the music man

If you’re a real Pittsburgher, you know the name Purcell—and musician Rick Purcell is a real Pittsburgher. Rick and his wife, Vera, a Howard Hanna Real Estate agent for 28 years, grew up in Brookline. Rick’s dad, Jack, a one-time Pittsburgh symphony trombonist who later  formed his own band, and Rick’s mother, Jeanne, lived in the same home there for 67 years before moving recently to the Devonshire of Mt. Lebanon.

Rick’s love for Pittsburgh—and Mt. Lebanon, where he and Vera raised their children, Evan 32, and Joyce, 21, on Arrowood Drive—is one reason he agreed four years ago to serve on the board of Music for Mt. Lebanon, It’s also one reason Music for Mt. Lebanon—which last year began showcasing a local performer each season— is excited to have Rick in the 2013-2014 lineup.

Rick’s “Little Big Band” opens the series at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, October 19, at Upper St. Clair High School Auditorium with “She’s Got the Blues,” featuring singer Jessica Lee. The show is a “musical journey from the early days of jazz and blues traveling through many decades.” He hopes to see a lot of family and friends in the audience.

Rick with parents Jack and Jeanne

Rick and Vera’s parents were friends at Brookline Presbyterian church, where Vera’s dad was a pharmaceutical executive-turned student minister, but because Vera is seven years younger, teenaged Rick never gave her the time of day. A few years later, he noticed a pretty young woman in a front pew at a wedding and whispered to his mother, “Who’s that dish?” “That’s Vera Forsythe,” she answered, to which Rick  astounded, said something like, “What? That snotty nosed little brat?” Six dates later, and they were married.

Vera’s parents are gone now, but for years, “It was really wonderful. Both families were always together,” says Rick, and when I hear that song, “the worst person I know… mother in law,” I think about my mother in law because she was the best. If I was 100 percent wrong, she would take my side and, say, ‘Vera, he’s a nice boy.’ Vera would get so mad, but, hey, why argue?”

Rick, his brother, Randy, and his sister, Leslie, all CMU grads, followed their dad into music business. Randy, who died four years ago, was a talented trombonist who played with Maynard Ferguson and appeared on TV shows such as Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas. Leslie teaches piano and Dalcroze Eurhythmics.

Rick played trumpet—“I didn’t want to be the third best trombonist in the family,” he says, and piano. He set out to major in piano,  but his plans changed when his piano teacher, Carmen Rummo, leveled: Rick wasn’t good enough to make it as a classical pianist, but he could make it in trumpet.

“It worked out well, because trumpet majors don’t have to practice nearly as much as piano majors,” says Rick. So he used his free time to master the kinds of music he plays today on piano and keyboard.

After graduation, Rick and a band of buddies toured the country for five years playing at hotels, writing some original music—“Every hotel had a band then,” he recalls.

Singer Jessica Lee and band man Rick Purcell
Singer Jessica Lee and band man Rick Purcell

Today, Rick sticks closer to home—he plays everything from weddings and private parties to the Medallion Ball and kids events, with music ranging from jazz and R&B to swing, pop and soul. He often entertains on keyboard/keyboard bass as a duo with vocalist Sherry Rickard. For Music for Mt. Lebanon, he and Jessica Lee, a Duke Law grad whom he calls a “great jazz blues singer” will kick it up a notch with an 11-piece band—six horns, three bass, three sax and keyboard. “It will be a fairly serious concert,” Rick says.

With an aging audience, Music for Mt. Lebanon’s board hopes adding local performers such as Rick to the lineup (last year they kicked off with the Tamburitzans) will encourage younger people and families to attend. “When I joined the board, ticket sales were bad,” Rick admits. “People are working longer hours, staying home in front of the computer. It’s a struggle to get people out of their houses. I was hoping I could make a difference—to get people to hear things they otherwise might not hear.”

That remains a challenge, but under the leadership of Artistic Director Richard Pinkerton, also music director for Southminster Presbyterian Church, and with new board members such as Mt. Lebanon High School orchestra director Bob Vogel, ticket sales have leveled out, Rick says. And although some longtime subscribers are resistant to change, Rick believes they’ll continue to support the evolving series—a bargain at $65-$90 for all five shows.

His hope? That Music for Mt. Lebanon, at age 62, can embrace “21st century thinking outside the box.”

 “She’s Got the Blues,” Saturday, October 19; “Grande Romanza, Broadway Love Songs featuring Stefano & Nina Tanchietti,” November 9; “The Golden Dragon Acrobats,” December 7,; “Mona Golabek: the Pianist of Willesden Lane,” March 8, and the Royal Moscow Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty,” April 12. Single tickets are available. All shows are on Saturdays at 7:30, most are at Upper St. Clair High School because of Mt. Lebanon High School construction. or 412-264-3354.

Photography by George Mendel