Madison-area musician hopes to recover in time for show with Cheap Trick singer
Brian Beebe, key to band's past, has health scare
Brian Beebe — a piano bar-playing institution in the Wisconsin Dells area for decades who was instrumental in the formation of the rock band Cheap Trick — is home recovering from a heart attack and stroke he suffered on Aug. 10.
“I was lucky,” Beebe says in a phone interview on Labor Day. The stroke did not affect his speech, facial control or cognition, he says. “I just have weakness in my left hand.”
Beebe, who plays piano and sings four nights a week at Sarento’s Italian Restaurant at The Wilderness in the Dells, says it could take three months or more before he can tickle the keys again with that hand.
Beebe hopes it doesn’t take much longer, because in four months he’s scheduled to perform at least two of three consecutive nights (Jan. 11-13, 2019) with his old friend Robin Zander, lead singer of Cheap Trick, at Monk’s Bar & Grill in the Dells.
“I can’t sit that one out,” Beebe says of the annual shows he’s emceed and performed with Zander every January since 2014. “That’s quite a fun thing for us, to do some of the songs we did when we were much younger.”
At those shows in the lower level of Monk’s, Beebe plays a baby grand piano, Zander plays acoustic guitar and together they cover songs by The Beatles, Bee Gees, Neil Young and The Rolling Stones — songs the two men first performed together in the Dells area in the early 1970s as the duo Zander and Kent. (Zander was Zander, Beebe was Kent.)
As he recovers, Beebe tells Madison Magazine about his key role in the formation of Cheap Trick, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band, and how his ongoing friendship with its lead singer has reunited them for an annual event enjoyed by fans.
Before Cheap Trick
On YouTube there’s a 1971 recording of Zander and Kent playing “Yesterday” by The Beatles. The music is accompanied by a slideshow of old photos of the two of them together in those days — the same photos projected on either side of the stage at Monk’s before the shows with Zander.
Before first teaming up in the Dells, Beebe and Zander went to high school together in Loves Park, Illinois, where both of them sang in the choir.
In nearby Rockford, Beebe introduced Zander to drummer Brad Carlson — who became known as Bun E. Carlos — and the three formed a short-lived band. Carlos would go on to play in bands with bassist Tom Petersson and guitarist Rick Nielsen, old friends of Carlos also from Rockford.
In 1973, Zander and Kent had a year left on a three-summer contract to play a club in the Dells when Cheap Trick — then comprised of Carlos, Petersson and Nielsen — asked Zander to join them. Zander initially turned down the invite.
But in the fall of 1974, after finishing out his contract with Beebe in the Dells, Zander replaced original Cheap Trick lead singer Randy Hogan (aka Xeno of the Milwaukee band Bad Boy). Hogan, incidentally, also sang in the same high school choir as Zander and Beebe, according to the latter.
“It was a mutual parting of ways,” Beebe said of seeing Zander leave to join Cheap Trick. “I had told him that if we weren’t famous by the end of 1974, I wanted to do something else.”
A Life in Music
That something else would be staying in the Dells and opening a bar, The Ace of Clubs. “We would hire Cheap Trick to play — three nights for $600 or two nights for $500,” Beebe recalls. But after the band hit it big, particularly after the U.S. release of the live album “Cheap Trick at Budokan” in early 1979, “I couldn’t afford them,” Beebe says.
Beebe discovered he could save even more money by hiring musicians to play with him at his own establishment, up to six nights a week.
He eventually sold the bar and moved to Madison where, for four years, he played with The Ambassadors, a group that played weddings, bar mitzvahs, business events and private parties. About that time he started getting solo gigs, too, singing and playing guitar. After a friend invited him to Florida, Beebe played a number of west coast clubs — from Fort Meyers to Sarasota — every winter for 20 years.
“When I started down there, I realized I was playing for people my parents’ age, so I needed to learn a lot of older songs. I went from playing 300 to 400 songs to learning more than 1,000 pretty quickly,” he says. “I went from two to 11 or 12 typed pages of songs I’d hand out so people could make requests.”
Back in the Dells
In 2003, Beebe and his late wife Linda returned to living year-round in the Dells. And it was in 2006 that Tom Field asked him to play regularly at Sarento’s, the new restaurant Field co-owned.
“I chased him down,” Field says. “I wanted entertainment in my restaurant and I wanted the best.”
When Beebe first saw the room, Field says Beebe suggested that the tables be set up around the piano so he could play for them and the 40 people seated at the bar. “Maybe I can retire here” Field recalls Beebe saying during that first visit. Field says Beebe plays everything from Sinatra and Dean Martin to AC/DC. “He can play and play and hit all our customers,” Field says.
“It’s a Rat Pack looking place,” Beebe says of Sarento’s. “It’s the best gig any musician has anywhere year-round in Wisconsin.”
Beebe recently had another gig: A live podcast — “The Brian Beebe-Half Hour Variety Hour” — which he recorded from November 2016 until this past April when Madisontalks.com suspended operation. The podcast — episodes of which can still be heard on company website — was a discussion of music and current events.
“Of course I also took requests over the phone,” Beebe says.
Local radio personality Mitch Henck, who ran Madisontalks.com, said Beebe “is enormously talented and very funny. He has a reservoir of stories and can play for hours all those songs baby boomers love.”
The Madison-area singer-songwriter Brandon Beebe is not related to Brian Beebe.
Rock Stars Remember
Cheap Trick band members, meanwhile, didn’t entirely forget the man who brought the band together. In 2009, when the band did a track-by-track live rerecording of The Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Beebe was flown out to Las Vegas to provide backing vocals.
Beebe says it was a thrill to work with Geoff Emerick, the engineer on the original “Sgt. Pepper” album who also engineered Cheap Trick’s rerecording. With a 27-piece orchestra, the band played nine live shows over 17 days in Vegas, which resulted in a CD and DVD.
“We really did pull it off,” Beebe says. “Emerick said Cheap Trick’s versions of those songs make The Beatles’ versions sound like demos.”
In April 2016, Cheap Trick was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Carlos, who had left the band but attended and performed with Cheap Trick at the induction ceremony, namechecked Beebe when it was his turn at the mic.
The subsequent news coverage meant “I finally got my name in Rolling Stone [magazine],” Beebe says.
Beebe says he doesn’t regret not having shared in more of the fame and fortune enjoyed by the members of Cheap Trick. He says a life in rock and roll takes a toll on one’s relationships, health and artistic independence.
But some people, like the guys in Cheap Trick, knew from the beginning what they wanted, Beebe says. “They always dreamed of being in a famous band,” he says.
Beebe says he followed a different path, which was rewarding, too. “I made it in music my whole life. A lot of guys out with touring bands don’t make as much at the end of the day as I do,” he says.
Benefit Shows Planned
But until Beebe gets full use of his left piano-playing hand again, he’s out of work. Although he says he wasn’t consulted in advance, a crowdfunding page on Facebook was set up by his son, Joe. Beebe admits the money will be helpful while he’s recovering. The page has collected nearly $11,500 as of Sept. 6.
Beebe says he spent a week each at University Hospital and in UW Health’s inpatient rehabilitation facility.
Dan Collar, co-owner of Monk’s Bar & Grill, is organizing a series of shows involving local musicians to raise money to help cover Beebe’s medical bills. Local bands will play Oct. 20 and 21. The original Piano Fondue, a dueling piano act, will reunite for another benefit show on Oct. 26.
“Brian spent his life doing benefits for other people,” Collar says. “It’s only right to help him out. He will be back.”
Collar says he’s confident Beebe will be back in time for the Jan. 11-13, 2019, shows with Zander at Monk’s in the Dells. The previous years’ shows on two consecutive nights have involved Zander’s musically adept children — particularly Robin Taylor Zander; Ian Zander and Holland Zander. The third night added next year will showcase them and their bands, such as Holland Zander & The Sensations.
A few years ago, after first seeing the intimate performance space at Monk’s, Beebe says he suggested to Zander that he play there. “He said it would have to be ‘An intimate evening with Robin and Brian,'” Beebe recalls. “I thought he was joking, that he didn’t really want to do that.”
Apparently Zander was serious, setting aside a couple nights to return to where it all began for a couple nights each January — when he isn’t touring with Cheap Trick, his side project The Robin Zander Band or, previously, with rotating rock star supergroup Kings of Chaos.
The camaraderie between Zander and Beebe is apparent as they play the classics, decades after they first performed those songs together in the Dells.
“We both played by ear,” Beebe recalls. “We could do just about anything.”
Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine.
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