For Songwriter Jim Brickman, Christmas is a Blank Slate

Concert Preview

When pianist and songwriter Jim Brickman first met country singer Kenny Rogers, he quickly discovered that the legendary "Gambler" definitely knows when to hold 'em. The Hard Rock Rocksino provided the setting for a meeting between the Cleveland-based pianist and Rogers. The pair had never met and Brickman was keen to have the country vocalist sing a duet with him. But it took a bit of work to sell Rogers on the concept.

"I went backstage and I met him and I introduced myself," Brickman recalls. "I said, 'Hi, I'm Jim Brickman. I love your voice and I don't know if you know my other songs, but here's what I've written and some of your friends I'm sure know who I am.' He didn't look like he knew who I was, and I don't think he did know who I was."

While some people might have wrapped it up there, Brickman revealed his idea to Rogers. "I said, 'One of these days I would just love to do a collaboration with you,' knowing in my mind that I didn't mean now — I just meant some day. He said, 'Well, I have to hear you sing before I decide to do a duet with you.' And I said, 'Oh, no, I don't sing' and he said, 'Well, if you want to duet but you don't sing, what do you do?' And I said, 'I'm a songwriter and pianist. I would play and write the song and then you would sing it.' And he said, 'Oh, okay.Well, you know, send me some of your songs.'"

As he discovered, Rogers had his own version of quality control and was particular about the material he would record. "I sent about five songs and Kenny didn't like any of them," he says. "So I said, 'I'll try this; this has gotta happen.' I wrote a new song, which is the one we did, that he loved, and I wrote it with him in mind. That's how it happened. It's not like I just called him up and said, 'Of course you know me: I'm Jim Brickman and everybody knows me and I want you to sing,' and he said yes."

The collaboration with Rogers, "That Silent Night," is one of many highlights on Brickman's latest holiday release, On a Winter's Night: The Songs and Spirit of Christmas, which was released exclusively via Amazon in October. Brickman has put out several holiday-themed releases and, as he reveals, it's an area he loves to explore.

"It's my favorite time of year to release music and to tour," he says. "I love the spirit of what it's about and the nostalgia of it. And it doesn't have a lot of rules around it. You can kind of do anything you want to and it's okay because it's Christmas. So you could do like an instrumental song of a piece you wouldn't normally do on a record, and people will connect to it because of the nostalgia of it. I feel like it's really a blank slate."

Brickman put that creative freedom to good use on the new album, putting an interesting melodic spin on the classic poem, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," with John Oates handling the vocals.

"It didn't exist as a song. I just took the poem and wrote a melody to it. I wanted an every-guy to sing it," he explains. "It's really intimate and it's kind of like a lullaby. I just felt like he should approach it like he's telling a story. It's unexpected to hear him sing like that. So I like that a lot about it. I was surprised that no one has ever thought to take that poem and turn it into a melody."

He'll bring the festive holiday spirit close to home with a New Year's Eve performance at the Canton Palace Theatre, which seems like a good way to wrap up his first 20 years as a recording artist — a career that has racked up 30 hits on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts, along with two Grammy nominations and four gold albums. For the Shaker Heights native, it's been a great ride, fulfilling the musical dreams he always believed were possible, even though he was modest in his expectations.

"I never thought about it not being a career for me. But I didn't think of it in the context that it's in right now," he says. "I didn't plan to be a performer or a recording artist, I just wanted to do music. I wasn't determined that, 'I must be a songwriter and I am going to find my fame and fortune.' It was more like I just loved doing it, so if I got to work at a record company or at a radio station [that would be enough]."

He paid plenty of dues and, from his point of view, that ended up being a good thing.

"I didn't get the record deal until I was in my early 30s," he says. "I was kind of ready and I was more grown up. I had been a jingle writer for 11 or 12 years and I was in advertising. I didn't leave for L.A. until I was almost 30 and I had a business in Cleveland in my 20s. I thought that was going to be my life. Which was fine. I was happy doing it. But I missed playing the piano and I missed writing about things other than kitty litter, and so I felt like it was time to explore other opportunities."

Those "other opportunities" have certainly proved to be fruitful and Brickman thankfully still returns to Northeast Ohio on a regular basis.