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Classically Trained: Making the 'good ol' songs' still unforgettable

February 14, 2011|By Bradley Zint, bradley.zint@latimes.com
  • Mike McCaffrey, 77, plays a Nat King Cole song in his Laguna Beach home. McCaffrey will play with his trio at OASIS Senior Center in Corona del Mar on Wednesday, swinging the hits of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.
Mike McCaffrey, 77, plays a Nat King Cole song in his Laguna… (DON LEACH, Daily…)

LAGUNA BEACH — When Mike McCaffrey tells the audience he's got the world on a string, he's got you under his skin and that you're unforgettable — and pretty incredible, too — he can't go wrong.

That's because he's a pianist, singer and performer for the "people will want to hear the 'good ol' songs.'"

You probably know those. They're the ones "not like they write today." And they were done by guys like Frank Sinatra.

Or Nat "King" Cole. George Gershwin. Cole Porter. Irving Berlin.

Those are the American music legends that McCaffrey, 77, and the two others of the Mike McCaffrey Trio — Gil Orr on guitar and Paul Fornay on stand-up bass — perform for golden-age music lovers locally and nationwide. The trio will be performing in Corona del Mar at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the OASIS Senior Center. Tickets are $3.

So when you hear them, "Try to remember where you were when this song came out," McCaffrey advises, "and who you were with and what was going on in your part of the world at that time."

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But this trio goes a step further than just taking on the charts of the Greatest Generation.

Armed with his encyclopedic knowledge, McCaffrey supplements his shows with little-known stories about the legends.

McCaffrey's passion for performing and his admiration for the performers he sings is remarkable — he keeps a fictitious picture of him next to Ol' Blue Eyes on his living room's vintage Everett piano — and so is his quest to learn more about them.

He's quick to point out the stack of Gershwin books on the floor of his Emerald Bay home — or the fact that he's poured over the Newport Beach library system's four books on Cole and 24 on Sinatra.

The Laguna Beach resident of 40 years was born in Glendale, raised in La Cañada and is a UCLA graduate. He started playing piano at 3 years old and has music roots tracing back to his father, a saxophonist and drummer.

McCaffrey was never formally trained and doesn't read music, instead relying on his ear and musical instincts. He knows the chart, the key and goes from there.

"If you gave me some technical classical music, I couldn't handle it," he admits. "But if you play me a popular song, I can play it."

McCaffrey is late to the limelight. That's because the majority of his career was spent training public speaking to executives. During that time, his musical instincts were left dormant until retirement.

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