Penguins' anthem singer Jimerson loves his many gigs
Jeff Jimerson was entering a police car last month, when Mario Lemieux rolled up in his vehicle and asked, “Getting arrested?”
“I sang out of tune, they are taking me in for questioning,” Jimerson joked.
Lemieux's statue is far more likely to start skating down Centre Avenue before the singer, one of Pittsburgh's favorite musical sons, ever hits a sour note.
The vocalist-musician was receiving an escort between Consol Energy Center, where he had just sung the national anthem before a Pittsburgh Penguins' game, and Heinz Hall, where he was performing at the B.E. Taylor Christmas Concert.
He calls himself “the luckiest hockey fan in the city.”
As the primary anthem singer for the Pittsburgh Penguins, he has stepped to the microphone for what he estimates is “maybe pushing 500 games” since the 1990-91 season.
“Jeff's singing the anthem is part of the Penguins' game-night experience and has been for years,” says Rod Murray, the team's senior director of production and game presentation. “Our fans always cheer loudly whenever he is introduced as the singer. Jeff has a style and passion that resonate with Pittsburghers.”
Jimerson of Franklin Park believes he is one of only a handful of regular anthem singers in the NHL, and one of the longest-tenured.
It really never gets old, he says. “It's just a thrill each time. The adrenaline and excitement of it is just awesome. It's almost like time freezes, and you don't even realize what's going on until you see it later on TV. Then, it's pretty intimidating, out there singing with all the players on the ice.”
Before his first Stanley Cup game, he realized, “This is like the Super Bowl of hockey, and I'm singing.”
Jimerson believes the key to offering an effective anthem is to keep it simple. “Too many people try to add things to it that probably shouldn't be there,” he says. “It's our anthem, and I keep it simple. It's not a showcase for me. I'm not out there to let the world know I can do this vocally. It's about singing the anthem.”
The Chicago Tribune, in a story about anthem singers in hockey, called Jimerson a cult hero in Pittsburgh. He even earned a cameo in the Jean-Claude Van Damme 1995 action film, “Sudden Death,” singing at a fictional Stanley Cup final game at the Civic Arena.
A national trading card company is preparing to issue an autographed Jeff Jimerson card in its “Voices of the Game” series. And this high-profile, but decidedly humble, guy, has at least one Facebook fan page dedicated to him.
That does not surprise Jeff Stasko, an audio-visual broadcast manager and entertainment booker for Latitude 40 in Robinson, where Jimerson performs.
“A very loyal crowd follows him,” Stasko says. “He is one of the nicest guys I have known. If anyone should have an ego, it should be him, but he doesn't. He's a truly gifted musician and as down to earth as anyone I've known in the industry.”
While Jimerson may be best known for his powerful, no frills, delivery of the anthem, he also leads his popular variety group, Airborne; is a wedding singer (sometimes he is asked to sing the anthem at receptions, too); performs with the B.E. Taylor Group; and is a talent consultant for Pittsburgh's Entertainment Unlimited.
Being a parent, though, “is the best gig I ever had,” he says. He and wife Robin have one child, Colin, 10, and, for several years, Jimerson was a full-time, stay-at-home dad, which he considered a blessing.
“He considers Colin a gift every day and spends as much time as he can with him. He teaches him how to be a good, respectful person and man,” Robin Jimerson says. “Jeff is a friendly, kind, caring person and you can hear that in his voice when he sings.”
She says her husband does not take his popularity for granted “and to this day is amazed by how many people recognize him,” she says. “He never puts himself on a pedestal.”
“I'm just a regular guy who happens to sing. I try to be as genuine as I can,” says Jimerson, who is gracious and patient with anyone approaching him to talk Penguins or music, even if he is shopping with his family.
Colin once asked, “Dad, do you know all those people?” to which Jimerson replied, “No, Colin, but they know who I am.”
“Then, that makes you famous,” Colin said.
Jimerson admits that as a teen and young adult in bands he had “illusions of grandeur” and dreamed of one day singing at the Civic Arena — but on the stage, not the ice. He never played hockey growing up. “When I step on the ice, they have a rug under me,” he says
As he sat in Heinz Hall earlier this month, after being asked to sing the anthem at the inauguration of new Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, the 1974 Perry High School graduate allowed himself a moment of reflection on where his career has taken him, acknowledging, “This is pretty cool.”
“I never guessed the Penguin connection would be so prevalent,” he says. He theorizes that fans consider him to be part of the game, an extension of their love for hockey. He embraces that as an honor, though he may playfully wince when someone says, “I've been watching you since I was a kid.”
Some see him as the team's “good luck charm” of sorts, telling him that, “It's not the same when you're not here,” and that whenever he is there, the Pens' always win.
“I don't claim responsibility for the losses and don't take credit for the wins,” he says. “My job is to show up on time, sing the anthem, don't screw up and don't make (ESPN's) ‘Sports Center' (because of a mistake).”
He has never forgotten the words to the national anthem, though he says he once missed a line in “O Canada,” an anthem he also loves to sing because people associate it with hockey.
In the Civic Arena, he shared the pre-anthem runway with visiting back-up goalies, who had to sit there because there was no room on the bench. Some would tease him, saying, “You know the words, right?”
Many people believe that he meets a lot of players, but he doesn't. “They are in game mode when I'm there. I don't get much interaction with them,” he says.
Singing at the alumni game before the Winter Classic at Heinz Field is the first time he was able to shake Sidney Crosby's hand. “Almost all the Pens' players showed up to watch that game and almost everyone turned and said, ‘Hi Jeff,' ” he recalls.
At the final game at the Civic Arena, popular Penguin alumnus Ron Francis shook Jimerson's hand, telling him, “You've done a great job over the years.”
Singing continues to motivate him in his career. “It still feels as good as 20 years ago,” Jimerson says, “and that drives me to stay current.”
He has released his debut EP, “At Last” (available through his website, www.jeffjimersonmusic.com, and at select Giant Eagle stores), a collection of five adult contemporary songs, including the Carpenter's “Merry Christmas Darling,” on which his son also sang.
“People have been asking for a CD and I wanted to give them something that represented my voice. It really made me want to record more songs,” he says.
Veteran musician and B.E. Taylor band member Rick Witkowski, who co-produced some of the tracks with Jimerson and played guitar on two at Witkowski's Studio L in Weirton, praises Jimerson's “very distinctive and strong voice,” possessing probably the highest range of any male singer with whom he has worked.
“B.E. always says, ‘I can visit the neighborhood Jeff sings in, but could never live there!' ” Witkoski says.
Although Jimerson is known for his high range and volume, Witkowski says, “he also has a very cool soft side that's reminiscent of early Kenny Loggins that he showcases on his EP.”
He's also fun to work with, Witkowski says. “If he ever decided to get out of music, I think he could make a living doing stand-up comedy.”
“He can make you laugh anytime he wants to,” says B.E. Taylor, who has known Jimerson for about 35 years. “There are not that many people who have the voice that he has. He is a good musician, but he is a great singer. I love singing with him.”
Jimerson next performs with the B.E. Taylor Group at Taylor's Valentine's Day shows Feb. 14 and 15 at The Strand Theater in Zelienople.
Before he joined Jimerson in Airborne in 1990, keyboardist Herb Schweitzer of Bethel Park, who plays on two tracks of the EP, says he used to listen to Jimerson in the bands Streetheart and T-Dice.
“I was always amazed by his Steve Perry-like vocal range and overall stage presence,” he says. “I think people appreciate the way he sings the national anthem because he keeps it simple, quick and respectful and, as one fan said, his voice ‘soars to the rafters.' ”
Rick Jergel, general manager and partner of Jergel's Rhythm Grille, Warrendale, has been booking Jimerson since the late 1980s. He lauds his “super tenor range, fantastic stage presence and outstanding personality,” calling him “one of the best voices and entertainers in the city.”
It's all about the soul, Jimerson says of what music means to him.
“My main thing is I'm grateful everyday for what I have and what I have been able to do,” he says.
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.