he joined a band that played in nightclubs. By the time he was 14, he was playing up to five nights a week. His parents had to be present at all his gigs since he was so young, and he was always brought in right before the show started. Cavanaugh was almost thrown out of several bars until owners found out he was in the band.

“My dad would say, ‘I’m here and we’re not breaking any laws,’” Cavanaugh said. “I look back at that time and it’s pretty wild.”

Cavanaugh started playing the guitar around age 11. His oldest brother had a guitar but wouldn’t let him play it, so he had to sneak into his room when his brother would leave and taught himself how to play. He’s been playing for 40 years and never took a lesson. He also plays bass, drums, saxophone, harmonica and ukulele.

Dueling while on his honeymoon
Cavanaugh got married at 21 and the couple went to Cancun for their honeymoon. He met a couple guys there who played dueling pianos, which was popular in bars and nightclubs at the time. It wasn’t something Cavanaugh was interested in doing because many of the routines contained vulgar material, but that wasn’t part of their show. They played Billy Joel, Elton John, The Beatles and ’70s classic rock and got the crowd involved.

During their conversation, one of them invited Cavanaugh to play a song for his new wife. Of course, he played Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” then tossed in John’s “Crocodile Rock” for good measure. It didn’t take long to impress Cavanaugh’s new friends and they offered him a job in Cancun, but he turned it down.

“I’m thinking I’ve been married now for two days,” Cavanaugh said. “I didn’t think we were ready to move to another country.”

The same pianist called Cavanaugh a year later and offered him a full-time position at Blazing Pianos in Orlando, Florida. During that time, his friend took a job in Las Vegas, and when a spot opened, he once again called Cavanaugh, who accepted the offer.

“In Vegas, every night is Saturday night, especially in that piano bar,” Cavanaugh said “It’s packed all the time. It’s like ‘Animal House’ with pianos.”

Meeting his idol
Cavanaugh considered himself a “little classic rocker” at a young age. His first concert was with his dad when they saw KISS at Richfield Coliseum, the arena just outside Cleveland that was demolished in 1999. His dad also introduced him to Billy Joel at a young age when he heard “Big Shot” for the first time. It was from 52nd Street, the album that put Joel on the map.

“My dad said, ‘Do you want to hear somebody great? Listen to this,’” Cavanaugh said. “Then he played ‘Big Shot.’ I was floored. 52nd Street is a big part of who I am, that’s for sure.”

While in Vegas, Cavanaugh had some mutual friends who had connections to Joel’s tour manager Max Loubiere, who wanted to see Cavanaugh perform. They had a good meeting and Cavanaugh hoped it would eventually lead to at least a handshake with the future Rock & Roll Hall of Famer. A couple months later, Loubiere returned to Las Vegas and told Cavanaugh he was going to bring Joel to the piano bar.

Cavanaugh got to shake Joel’s hand, but not until after Joel went on stage and joined Cavanaugh at the piano across from him and they played classics from The Beatles and Elvis together.

The guy Cavanaugh saw in concert several times and waited in 10-degree temperatures to get tickets before the days of buying them online, was jamming on a piano right across from his. Cavanaugh had no idea Joel was going to do that but was more nervous prior to his set than when Joel went on stage with him.

“I think I stress more about it before the light turns on,” Cavanaugh said. “I think, fortunately, when the light shines bright, I don’t crumble. When Billy came up across from me, I didn’t feel nervous. I just felt ecstatic. It was like the craziest thing ever. It was awesome. I couldn’t believe it.”

On Broadway
During Cavanaugh’s memorable meeting, nothing was mentioned about a Broadway show that Joel was working on. A couple months later, Loubiere called Cavanaugh and said, “There’s something going on in New York.”

Again, Broadway was never part of the conversation, but Cavanaugh was told to contact Joel’s guitarist Tommy Byrnes. That’s when Cavanaugh was told Joel thought he was the piano player they were looking for in a musical called “Movin’ Out.”

Cavanaugh flew to New York to meet with the producers. It took about a year of workshopping before the show opened on Oct. 24, 2002. He said Joel was still tweaking the show after the pre-Broadway run in Chicago and did ask Cavanaugh for input. One of those times was over lunch on a New York sidewalk. Joel was concerned “Still Rock & Roll to Me” wasn’t the best opening song since it takes jabs at critics, but the song wasn’t switched and the show was critically acclaimed, earning 10 Tony Award nominations.

It was also during that lunch that Cavanaugh had another moment when he had to pinch himself. Joel asked him if he ever heard of his song from “Half a Mile Away?” from 52nd Street, then Joel started singing it.

“I’m like, ‘Is this happening to me right now?’” Cavanaugh said. “I’m sitting here at lunch with Billy Joel in New York City, the weather’s amazing and he’s singing.”

The show was based on 24 classic Joel songs and followed six lifelong friends through two turbulent decades. Characters were from Joel ‘s songs, like Brenda and Eddie from “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” and Anthony, the grocery store worker from “Movin’ Out.” It wasn’t a typical musical where the lead would sing five songs or less. Cavanaugh sang all the songs six days a week until the show closed on Dec. 11, 2005.

“It was a grind because I sang the whole thing,” Cavanaugh said. “It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m certainly glad I did it. Still to this day, people talk about it.”

Back to Vegas
Cavanaugh and his family moved back to Las Vegas shortly after “Movin’ Out” ended. He was offered the role of Jerry Lee Lewis in the Broadway musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” Cavanaugh thought about it, but he never considered himself “a typical Broadway guy.” He turned it down and moved back to “Sin City.”

Cavanaugh took a much-needed break, then worked part time for about a year. He did around three events a month all over the country for the PGA Tour, New York Life and other corporate outings. About a year after moving to Vegas, he was approached by the Indianapolis Symphony about putting together a symphonic show. He built four of those that included the music of Joel, John and Paul Simon, and a Christmas Rock & Roll Show.

Cavanaugh continues to tour across the country, playing with symphonies in cities like Jacksonville, Florida, Fairfax, Virginia, Irving, Texas and Knoxville, Tennessee. He performs several different shows with his band, including “The Music of Billy Joel,” “The Music of Billy Joel & Elton John” and “The Music of Paul Simon & More.” He’s scaling back his schedule this year but is excited to have Lakeside as one of his stops.

“Last year was actually my first time on Marblehead,” Cavanaugh said. “We had a great time. It kind of has an island feel and I’ve always enjoyed places like that.”


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