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10 questions for Rocky Blumhagen

by: Courtesy of Dave Stanfield 
Rocky Blumhagen will be performing Cole Porter songs at a Portland Art Museum benefit concert May 1.

The famed composer and songwriter Cole Porter has a lot of fans and followers, but none bigger than Rocky Blumhagen.

Blumhagen, who attended Lewis and Clark College and lived and worked in radio in Portland for more than 20 years, has developed his own tribute show to the late and great Porter, and he'll be performing all 12 tracks from his CD of Porter hits - 'Easy to Love' - at a benefit concert titled 'An Afternoon With Cole Porter' May 1 in the Kridel Grand Ballroom at the Portland Art Museum.

Blumhagen says Porter, who died in 1964 after a long career of developing songs later crooned by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Harry Connick, lived a glorious life, thanks to an immense wealth and significant role in high society.

'He was a fascinating character, because he lived larger than life,' says Blumhagen, 59, who lives part of the year in Palm Springs, Calif., and on the Oregon Coast. 'I think his wealth allowed him to totally be who he was and not live in conventional terms.'

Blumhagen will team with producer Ron Abel and the Portland Chamber Orchestra for the 4 p.m. May 1 concert, hosted by Arlene and Harold Schnitzer and PCO Maestro Yaacov Bergman. Tickets, although almost gone, are $125 and available by calling 503-552-0698. It's a benefit for the Portland Chamber Orchestra and The Harold Schnitzer Diabetes Health Center at Oregon Health Sciences University.

The Tribune caught up with Blumhagen, an Eastern Oregon native, to talk about the concert, his career and his adoration for Porter's music:

Tribune: You were an entertainer, then worked in radio at KXL, KGW, KISN, KGON and KNRK?

Blumhagen: I was a child performer, sang before I talked, started singing in churches, TV talent shows for kids. It was a natural to get a performance degree, and I sang professionally through my 20s (touring abroad). When I wasn't getting the level of fame I wanted … I was tired of living on the road, seven years I didn't have a home, I lived in hotels. I needed more stability. I went back to school for radio and TV at Portland Community College. I thought I'd be on the talent side, but there was more money on the sales and management side. I loved my radio years, the daily creativity of making the product and selling it, making it out of nothing.

Tribune: But singing and acting was your calling?

Blumhagen: I was spending more time in the desert (Palm Springs), and I started singing and acting. I had done a lot of club work and I didn't care to get back into it, so I've done mostly concert venues and theater in Southern California.

Tribune: You spend much time in Portland?

Blumhagen: Very little, because I've done my performing in Southern California. But, when Yaki Bergman heard me do a Cole Porter concert for the 'Let There Be Arts' benefit in Lincoln City, he said he'd love to have me sing with one of his orchestras. I had Ron Abel create my arrangements, and I performed at the SoundWaves Summer Music Festival (in Lincoln City). It was so successful, that's when I went into Kung Fu Bakery recording studio.

Tribune: How did the May 1 concert come together?

Blumhagen: Arlene wanted to have me over for dinner, there was this whole mix of people there. I sang a couple songs. Near the end of the night, she said it would be great if I could do the Cole Porter concert that I did at Lincoln City, for the diabetes center and the orchestra. The right people were in the room. 'Let's do it, make something happen.' That was in August last year, by the fall we had the event planned. We moved it right along, and it's a reality now and it'll make a lot of money. It's going to be quite a posh event. … People might ask, 'How do these big galas come together?' It's just people sitting around a dining table. Working with Arlene is wonderful, and things happen with that woman, she's a force of nature.

Tribune: What makes Cole Porter's music special?

Blumhagen: Cole Porter wrote more than 1,000 songs, and so many of them are well known, it almost gets to be a challenge - 'Oh I really like that one, and that one.' (Such as) 'Night and Day,' 'Begin the Beguine,' 'I've Got You Under My Skin,' 'In The Still of the Night.' Many that Frank Sinatra recorded and, in recent years, Michael Buble and Harry Connick. His music and lyrics are so timeless. It's so well crafted. He was a very fine composer, his music is enduring and his lyrics very hip. Like 'Let's Do It, Let's Fall In Love.' That song was written in 1928 for the musical 'Paris.' At the time, there was heavy censorship control by the U.S. government on lyric content. To get by the censors, he wrote the song, and it's all about having sex, really. He did it through clever lines that got by the censors.

Tribune: You've done your share of Cole Porter research?

Blumhagen: In my show, I have a lot of bio info on him, about each song. He had a devoted marriage (with Linda Lee Thomas), although he was a gay man. His wife was much older than he was. They got married in 1918 and (being gay) just wasn't talked about. They were devoted to each other, and she helped propel his career. They had homes in Venice, London, Waldorf Towers in New York and Los Angeles when he started writing more scores for films. They lived a very large life.

Tribune: Cary Grant played Porter in a movie?

Blumhagen: He was kind of an elfish figure, a small man, not very handsome. So, it was a joke, they asked him who he wanted to play him and he said Cary Grant. So, you have gorgeous Cary Grant playing Cole Porter (in 'Night and Day,' 1946). And, they totally sanitized his life. When the later Cole Porter movie was made with Kevin Kline ('De-Lovely,' 2004), it was a little more realistic about the complexity of his life.

Tribune: What's it like to sing his songs?

Blumhagen: They're very dramatic. I'm more of a Broadway singer, and I love to sing with a lot of drama. His music lends itself to dramatic interpretation, like 'Get Out Of Town,' a notorious jazz ballad, and novelty songs like 'Let's Do It' and 'Don't Fence Me In.' A lot of people don't know that Cole Porter wrote 'Don't Fence Me In,' which Kate Smith introduced to radio in 1944, and it began a big rallying cry to end the war and a sense of country and home. He was also a master of romance with 'So in Love' and 'In the Still Of The Night.'

Tribune: How'd you hook up with Ron Abel, an award-winning composer, producer, arranger, orchestrator, conductor and musical director?

Blumhagen: He's very well known, and I'd met him through a voice teacher in Palm Springs. Then I was selected for the International Cabaret Conference at Yale three years ago. Ron was one of the music directors. When Yaki asked me to do the Cole Porter show, I knew he was the guy to give Cole Porter the contemporary, the right feel. I wanted arrangements to have the Harry Connick/Michael Buble feel. … We recorded at Kung Fu Bakery, the largest recording space in Portland.

Tribune: You're still going strong at 59?

Blumhagen: Oh, I am. I feel 40. I've always taken good care of myself. I'm in excellent health. I can still wear clothes (size) from when I was 30.