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Classically Trained: Making the ‘good ol’ songs’ still unforgettable

LAGUNA BEACH — When Mike McCaffrey tells the audience he’s got the world on a string, he’s got you under his skin and that you’re unforgettable — and pretty incredible, too — he can’t go wrong.

That’s because he’s a pianist, singer and performer for the “people will want to hear the ‘good ol’ songs.’”

You probably know those. They’re the ones “not like they write today.” And they were done by guys like Frank Sinatra.

Or Nat “King” Cole. George Gershwin. Cole Porter. Irving Berlin.


Those are the American music legends that McCaffrey, 77, and the two others of the Mike McCaffrey Trio — Gil Orr on guitar and Paul Fornay on stand-up bass — perform for golden-age music lovers locally and nationwide. The trio will be performing in Corona del Mar at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the OASIS Senior Center. Tickets are $3.

So when you hear them, “Try to remember where you were when this song came out,” McCaffrey advises, “and who you were with and what was going on in your part of the world at that time.”

But this trio goes a step further than just taking on the charts of the Greatest Generation.

Armed with his encyclopedic knowledge, McCaffrey supplements his shows with little-known stories about the legends.


McCaffrey’s passion for performing and his admiration for the performers he sings is remarkable — he keeps a fictitious picture of him next to Ol’ Blue Eyes on his living room’s vintage Everett piano — and so is his quest to learn more about them.

He’s quick to point out the stack of Gershwin books on the floor of his Emerald Bay home — or the fact that he’s poured over the Newport Beach library system’s four books on Cole and 24 on Sinatra.

The Laguna Beach resident of 40 years was born in Glendale, raised in La Cañada and is a UCLA graduate. He started playing piano at 3 years old and has music roots tracing back to his father, a saxophonist and drummer.

McCaffrey was never formally trained and doesn’t read music, instead relying on his ear and musical instincts. He knows the chart, the key and goes from there.

“If you gave me some technical classical music, I couldn’t handle it,” he admits. “But if you play me a popular song, I can play it.”

McCaffrey is late to the limelight. That’s because the majority of his career was spent training public speaking to executives. During that time, his musical instincts were left dormant until retirement.

Yet the music bug was still inside him, so about 10 years ago he formed his self-named trio. Since then, the trio has performed at functions including jazz festivals in Canada and Idaho, the Barclay Theatre at UC Irvine and the Balboa Bay Club & Resort.

Listeners of the Mike McCaffrey Trio will enjoy listening to McCaffrey’s tales of his Hollywood stint as a page for NBC in the 1950s. Those years brought him next to two of the legends he plays today: Cole and Sinatra.


"[Cole] had this very nice rapport with the musicians, who clearly respected him as a musician,” McCaffrey recalls. “But he was nice to the lighting guy, the audio guy, guys hauling wires and stuff. He was very courteous and respectful — a gentleman.”

Seeing Cole out of his stage element was especially memorable for McCaffrey, who had long admired the renowned jazz pianist.

“He was really very big for his time” McCaffrey says. “Here’s a guy, who’s a hero guy to me, and he was sharp.”

McCaffrey said working alongside the Chairman of the Board, however, was different. Sinatra was indeed like what’s been written about him: mostly serious, somewhat standoffish, but nonetheless courteous, respectful and sharing a great bond with the musicians.

“One of the things that he did, when he would go to a restaurant that he liked, he’d get up at the end of a meal and go back into the kitchen,” McCaffrey says. “He’d give the chef, the dishwasher and the waiters all $100 bills, telling them how much he enjoyed it.

“That was a quiet thing; he didn’t exercise his generosity.”

One of McCaffrey’s favorite moments was recording with Page Cavanaugh, a well-respected singer, jazz and pop pianist. As a young man, McCaffrey met Cavanaugh and the two became friends, but they were split apart for many years before reuniting again.

In 1999, McCaffrey got to sing and record the album “Great Songs of the Swing Era” with Cavanaugh and his band.


“We never had a rehearsal,” he recalls, adding that they just talked through the numbers before playing them. “His people hadn’t heard me sing, and we didn’t know for sure how it would go.”

Fortunately, all went well.

“Page and his people were very complimentary,” he says. “The guy in the booth was very complimentary, and it was a big thrill for me, because he was somebody who had a name and he was very good.”

McCaffrey truly loves being a performer. The bigger the crowd, the better, and he’s gracious for every moment spent onstage.

“I can make people tear up and I can make people feel joyful,” he says. “That’s a great feeling.”

He tries to make his shows run the full emotional gamut.

“I think I will evoke some joy, good feelings and smiles; I know that’ll happen. But I also think there will be some tears … I see it consistently in my concerts.”

And when McCaffrey plays a romantic song, he sometimes sees people holding hands.

“Or sometimes they’ll cry. Sometimes they’ll mouth the words with me, and it’s really touching.”

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at

If You Go

What: “The Music and Stories of Frank Sinatra & Nat ‘King’ Cole”

Where: OASIS Senior Center, 801 Narcissus Ave., Corona del Mar

When: 2 p.m. Wednesday

Cost: $3

Info: (949) 644-3244