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Suits That Rock: NKY Executives Jam for Good Cause

John Domaschko clutched his bass and scanned the group of part-time rockers.

There was a drummer who worked in real estate, a guitarist who doubled as an executive at Toyota, and a lead singer who managed public relations at Fidelity, all from Northern Kentucky.

Oh boy, Domaschko thought.

It was a motley crew – but what they really needed was something more resembling Motley Crüe.

“My honest feeling was that the music would suck,” says Domaschko, the former senior managing partner of his own CPA firm. “But I figured that everybody would have a good enough time seeing people doing things completely out of character. It would be fun for everybody anyway.”

The idea involved local executives playing and singing rock and roll for one show – one night only – to benefit a good cause. But the music had to be good. Could they pull it off? The first song they tried to learn was “Tush,” by ZZ Top. Initially, Domaschko was skeptical.

“This is not a particularly easy song,” Domaschko says. “The guitars and the drums are pretty difficult. The vocals are in a range that not too many people I know can hit them.”

The makeshift band started out playing the song’s signature guitar riff. Then the lead singer – Kevin Canafax, vice president of Midwest Public Affairs for Fidelity Investments – took the mic.

“All the sudden Kevin starts singing and he’s not just achieving the notes, he’s knocking them out of the park,” Domaschko says. “I thought, ‘Holy crap, this is not going to suck. As a matter of fact, this could be really good.’”

It was like they’d all traded their souls at the crossroads. They jammed.

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And their band, Suits That Rock, was born.

‘Long way to the top, if you wanna rock n’ roll’ – AC/DC

In 2004, both Domaschko and lawyer Greg Shumate were playing in their own local bands at a charitable event. They were local executives who’d always loved playing rock music. But somewhere along the way, life – and a desire to make real money – got in the way. Music took a backseat.

It’s a story they’d heard dozens of times, from university and company presidents to business owners and creative types.

But it was the 2004 show that sparked the idea.

“For that concert, John and I had discussed creating a super band of local CEOs, celebrities, etc. to play the third set,” Shumate recalls. “Unfortunately, our schedules didn’t allow us to pull it off that year, so our bands just played separate sets.”

By 2007, Domaschko had recruited others, including the singer Canafax, and they all decided that a six-member band would suffice. They could play a benefit show for a local charity. “I’m getting great reaction when I tell (people) at a cocktail party,” Domaschko says. “But then people aren’t returning my calls.”

He thought maybe the idea wouldn’t work. But he kept at it. “It was obvious people were intrigued by the concept,” he says. During those discussions, they found more closet musicians, and they found a willing host partner in The Carnegie in downtown Covington.

As the largest multidisciplinary arts venue in Northern Kentucky, The Carnegie – originally built as a library in 1904 – is on the National Historic Register, and it houses an auditorium, galleries and an education center under its iconic dome. It is funded solely through donations from the community.

The musicians thought the show could help The Carnegie and area children.

“All the money goes to arts education for inner city kids, whose schools have generally jettisoned the arts out of their curriculum,” Domaschko says. “So the mission is great.”

Domaschko worked to schedule rehearsal time for the collection of musicians, which had grown to 20. By October 2007, the concert was a reality. It was booked for the summer, a four-hour show in front of about 500 people. They needed a setlist, so Domaschko emailed the group and asked what they wanted to play. Some of the artists that came back were Led Zeppelin, Elvis, The Rolling Stones and Dire Straits, among other classic rock acts.

He should’ve known then the performances would be greater than he could have imagined. But it took that first rehearsal for Domaschko to realize the music would be on a professional level.

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“Our goal for the evening was that we didn’t want to suck,” Shumate says.

And of course, there was the problem of what to call these 20 musicians. “The Carnegie sent 30 ideas, none of which were Suits That Rock,” Domaschko says. “They said Suits on Stage, but it just didn’t say what we did. We were going to rock. It was born then.”

A setlist was created, practices were held, and when tickets went on sale they sold out in 12 days.

On July 26, 2008 – Mick Jagger’s birthday – the Suits played to a crowd of almost 500.

“I don’t think the crowd had great expectations, but by the time Sultans of Swing (was played) in the first set, they had won the crowd over and the rest of the night was an absolute love fest between the musicians and the audience,” Shumate says. “It was a thrill to play on that cool old stage in that renovated theatre to an extremely enthusiastic audience.”

By the end, members of the audience were coming up to the musicians offering praise. “I’m old enough to know when people are blowing smoke up my skirt,” Domaschko says. “These people really had the time of their lives at this show.”

And the fans kept asking one question.

“All of the sudden, everybody started asking us what we were going to do next year – I didn’t even think there was going to be a next year,” Domaschko says.

The Carnegie was supportive of another show, too. After just hoping to break even, the Suits raised $10,000.

‘They say I’m crazy but I have a good time’ – Joe Walsh

And so, Suits That Rock became an annual event, held every summer, to benefit The Carnegie. The number of musicians swelled to 40, another show was added the next week to accommodate them, and the money that was raised increased by the thousands.

By 2013, the shows sold out in three days and brought in nearly $80,000.

Local luminaries came and went, including former University of Cincinnati president Nancy Zimpher, who sang and played guitar.

“Each subsequent year brought more and more professionalism,” says guitarist Bob Blanchard, a retired group vice president at Procter & Gamble. “One thing that every Suit has in common is the absolute need to play music. It’s such an essential part of who we are. So being able to do it with such terrific folks and for the benefit of an important arts organization as The Carnegie adds up to one thing: Pure joy.”

After discovering how talented their musicians were, the Suits decided that each summer show would have a theme, which would then help whittle down the hundreds of songs the musicians wanted to play. The second year was the 40th anniversary of Woodstock – so they performed “Suit Stock,” songs that were played at Woodstock, or songs that were performed by groups that appeared at Woodstock.

This year’s show will mark the 50th anniversary of The Beatles performing on Ed Sullivan, so the Suits will perform a tribute to the 50 years of British artists since 1964.

Other tweaks to the process would follow, including inviting guest performers to the show.

“They will do one or two songs, and you can get your friends and relatives to come see you do this,” Domaschko says. “Last year we had, among others, Chuck Scheper, the former mayor of Covington; Mark Tipton, a funeral director in Cincinnati; and Andrew Aiello, the general manager of the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky.”

And then there was Johnna Reeder.

“She turned out to be a great Katy Perry,” Domaschko says. “She just blew people away. We didn’t see that coming.”

‘Money for nothing, chicks for free’ – Dire Straits

Reeder, the Vice President of community relations and economic development for Duke Energy Ohio and Duke Energy Kentucky, had made a New Year’s resolution to “have more fun and try new things.”

Canafax suggested becoming a guest Suit, specifically to perform “California Girls” by Katy Perry. “After a glass of wine, I thought it was a fantastic idea,” Reeder says. “Next time, I will skip the wine before answering.”

She had no singing experience. But she did not want to embarrass herself, so she practiced – and went a bit, as she says, “overboard.”

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“I took a few voice lessons and watched the video at least 50 times,” she says. “I tried to choreograph my rendition to match Katy’s performance. I worked with a costume designer from California. She took my measurements and a few months later, I transformed into Katy – at least in looks. I didn’t want to halfway do this. I figured I should go big or go home!”

Unbeknownst to the Suits, Reeder had the exact costume and moves Perry showcased in the legendary “California Girls” video, and her performance was flawless. The crowd went wild.

“I now know what performers mean when they say the crowd gives them energy. I had my two minutes of fame and it was intoxicating,” Reeder says. “My favorite moment was seeing my two children dancing in the front row. I actually felt cool in the eyes of an 11 and 14-year-old for a moment.”

It’s a feeling they all share.

“One of the elements that makes Suits That Rock so special is the connection to the audience,” Canafax says. “They are an extension of us! We feed off of them and they feed off of us.”

“It’s a step into a time warp – spending three hours in a very carefree time of your life,” Domaschko says. “You’re in another world. You lose track of time. That’s kind of the experience – but when you add to that, almost 500 people having as much fun as you are, dancing, re-creating their youth, I gotta say in the thrill department, there’s nothing that comes even close to it.”

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SUITS ROCK OUT:

Themes of the Suits shows by year:

2009: The 40th anniversary of Woodstock – they performed Suit Stock – songs that were played at Woodstock, or songs that were performed by groups that appeared at Woodstock.

2010: 25th anniversary of Live Aid and Farm Aid. They performed Suits Aid, songs performed by artists who appeared at those shows, like Money for Nothing, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, White Room, Let it Be, Layla, Whole Lotta Love, Pinball Wizard, Barracuda, Power of Love, American Girl and Pink Houses.

2011: Tribute to American artists. United Suits of America.

2012: Yanks, Brits and Hits – a combination of American and British hits.

2013: SwimSuits: Songs of Summer – songs that were hits in the summer, or about Summer.

2014: 50th anniversary of the Beatles playing on Ed Sullivan. The Suits will perform a tribute to the 50 years of British artists since 1964, like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, The Clash, The Cure, Billy Idol, Amy Winehouse and Adele. “It’ll be very eclectic,” Domaschko says. “We have a list of about 360 songs we’re cutting down to about 40. That’s when the great debates happen. It’s loads of fun.”

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IF YOU GO THIS YEAR:

What: Suits That Rock
When: two separate, three-hour shows, one week apart – June 21, 28
Where: The Carnegie, Covington, 1028 Scott Blvd., Covington, 41011
Contact: Main: 859-491-2030, Box Office: 859-957-1940
On the web: http://www.thecarnegie.com/wordpress/donate/suits-that-rock
Find the Suits on Facebook here.

All photos by Steven Thomas, Photographic Memories, LLC.

Ryan Clark is a freelancer in Northern Kentucky. This story first appeared in NKY Magazine; it is reprinted with permission.