Couple hit the road to follow their dream of a music career

October 5, 2011

Ken and Jeannie Veltz are driving to an open-mike night in Old Town Alexandria. A guitar rides in the back seat; the trunk is filled with sound and music equipment. The duo are scheduled to perform at Iota in a few days. Playing live will limber them up and get them ready for the paying gigs.

Unlike most of the musicians on the D.C. open-mike circuit, Ken and Jeannie are grandparents. Also separating them from the usual six-string strummers: They nearly made it big. As the band Cecilia, the Veltzes were signed to Atlantic Records in 2001. And it wasn’t just the two of them; it was the entire family: son Drew on lead guitar, daughters Laura and Allison singing, Dad on rhythm guitar and percussion, Mom completing the three-part harmonies and shaking the tambourine. Yes, just like the Partridge Family, only real and with better music.

Much better. Here’s what The Washington Post had to say about Cecilia in 1999 when the Veltzes were just a family band from Vienna: “If you care at all for melody, harmony and good songs, you must go see Cecilia. If you want to let music do what it’s supposed to do (fill your heart and soul and make you glad to be alive), you must go see Cecilia.”

The family seemed poised to climb to the top of the Top 40. But like thousands before them, the Veltzes discovered that a set full of catchy pop tunes and clubs full of eager fans are not always enough. Unlike thousands before them, Ken and Jeannie refuse to let rejection define them. Faced with an empty nest and a failing economy, the aging boomers are betting everything on one more chance to fulfill the family dream. They’ve spent 37 years together singing happy, upbeat songs, and they don’t intend to stop now.

Today, 10 years later, the car is home for Jeannie and Ken. And tomorrow, too. And for the foreseeable future, because they sold everything that wouldn’t fit into the trunk, put some sentimental items in storage and are living on the road.

It’s a nice car, a spotless white Mercedes 240D. They used to have an older Benz, and a sporty BMW, too. Plus a 3,000-square-foot house in Vienna. That and more are gone now. The couple’s recent liquidation created a small nest egg (“very small,” Ken says) that left them as unencumbered as a pair of teenage hitchhikers off to see the world for the first time. And that’s pretty much the vibe both Veltzes give off.

“There’s no safety net here,” Ken says, more matter-of-factly than one would expect from someone who is basically homeless. But the diminutive 60-year-old with a graying soul patch has an almost relentlessly upbeat attitude — hard to believe, but impossible to fake.

Jeannie, a willowy redhead a bit taller than Ken, double-checks the start time for the first open mike. “It’s 8 o’clock,” Ken confirms. “Do you know where your children are?” Jeannie responds wryly. “As a matter of fact,” Ken replies, “no, we don’t.”

Stepping into Tiffany Tavern on King Street, Ken writes his name on the list. He’s No. 5. Each act gets 12 minutes, maybe 15 depending on the crowd, so there’s plenty of time to kill. The good news is that there’s a crowd. The bad news is that most of that crowd is a bachelorette party. “We’re an old married couple,” Ken announces when he and Jeannie finally step behind the microphone. The connection doesn’t seem to register with the raucous bachelorettes. There is some applause, but that, as well as most of the music, is lost in the din. An older guy gives the pair a thumbs-up sign as he walks past them to the door. After a few more songs, the Veltzes wish the crowd a good night.

The rejection stings. “I’d rather play for seven or eight people and leave a part of us there and take a part of the people with us than a packed house of not-interested people,” Ken says.

A band is born

In the big house in Vienna in 1999, the Veltzes were living a pretty good suburban life. Ken was composing music for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and other clients. Jeannie was doing voice-overs, and the kids were playing music together. Allison, the youngest, was a student at James Madison High School; her older siblings had recently graduated.

Then the Military Channel called. The company licensed one of Ken’s songs for $80,000 and offered a contract to score 28 documentaries for $300,000. The executives took the Veltzes out for a celebratory dinner in Shirlington.

“It was our big ship,” says Ken. “The children are dancing, we are like . . .

“We are like in disbelief,” Jeannie says, laughing, “And with good reason!”

Because before Ken got paid for the first program, the Military Channel filed for bankruptcy. Ken admits he “burned a lot of bridges” with other clients so he could grab this brass ring. He also sank nearly 30 grand of his own money into new equipment for work that had now vanished.

And then came a call from a veterans hospital. Ken’s father was dying. As the family was trying to deal with the financial blow, they started gathering around Grandpa, singing for him. The nurses took notice, and the Veltzes started doing shows for the other patients.

With sisters Laura and Allison brightly harmonizing over older brother Drew’s melodic electric guitar, Ken’s subtle percussion and Jeannie’s lower-third harmony, the Veltz family began recording in the home studio.

The children, then 17, 19 and 21, were already playing together at open mikes, bringing home some cash. They decided that adding Mom and Dad to the act actually sounded pretty good.

“And Jeannie and I are looking at each other going like, ‘Could this be a better Plan A — or Plan B?’ ” Ken says.

They christened the band Cecilia, after the patron saint of musicians, and tested the idea with a weekly gig down Route 123 at That’s Amore, part of a local restaurant chain. On the band’s homemade “Kitchen Mix” CD, several cuts recorded live at the restaurant capture a frenzied crowd excitedly singing along. Soon, area music professionals were showing up in the audience. Without any corporate street-teaming or marketing, a fan base was growing.

Gigs at real nightclubs followed: Zig’s in Alexandria and Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington. Stephen Negrey, co-owner of Iota, remembers the band’s fans as “21 to 70, of all creeds and philosophies — all over the map.” Most bands, he notes, cater to a single demographic, but a Cecilia show was truly all-ages. “That was what was so exciting about them,” Negrey says. “what could happen, how big they could get.”

Harmony and dissonance

Ken knew that Cecilia could get only so big in Washington. In 2000, with a strong local buzz in their ears, the Veltz family chose a new roll of the dice. Allison was taken out of school and Ken sold his beloved BMW to finance a trip to Nashville. Within a few weeks, Cecilia the family band had a manager and a music-publishing offer from Warner/Chappell Music.

On the strength of this industry interest, the Veltz family sold the house in Vienna and headed from Nashville to New York. They rented a place in Queens and started playing wherever they could and knocking on doors at all the record labels.

At the trendy TriBeCa nightclub Wetlands Preserve, the family found a gig in the basement lounge that people had to walk through on the way to the bathrooms. The Cecilia experience of That’s Amore repeated itself: Crowds grew and grew more enthusiastic. People from a small Warner Bros.-affiliated label, Blackbird Records, noticed and offered a recording contract. But days before the Veltzes could sign the contract, the AOL/Time-Warner deal was approved. In the quest for corporate synergies, Blackbird was no longer in business.

However, Cecilia now had champions inside the biz. A showcase was quickly scheduled for Atlantic Records, another Warner imprint. The legendary S.I.R. Studios were booked, engineers hired, fruit baskets and cheese platters arranged.

Cecilia played its full set. Ken remembers people shouting for more. And he remembers the reaction of Craig Kallman, then the head of A&R (artists and repertoire) for Atlantic. “What we heard tonight is the reason why Atlantic Records is in the record business,” Ken quotes Kallman as saying. “I look forward to this legacy, a long relationship with Cecilia the band and the day there will be box sets with the Atlantic logo on it.”

Close observers of the music business will note that there are currently no Cecilia box sets available. Nor was there a single Cecilia record with the Atlantic logo. After being wined, dined and signed, the family began a two-year struggle to satisfy both the label’s demands and their own creative instincts. “First they said, ‘We don’t hear a hit,’ ” Ken says. “Then they said, ‘We don’t even hear songs for the record.’ ” Neither Kallman nor Atlantic Records responded to requests for comment on the band’s time with the label.

After head-butting for two years, the parties agreed to go their separate ways in 2002. Seeking another fresh start, the group rechristened itself the Veltz Family Band and “took our story to the streets,” as Ken puts it, playing in subways, parks and continuing to tour nationally for the next five years.

There was other industry interest. Producers from Carsey-Warner, makers of “The Cosby Show” and “Roseanne,” shot a TV pilot starring the Veltzes as themselves, or rather, as some kind of millennial Partridge Family. But again, says Ken, the professionals had one idea and the family another.

The band was facing pressure from the inside, too. Between gigs, Laura and Drew each got married. Soon, Drew’s first child showed up, which slowed things down, but only a little. Then Drew’s second child was born with serious health issues, ultimately requiring four surgeries. Drew moved his family to Chesapeake to concentrate on caring for his daughter. Today, she’s a healthy child. Laura and her husband moved to Nashville to focus on her songwriting, followed shortly by Allison.

The Veltz Family Band unplugged.

On the road again

Now Jeannie and Ken were faced with another decision: how to reinvent themselves at an age when their peers are thinking of retirement. Ken jokes about applying for a job at Mr. Donut. “ ‘What’s your past experience?’ I’m the father of a family band and I . . .

“I ate doughnuts on the road,” Jeannie says with a laugh.

The couple moved to the artsy town of Cold Springs in Upstate New York and began hosting a weekly music showcase called SongNest in their apartment. Ken posted videos of the living room sessions online, hoping to create a buzz. The couple also played for tourists from the comfort of their porch, passing the hat, morning, noon and night. For two years, the couple kept at it, “working 60, 70, 80 hours a week to not make ends meet,” says Ken. One day on the porch, he had an epiphany: There was nothing tying them to any place in particular. It was time for another roll of the dice.

The couple left Cold Springs in June. Using contacts from years of touring and Craigslist, the Veltzes have stayed with and played for friends and fans in horse-country mansions and rural crab shacks — and once on the patio of a strip club.

Meanwhile, their daughters are succeeding in the music business. Allison scored a No. 1 hit in Japan with her song “Mr. Taxi,” performed by the nine-member girl-group Girls Generation. Laura just signed a publishing deal, and her songs have been recorded by, among others, up-and-coming artist Edens Edge. And all the children are supportive, cheering their parents on via Facebook. “I think that it’s awesome that they’re going out and doing this,” Allison says by phone from Nashville, echoing her brother and sister. “It’s a fearless journey, and I’m really proud of them.”

Three days after the Old Town open mike, Ken and Jeannie are getting ready for their show at Iota. “A lot of great memories in this place,” Ken says, as he finishes a bowl of gazpacho. Jeannie sits to the side of the stage autographing CDs for sale. Opening act Jim Dugan does his sound check. Dugan’s wife and a few of his fans are here. The Veltzes have brought in a couple of tables of old friends and fans. But this will be the smallest crowd the Veltzes have played to all week. It’s a sharp contrast with the packed houses that Cecilia once drew to the same club. Still, Ken and Jeannie perform as if it were standing room only.

It’s after midnight by the time the Veltzes are back in the car. Tonight, they’ll stay with their son. Then it’s back on the road by Tuesday, maybe heading to Nashville, maybe north.

“We’re still making it up as we go,” Ken says.

Nuttycombe is a freelance writer.

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