Josh Cooper | Staff Writer
Sterling Price-McKinney’s career took him from playing piano for a traveling circus to playing piano for Bob Hope to playing piano for the Chautauqua Opera Company.
“I love interesting people,” Price-McKinney said. “I never kiss and tell. I’m not a namedropper. I’m not a social climber. I just exist. I don’t know what I am. I let other people decide. And whatever they think I am is probably what I am.”
An integral part of what Price-McKinney is has to do with music. He started playing music before he learned to read. He grew up in Texas, and there was a piano in his great aunt’s house.
“We were over there one day, and she was walking down the hall, and she heard music coming out of the library,” Price-McKinney said. “It freaked her out, and she opened the door of the library, and it was me, and I was about 3, and I was playing a recognizable song on the piano.”
She went to Price-McKinney’s father and suggested piano lessons.
“My father said, ‘I won’t let him learn to read music until he learns to read books,’” Price-McKinney said. “So I went to the next-door neighbor’s, and a girl named Regina taught me how to read Dr. Seuss books.”
Once he learned to read, and demonstrated this to his father, he started taking piano lessons.
He took to the instrument immediately. He began playing in church, and at age 11, he began playing piano for a traveling tent-show evangelist.
“They billed me as this miraculous child, and I thought it was all for religious reasons, but of course it was because I brought in a lot of money,” Price-McKinney said. “I thought I was doing the Lord’s work, but I was really making the payments on someone’s Cadillac.”
He said when he realized he had been “donated to Jesus, body and soul,” he ran away and joined a traveling circus.
“At some point, I realized I could disappear into the carnival world, and my father could not find me,” Price-McKinney said. “The carnival is full of people who have left their wives and children or couldn’t stand to see their parole officer one more time or just had to change their whole identity or couldn’t keep up with the Joneses anymore.”
The people of the carnival, he said, look out for each other.
“They protect each other,” Price-McKinney said. “When the sheriff comes by and asks something like, ‘Have you run across a guy named Josh Cooper?’ and the carnival people would say something like, ‘I heard he was in this carnival down the road about 40 miles.’”
This type of obfuscation is what the carnival is all about, he said.
“This is the art of the carnival,” he said. “It’s not the trick itself; it’s the diversion of the attention that makes you believe the trick.”
During his time with the carnival, Price-McKinney accompanied silent films on the piano and on dusty old pipe organs. It was then that he “became immersed in the music of the past,” that of composers like Scott Joplin and Cole Porter.
He said the friends he made during his time with the circus were not the most typical of people.
“I traveled with the freaks, with the German fun house called ‘Ward Hall’s World of Wonders,’” Price-McKinney said. “And there was Ronnie and Donnie the Siamese twins, the tallest woman in the world, the turtle boy who had no arms or legs but who could open a book of matches and light a cigarette. There was also a midget who spit flames named Pete something-or-other, and of course Ward Hall himself, who we called ‘Dr. Miracle.’”
Part of his responsibilities with the carnival included playing piano for the parties that usually preceded a carnival coming to a town. Usually, he said, when the carnival came to town, there would be a cocktail party where the mayor and important people of the town would get to meet the carnival people.
“I was the bridge between the freaks and the ‘normies,’” he said.
It was at these parties that he met several notable celebrities, including Bob Hope and Debbie Reynolds. He tells a story of how at one such party, he had an interesting introduction to Reynolds.
“I was playing for her at one of these inevitable cocktail parties, and she did this last high note that was just earth-shattering and just a terrible choice, and I was about 17 at the time, but she asked me, ‘How do you like it?’ and I said, ‘Well, I think it would be better if you didn’t do that high note on the end,’” Price-McKinney said. “And she just stared at me, and I thought she was going to hit me. She looked right through me and said, ‘Kid, you ought to be in show business.’”
It took him a few years to take her advice, and he started playing for theater and other entertainment acts. He played with some of the last surviving big bands in clubs in Texas around the 1970s before they disappeared altogether. Having a particular love for dance, he played for some of the most renowned dancers in the world, including Jacques d’Amboise. He also toured with and met different bands, including America, with whom he “sat by a swimming pool and rewrote a song with them one night.”
“Black Sabbath wanted me to tour with them and just play the piano for them late at night when they wanted to relax,” he said.
A staple in Price-McKinney’s career was musical theater. He has, as he said, been a part of just about every kind of musical imaginable. He also has written some of his own works, including an opera about his former employer, Lady Bird Johnson.
Price-McKinney said much of his work now focuses on helping struggling artists get the opportunities he once had. He now runs an arts compound called Eponymous Gardens in Austin, Texas, that houses filmmakers, visual artists and musicians.
“My work is about fostering the next generation,” Price-McKinney said. “I think the old paradigm is all but dead — this thing where the Rockefellers write out a million-dollar check — I think the paradigm for the support of the arts in this generation has shifted. We have to lure people into the fine arts a different way than we did 50 years ago.”
He said part of the work of his arts house is making sure that “artists are not discarded as soon as they stop being en jeunes.”
“We’ve set aside space for what we call ‘confidential care,’ for artists who are in trouble and need a place to stay without questions asked,” he said. “Right now, we’re caring for an actress who is dying of cancer. I don’t want her to end up in some huge hospital in a bed where nobody cares what she’s going through.”
Price-McKinney’s devotion to young artists can be felt at Chautauqua. Teddy Kern, a long-time friend of his, and a coach of the Chautauqua Opera Company, said young artists are privileged to be able to work under his direction.
“Sterling and I have been working together for many years, and he is absolutely brilliant, in case nobody told you,” Kern said. “He is truly, truly a gifted artist, and these kids are so blessed to have the opportunity to work with someone of his caliber in a situation like this.”
Matthew Klauser, one of this year’s Young Artists, said Price-McKinney brings out the best in all the singers.
“He won’t let us give anything less than our best,” Klauser said. “I don’t mean that in a cruel way; he just has a way of getting at the heart and soul of what we’re singing, and he has a way of making us get to that vulnerable place. He wants honesty, and he wants more than just lines and words and music. With him, it’s about the story we’re telling.”
Price-McKinney said that while his career has taken him in “a million different directions,” he wouldn’t have it any other way. He said he loves the diversity of his experiences.
“People say, ‘If you had just been able to focus on one thing, you’d be a great success,’” Price-McKinney said. “And I always think that would have been boring. I really like the complexity of the choices that I’ve made. They’re not easy to put in a sound bite. Whenever somebody said, ‘What do you do?’ my usual response is, ‘Where do I begin?’”