Ronnie Kole, A Study In Living Right
The jazz legend believes good attitude and good products keep you forever young.
Ronnie Kole is a consummate performer. A jazz pianist, composer, and arranger, he’s played for six presidents, Pope John Paul II, and at Carnegie Hall. He was fixture on Bourbon Street during the sixties, first as the opening act for the legendary Al Hirt, then headlining his own club. He appeared on Johnny Carson and was a regular in Vegas. For the last thirty years, he’s been out on the world stage performing concerts throughout Europe and in Russia. And he’s been using Vivant products as long as we’ve been making them.
Ronnie spoke with us from his home in New Orleans just a few days after hurricane Irma hit Florida. With his house was full of family and friends who’d come from the gator state to take refuge, it might as well have been a typical Tuesday for a man who has spent his life entertaining.
“Al Hirt had his club on Bourbon Street and Pete Fountain had his club and I had my club. So in the two or three blocks on Bourbon Street, the three of us had the great music clubs and, of course there were the Dixieland clubs and strip joints and all that.
We did a show, an honest to god concert. A mini concert. The lights would dim. The stage lights would come on. You danced and talked. You sat and listened. And it was a show the same as if I was doing a concert, only a lot smaller.
I do miss doing the intimate nightclub thing. The concerts are so much, I don’t want to say easier, but you just walk out on the stage. The promoters have handled everything. And you just go at it and groove.
Then I tell them my age at the end of the show. And I get off stage and they say you’ve got to be kidding. You’re running around, jumping, doing a lot of stuff. I say, ‘yeah, it’s good wine.’”
“Age is just something on a piece of paper.”
So age hasn’t really been a factor in the way people perceive your or your performance?
It hasn’t. To me, age is just something on a piece of paper. It’s your mind and your attitude regarding how old you feel that matters. I mean obviously, if your body gives out that’s something else, but if you keep going, and thinking young—I just never thought of myself as being the age I am, and I can’t think that I’m doing anything today that I wasn’t doing ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. I keep myself active. I think a lot of it is in your mind. If you think you’re old, you probably gave up on a lot of things. I haven’t given up on anything.
As an entertainer, it’s safe to say your appearance is very important to you.
Definitely. I try to look the best I can when I walk on the stage. I’m from the old school. I work in a tuxedo probably ninety-nine percent of the time and I like everything to be just perfect. That’s my living and that’s what I’ve done all my life. I just turned eighty-six and I don’t have a wrinkle on my face.
You met Dr. and Sara Fulton years ago…
Yes. Decades ago. I was playing out in Vegas and went to the coast where some friends introduced us. We just became great friends. It was before they’d even started the skin care line. They were doing the products and had the dermatology clinic. He was doing the cosmetic surgery. He had a big clientele. I watched the products progress. We’d be staying at their house, and all of a sudden he’s going to try something out on me. I’ve been using the products religiously for years and years and years. I have a double batch. I keep one in my travel bag and one here at what we call Chateau Kole.
Is your lack of wrinkles all due to products or is it lifestyle as well?
I think it’s the products. My brother is here right now and his face doesn’t look anything like mine. [laughs]
Are you still touring?
Oh yeah. I’m going out on a short one in a couple of weeks. I just love entertaining. My wife goes with me everywhere. I call her my American Express card because I never leave home without her.
How did your famous request medley get started?
I don’t know how it ever got started or how I started playing one melody with one hand and another with the other. It just sort of evolved. It probably started when I had my own club and I would do two, three shows a night. It probably evolved there. That’s a showstopper. It just works, and it’s a challenge, which makes it a lot of fun. I can’t get bored because I have no idea what they’re going to ask for and it goes from there.
You learned piano because of an illness as a kid. So do you think the music found you, or did you find the music?
That’s a good question. My aunt had a big, old, upright piano she played by ear. She taught me how to play on the black keys with my knuckles. I thought she played well. In later years, when I was touring and we ran across her in Phoenix and she sat down and played for me, I realized she really didn’t play well. But she kind of got me started.
I was diagnosed with a bad heart and had to go to a school for disabled kids in Chicago. I wasn’t supposed to play baseball. I used to sneak out and do it. They either misdiagnosed me or the good lord upstairs said, ah, we’re going to give this guy a second chance. You know, I was nine or ten years old and I wanted to go out and play. My parents thought maybe if we got a piano I’d want to stay inside and practice and wouldn’t be running around playing baseball. They were going to buy me a twenty-five dollar piano that was advertised on the radio, but ended up getting the most expensive Spinet the company made at the time for five hundred dollars. My dad was driving a garbage truck for the city of Chicago so he took a second job tending bar on his time off to pay for the piano and the lessons. And that’s how it all started. But I still went out to play baseball unbeknownst to him.
So you loved playing.
Yeah. I really enjoyed it. It was the love of my life. You couldn’t pull me away from the piano.
My sister-in-law grew up in the same neighborhood I did. She and my brother knew each other back then. When she was walking to school, she’d hear me practicing. We didn’t have air conditioning in the apartment building, so the windows were always open.
You were already entertaining.
Yeah. I didn’t realize I was entertaining even then. That’s good. I’m going to remember that one.