Chances are good you’ve seen Nancy Kiersten (Kiki) Ebsen onstage if you’ve attended rock and jazz concerts around the country over the past fifteen years. A truly gifted musician in her own right, Ebsen granted examiner.com a special interview to share good news about her latest Kickstarter project, “to my dad, Buddy Ebsen, for Father’s Day. Love, Kiki.”
Thinking her name is familiar? It should be. Kiki is a singer-songwriter whose own compositions are a celebration of jazz, rock, and soul; her emotions flow effortlessly as she plays. When she sings, the power of her vocals conveying the lyrics is mesmerizing. She has a good sense of humor and rapport with the audience when headlining her own house concerts. Basically she was born to be on stage, somewhere, anywhere, everywhere.
You definitely have seen her, if you’ve attended a concert headlined by Christopher Cross, Al Jarreau, Boz Scaggs, Bill Champlin, Peter Cetera, Karla Bonoff, Michael McDonald, and Tracy Chapman, or even just listened to their albums. She’s there.
In addition to being on so many other artists’ music projects, Ebsen has released several of her own albums, including “Red,” “Kiki,” “Cool Songs, Vol. 1,” and “The Beauty Inside.”
Her first Kickstarter project was born when she was rummaging through an old trunk of some of her mother’s memorabilia and came upon the sheet music for a song her dad had written, “Missing You.” As she held that sheet music and heard the melody in her mind, she was inspired to record that song and other song standards that were also important to her dad, about the time that he’d written “Missing You.” She thought, “it would be great to have it done in time for my Father’s Day card to him, even though he’s not here to hear it.”
You might not have made the connection between the singer and her well-known father, beloved actor, dancer and musician, born Christian Ludolph Ebsen, Jr. Or, perhaps Baby Boomers might easily have typecast Buddy as Jed Clampett, of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” rather than a multitalented actor, dancer, singer and songwriter who was first known from his movies, stage productions and even vaudeville shows.
Long before the days of the Clampetts, Ebsen was a popular cast member in “Broadway Melody” movies, and he played “Captain January” alongside the late Shirley Temple. The diverse Ebsen was as popular on stage as he was on television. Still, you saw the versatile actor guest on “Burke’s Law, “Davy Crockett,” “Bonanza,” “Red Skelton,” “Gunsmoke,” and later on another weekly show, “Barnaby Jones,” with Lee Meriwether, a Quinn Martin production.
In fact, when they were growing up, Kiki and her brother, Dustin, knew that their mother was a writer and had a community theatre; that was “her job.” And their father had “his job” on television. They weren’t exactly sure when he was on TV, but they thought that everyone’s dad worked on television because their dad did. That’s the extent to which they were a show-biz family.
One evening, Kiki and Dustin sat down to look for their dad across all the channels to see where he actually was. They tried one channel, then another, and they “sort of, kind of thought” they’d found him, but they weren’t sure. The duo changed the dial through a series of programs and actors until they settled on one man. Both agreed that was indeed “Dad.” Surely that was him! As their mother, Nancy Wolcott McKeown Ebsen, walked into the room, they announced, “Mom, we found Dad on TV!” Nancy said, “No, that’s Lawrence Welk.” Oh well, they kept on watching anyway.
As they grew older Nancy, Dustin, and their siblings, Susannah, Cathy, and Bonnie (by Ebsen’s marriage to Nancy McKeown) and older siblings, Elizabeth and Alix (by Ebsen’s first marriage to Ruth Cambridge) grew up surrounded by as much of a normal non-Hollywood life as you could imagine. Everyone in the family had talent in some form or fashion; it was definitely a creative environment to grow up in, but no pressure to enter show business.
Young Nancy Kiersten Ebsen showed early signs of being a maverick, if not a baby renegade. Her older siblings started calling her “Kirstie,” but she announced one day that she was “Kiki,” and that’s what they should call her. They did. The next sign that she had early talents that were unique and non-mainstream came soon thereafter. Her grandmother played piano, her mother played, and an older sister played, so Kiki was started on lessons. Turns out she didn’t really need them.
Kiki was an obedient child, and so she pleasantly sat for lessons, but once she saw and heard the teacher play a piece, she was able to immediately reproduce the song by ear. Encouraged to “read” rather than “play by ear,” Kiki decided upon a silent compromise. She sat at the piano pretending to read the music, while playing by ear. Don’t you just love her already? Music on her terms.
As she grew, Kiki had many opportunities to find her father on television. Yet outside his regular series roles on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Barnaby Jones” and “Matt Houston,” Buddy’s movie talents became clearer, as Kiki discovered her dad’s tremendous dancing in Broadway chorus spots, and later in feature films including “Captain January” and portraying Doc Golightly, the man Holly Golightly left behind in her wake.
Kiki saw how Buddy effortlessly portrayed diverse characters in true-life fashion. One role was too true-to-life. In fact, he was originally supposed to be the scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz,” but wound up being re-cast as the Tin Man. This was years before producers could use CGI for skin color. In being subjected to repeated applications of alum powder to his skin, Ebsen developed a severe reaction and illness, which landed him in the hospital and out of the movie, “man of tin” no more.
Television would ultimately call him next, just a wish away. Ebsen was a man of many talents—song, dance, composition, and acting.
Staying true to your talent is what Kiki gleaned from watching her dad; that, and the value of working hard and doing your best, which she learned from both parents. Kiki’s mom, Nancy, was a full-time mom who also had her own California playhouse and produced many community theatre shows there regularly.
Kiki’s career in music was strengthened through high school and college. She graduated with a degree in classical voice (BFA '84) from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).
Her first job after graduation came as a result of fortuitous happenstance. A good friend was offered the opportunity to tour with the iconic band, Chicago, playing keyboards (offstage) whenever Robert Lamm and Bill Champlin would leave their keyboards to take center stage on a song. Turns out, Kiki’s friend didn’t want to tour, so she said, “well if you won’t take that job, I will!” Her first tour with Chicago led to all of the other “big name” artists with whom she would see the country.
Even though her career was filled with backing stars, opening for stars, or perfectly showcasing the compositions of stars, that’s been what Kiki has wanted to do. Music on her terms. Simply the love of making music with people she regarded and respected, of being part of a greater effort, and contributing to a product of excellent has been more than “enough” thus far.
And yet, you can’t keep the creative person confined to structure too long before something inside them propels them to find a new path, at least for a time. All through the years and miles of touring, Kiki was writing her own material, spurred on by the joy of simply making music at the highest level. Her style dares to be confined to a single genre. In fact, it’s not. She writes rock, jazz, and more—material that would fit perfectly on the pickiest terrestrial adult-contemporary station (if they were likely to play anything that was outside their formulaic “The Eagles-Journey-John Mellencamp” tightly packed programming).
Ebsen’s own compositions have been “covered by Boney James, Eric Marienthal and Jessy J.” Plus, she’s been on television with Blake Shelton, Kenny Loggins, Glen Campbell, Michele Branch, Gloria Estefan, Melissa Etheridge, and her two hands-down favorites, Robert Goulet and Dolly Parton. No doubt about it—Kiki Ebsen is a first-call musician and has the respect of all the biggest names in the business today.
Yet, like 95% of quality musicians today, the days of the big record labels and singles launched on the radio we used to know are gone. Today, artists create their music, build and grow their following, and produce their CDs to sell to people who already know their work. It’s worked well for the past 10 years to develop this path. Social media is a powerful tool that helps artists by-pass traditional major labels. Facebook pages help fans track upcoming concerts. Twitter encourages direct contact between artists and fans.
In fact, constituencies and contingencies of music fans flourish on Twitter; just ask Will Champlin, a new young talent and musician who rocketed to national awareness last year on NBC’s “The Voice.” Champlin has 87,700 followers on Twitter, and one of those followers is Kiki Ebsen, as she’s known him since he was about 3 years old. Remember Ebsen played offstage for Chicago and later toured (separately) with Peter Cetera and Bill Champlin. It’s just one big musical family out there. Turns out Will and Kiki were on the same music bill recently and she had a chance “to hug his neck and tell him how proud she is of how well he is doing making his own music.”
Not long ago, as Kiki considered her own musical roots and family, it led her to look through some old trunks of things saved from her family’s home. As she pored over prized history, Ebsen discovered something that would ultimately change her life: a song that her father had written captured her eye and her imagination.
As Kiki shares in her own words on her current Kickstarter campaign:
A few years ago I discovered buried in my mother’s attic a box of original scripts and music from my father’s career. Among them were Born To Dance, Yokel Boy and even a songbook from The Wizard of Oz with his handwritten notes in it. I also found a tune my father had written called “Missing You," a song so beautiful and poignant it felt like a gift just for me. I began to include it in my shows and got chills before performing it, as if my dad was there with me.
Kiki’s drive to make an album of jazz standards in tribute to her father would then begin with “Missing You” as the centerpiece, her returning her father’s gift—years in finding its way to her—back to him, with love. She then decided to include songs she knew were her dad’s favorites, including:
“Moon River” (because he was in “Breakfast in Tiffany’s), “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (because he was supposed to originally portray the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz” and was switched to the Tin Man, until the alum poisoning took him from the movie altogether) “Easy to Love” (from the Broadway Melody movie series he was in) “Laura” (his favorite song) “Codfish Ball” (from “Captain January,” the movie with Shirley Temple where he portrayed the title role) “St. Louis Blues” (the first song that Buddy taught his maverick maiden on the piano) “Tea for Two” (Buddy’s signature dance routine that took his vaudeville skills ultimately into the movies).
The Kickstarter campaign is an opportunity for Ebsen to focus time and effort to complete her tribute to her dad in time for Father’s Day. In just 3 weeks, as of March 24, 2014, Ebsen has already raised pledges of $9,580 of her $12,000 goal from 123 backers. This is only by word-of-mouth, with people discovering that this gift of love for her father is on Kiki’s mind. The album is tentatively entitled “Scarecrow,” and with a successfully funded Kickstarter (or Keekstarter as she wryly titled one of her YouTube updates), she’ll be on her way to finishing. The album title also reminds you that a scarecrow is often overlooked but serves a valuable role out in the field standing all alone.
Ever the upstart, Ebsen has made a major financial commitment to animal rescue as well as to her Healing Equine Ranch, a nonprofit that brings people together with an opportunity for spiritual renewal via communication with nature, to study the intelligence of and learn by interacting with horses. That’s in her spare time.
To enjoy some of Kiki’s past performances that showcase her singing and playing, click on any of the links that follow to hear and see her work:
Kiki Ebsen, "Woodstock"; Christopher Cross “Never Be the Same” with Kiki Ebsen on keyboards and backing vocals; Christopher Cross duet with Kiki Ebsen, “Spinning” performed in Tokyo, Japan; Christopher Cross duet with Kiki Ebsen, “Open Up My Window”.
Preview a song from the upcoming “Scarecrow Sessions,” and consider a special Kickstarter contribution of support: Check out “Missing You” written by Buddy Ebsen (with Zeke Manners), performed by Kiki Ebsen. Musicians she’s joined by include David Mann as producer (plus sax and flute), John Patitucci (acoustic bass), Henry Hey (piano), and Clint de Ganon (drums).
Remember that Ebsen has neither craved, nor sought, a spotlight before, nor has she ever used her famous family name to direct attention her way. Instead, she has preferred to push herself—on her own—to create and share her music in intimate settings and venues when she’s not on the road. Perhaps as her amazing talent becomes better known, she’ll find more individual showcases for travel and performance on her own, as well as with all the artists who seek her to join them.
Opportunities to share your support for Kiki’s vision begin at an affordable $10, $15, $25, $50, $100, and more. Once you hear her voice, you’ll want to be a part of this outstanding opportunity to lift up a daughter’s love for her father. Don’t let the $12,000 end goal limit your enthusiasm, because anyone who’s followed a musician’s career knows that it takes money after the music is made to get the project out for distribution. The full project cost is somewhere closer to $22,000. Music on her terms.
For every daughter who loves her father, from every father who loves his daughter, and for those who wish they could still hug their loved ones’ necks today, here’s your chance. Join Kiki in her Kickstarter campaign, help her reach her goal, and take her over the top so others can discover her, too. You’ll be glad you did, come Father’s Day.
As a nice postscript, six months later, I discovered this video on YouTube:
As an even nicer postscript, the results of Kiki's Kickstarter project were entirely successful, and the Kickstarter site noted that "180 backers came together to pledge $13,216 (exceeding her goal) to help bring this project to life." And true to her word, the "Scarecrow Sessions" CD was in the hands of backers by Father's Day and you could watch her online in her Father's Day 2014 concert debuting the music if you couldn't attend in person. Bravo!