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Joe Coughlin’s Road to Success

April 8, 2009

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Victoria vocalist Joe Coughlin is up for another National Jazz Award for male vocalist of the year, and he’s about to release his sixth album entitled “Lowdown West Broadway.” I had the opportunity to interview Coughlin for a Monday Magazine profile last fall and thought I’d reprint it here to honour these most recent achievements. The article is reprinted under its original title.

Achieving Success – The Joe Coughlin Way

The big-swinging, big-singing jazz vocalist knows what he wants

By Rick Gibbs

Ask ten people on the street to name Canada’s best male jazz singer and most will probably say Michael Bublé. Ask ten jazz musicians and they’ll likely tell you it’s Joe Coughlin.

That’s certainly what pre-eminent jazz guitarist Pat Coleman thinks. “He swings so big, has such a big range and such a dynamic voice,” says Coleman. “I’ve been honoured to have him record some of my songs.”

Coleman is not alone in his assessment. Coughlin won Canada’s National Jazz Award in 2000 and 2008 for best male vocalist, no small accomplishment given that the nominations come from jazz musicians, broadcasters and writers. Just getting nominated is a major accomplishment.

He’s been favourably compared to the very best male interpreters of the American songbook: Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. His albums have all been recorded with jazz luminaries like Don Thompson, Ed Bickert, and Mark Eisenman, and all have received critical acclaim.

So why does he get questions like, “How has Michael Bublé influenced your music?” or “How come you don’t have an international career?” or even worse “How come you haven’t made it?” Well, success is all a matter of perception.

The first thing I discover about Joe Coughlin when I arrive at his condo for the interview is his sense of humour. Veronique da Silva, a tall young woman who is Monday’s photographer on the assignment, meets me at the door. “I’m the short guy over here,” Coughlin calls out from his electric wheelchair, as he motors forward, pushes out his partially paralyzed right hand and greets me warmly.

Coughlin is an incomplete quadriplegic. The right side of his body is, as he puts it, “pretty much useless,” the result of a forceps delivery gone wrong at birth. But he hasn’t let his disability restrict him. If anything, it defines him as a fiercely independent individual who has forged not only a recording and performing career, but also a stint in TV and radio broadcasting, and a longstanding career in corporate and government communications.

And more impressively perhaps to some, he fronted Whiteheet, a successful Ontario heavy metal band in the 70’s. Heavy metal? Warm-voiced Joe Coughlin screaming out Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin songs, along with originals that made radio play lists back in Ontario? The question is obvious.

He looks at me directly with his clear eyes and warm, bright face and says, “It’s all part of the musical journey. When I was nine, I didn’t know what jazz was, but I knew something was being played on the record player at home. I couldn’t define it at that age but I knew there was something going on.”

He then talks about playing a snare drum his father gave him at age nine, having a full set of drums by 13, forming teenage bands, playing his first paid gig at a high school dance, doing well in Battle of the Bands competitions, and getting lots of work throughout Ontario as a result.

He also sang in the church choir and played in school groups, including a big band that first sparked his interest in jazz, but he thinks his love of performance began even earlier. He tells me he was a spokesperson for the Easter Seals campaign when he was seven and remembers standing in hockey rinks with TV cameras and microphones pointed at him. He chuckles and says, “It was a lot of fun when you had pretty women hanging around telling you you were cute.”

Coughlin started lead singing by accident. “One night the regular singer in the band couldn’t get a note out. He had a bad cold and I knew all the lyrics and everybody said man, you sing pretty good.” He continued playing drums, but once in university, realized he couldn’t keep up physically with what other drummers were doing at that level, and so took singing more seriously. He began meeting players who were into jazz; eventually one of them convinced him to move away from metal.

Around that time he was invited to enter CBC’s Search for Stars. “I didn’t think I’d get accepted…I go in there and knock the judge’s socks off…and that’s how it happened.”

‘It’ was a recording contract put together by Sam (the Record Man) Sniderman’s then wife Eleanor. “I walked into the studio and there was Ed Bickert, Don Thompson and Terry Clarke…to be perfectly honest I didn’t even know who these guys were. When I listened to them play, I went, oh boy, I’m in the hands of some really professional musicians, so I’d better bring my A-game to this thing. Coughlin laughs and says, “I didn’t have an A-game, but we pulled it off.” And the record? “It got tons of airplay and then Eleanor and Sam got divorced and it was over before it started.”

Two years later Coughlin recorded another album with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek title Second Debut. Since then he’s recorded three more, including 2007’s Things Turn Out That Way. All are independent releases financed by Coughlin himself, which brings us back to that thorny question of success.

“I knew very early on that it was going to be tough to make a living, especially as a singer.” “And,” he adds, “I had to be realistic about the amount of traveling I could do – when you have that kind of career, it’s a really tough life.”

It’s not that he didn’t try the Bublé route. He did have two top ten adult contemporary singles in Canada and did think about the U.S. “But,” he says, “there’s a reality about breaking into the business down there – you need somebody who’s got a couple of million dollars to lose to get you noticed.”

And there’s also that independent streak. “When you sign with a major record label, they’re going to say look, this is what you’ve got to wear, this is what you’ve got to say, this is where you’ve got to be and we want you to do 300 dates a year to pay back your three million dollar debt to us. That’s what that scene is all about – I just don’t think I could do it.”

Independence caused Coughlin to move to Victoria in 1995. He was doing communications work for the Ontario government when Mike Harris came along and started making disparaging comments about “handicapped” people. “I saw the writing on the wall.” He secured a government contract here for a time but then switched back to freelance work exclusively.

Once in Victoria he hooked up with first call west coast players like Pat Coleman, Ken Lister, and Ross Taggart and hasn’t looked back since. He plays a few gigs a year here and in Vancouver and returns to Toronto from time to time but says what he’d probably like to do is develop a northwest performance circuit that would take him as far as Portland so he could travel by car, citing a few horrific and humiliating post 9/11 experiences with airport security people as a result of being in a chair.

So how does Joe Coughlin define success? “Well, I’ve got a nice place to live, I don’t have any debts, I eat well, and I play with the best people in the country. And the bonus is the recognition of my peers.”

Coughlin launches his album at the Cellar in Vancouver on Friday, April 24 and Saturday,April 25, where he’ll appear with Miles Black, Jodi Proznick, and Dave Robbins. The National Jazz Awards happen on May 14th in Toronto. Coughlin jokes that he plans to attend “to defend my title.”

He’ll appear in Victoria at Hermann’s on Friday, June 5, and Saturday, June 6 with Pat Coleman, Tony Genge, Ken Lister and Buff Allen. You can read more about him at his website http://www.joecoughlinjazz.com/

and you can vote for the National Jazz Awards at http://www.nationaljazzawards.com/

You can also catch a lovely rendition of Waltz for Debby performed by Coughlin and his Toronto group here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2U7f3Az3Zo

© Rick Gibbs and Island Jazz


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  1. June 2, 2009 at 9:00 pm
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