By Ed Staskus
Backstage at the Winchester, a former bowling alley made over into a music hall, Anne DeChant reviewed the play list with her band. Then she double-checked one last time with Kelly Wright, her longtime back-up singer, and the show was a go.
Outside the hall it was wet and windy and November. Onstage the band was in fine form, by turns soulful and jamming, playing a mix-up of old and new material. Most of it was from Anne DeChant’s emotive ‘Swing’. It was a honky-tonk medley of blue-collar country songs. One of them was about losing your trailer to a twister.
If music is a river of sound streaming to the soul for the fostering of its virtue, then the Winchester Bar and Grill on the gritty east end of Lakewood, Ohio, was transformed that Friday night into a chapel of goodness.
“Now there’s a woman with a fire in her belly,” is how the Cleveland Plain Dealer has described DeChant and her band.
LA-born but Ohio-bred, Kelly Wright was both the mirror to Anne’s lead and expansive in her own right. Sometimes the best mirrors are old friends. ‘Swing’ was her third collaboration with Anne, a collaboration stretching back more than ten years.
“I have lots of choices as far as vocalists go,” said Anne, an Avon Lake, Ohio, native transplanted to Music City and back. She is a 5-time winner of Cleveland’s Best Singer/Songwriter award. “But, my choice for support vocals is in Cleveland.”
“It was supposed to be a one-gig thing,” said Kelly.
When the Cleveland-based folk group Odd Girl Out broke up in the mid-90s, its lead singer Anne DeChant embarked on a solo career. When she needed someone to do backing vocals on her ‘Something of the Soul’ in 1999, one of the former singers in the band recommended Kelly Wright.
“I knew her in high school, so when she recommended me to Anne, it all came full circle,” said Kelly.
Kelly Wright’s father hails from Pennsylvania and her mother from Michigan. They met in California in 1967. “They both wanted to go to California to get away from their families. My dad joined the army and my mom went to nursing school.
“But, they always wanted to come back to the Midwest. My dad learned how to weld in the army so when he ended up in Cleveland he opened a welding shop.”
Lakewood-raised since fifth grade, Kelly was a freshman at Lakewood High School before breaking into song. She commuted to school with a neighbor. “This girl started picking me up to take me to school since she lived right on my block.” One morning she tagged along to her friend’s audition for Roadshow, the school’s Downbeat Magazine award-winning vocal jazz ensemble.
“I was just sitting there doing the homework I had sloughed off the night before, and the director asked, aren’t you going to audition, and I said, no, no, I only know campfire singing. But, in the end I auditioned, and I made it, and my friend did not. It was the last time I got a ride from her, but it was the start of music for me. It changed my whole life.”
She never stopped singing in high school.
“It was a great program, I got to travel with Roadshow, and we made a record every year.” She later attended Akron University on a music scholarship. “I was not very good at the scholastic, so I never finished college.” She went to a broadcasting school and became a DJ. But, she gave up spinning records and singing to open the Borderline Café in 1994 with her culinary school-trained sister Carrie.
“This is all I did for a long time,” said Kelly “Even now I still wait the tables, pour the coffee, and pretty much do all the talking. I’m exactly like my dad, hell, yeah. I tell everybody what to do. I think I’m the boss, but Carrie is really the heart and soul of Borderline.”
Kelly’s younger sister Carrie is a graduate of the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. Two women founded the school in 1914. They had one student and one typewriter their first year.
The culinary program was created in 1973. Since then the school has graduated Emeril Lagasse, Michelle Bernstein, and Tyler Florence, among others. It has been featured on the Food Network and recently three of the school’s alumni challenged and beat celebrity chefs on the Iron Chefs television series.
The Borderline Café is a breakfast-only diner on Lakewood’s west end. Outfitted with ten, maybe twelve, tables, the walls are painted a peach yellow and “suns coming up, I got cakes on the griddle,” among other John Denver lyrics, gambol over the walls.
It’s been said breakfast is the most important meal and skipping it might be the worst thing anybody can do first thing in the morning. The good thing about having a hearty breakfast is you’re not going to be starving by lunch. The eggs Benedict and pancakes at the Borderline are famous for keeping hunger at bay.
Scene Magazine has voted the Borderline Cafe one of the ‘Best Pancake Spots in Cleveland’.
“It’s the best breakfast place in town and all immediately surrounding towns,” said one patron, washing his stack down with coffee.
“The two of them are good together,” said Colleen Wright, their mother who commutes from Marblehead more than an hour away and pitches in at the diner on busy weekends. “Kelly remembers everybody’s name. They all come to talk to her.”
“I’m always the one goofing off,” said Kelly, “but I’ve come around as I’ve gotten older.”
“She’s a brat, but she’s got a heart of gold.”
“Thanks, mama, that’s nice.”
Kelly Wright was bartending and singing on Kelly’s Island, a Lake Erie vacation destination west of Cleveland, and her sister Carrie was finishing up her degree at Johnson & Wales, when their father, Don Wright, offered to help them buy the greasy spoon that would become the Borderline.
“He wanted to get both of us closer to the family, maybe so he could keep his eye on us,” said Kelly.
“My husband thought we’d never see that money again,” said Colleen Wright, “but they paid us back every penny. They work hard at this.”
Noted for its fresh food, inventive seasonings, and Southwestern-inspired twist on traditional morning fare, the cozy and often overflowing diner is roundly considered to be more than worth the wait.
“The food is some of the best I’ve had anywhere,” said a man from Ravenna, fifty miles southeast of Lakewood. “The first time we ate here we went right in. The second time we waited in a line outside.”
“If there’s a wait you have to stand in line,” said a local man standing in line. “They don’t take names.”
“Not your ordinary breakfast,” said a woman visiting Cleveland from Pittsburgh.
“Everything Carrie makes is fresh,” said Kelly. “Nothing comes out of a zip lock bag or frozen. There are as many local products as we can find. Those eggs are cracked exactly when you order your omelets.
“The people who eat here are a lot of everybody, mostly from the neighborhood. They know it’s going to be real food made exactly the way they like it. They’re very patient, too, because sometimes you stand out there, finally get a seat, and we still have to get you your breakfast.”
Kelly lives a stone’s throw from the Borderline. “The older I get and the more gigs I play, I had to move closer to work because I was getting here later and later. I could throw a rock from our dumpster out back and hit my house.”
A single woman twice over, she lives alone. “I was in a gay relationship for nine years, but I lost that gene. I don’t know what happened. I stopped being gay.” After breaking up with her partner and selling their house, she married a man she had known in high school.
“But, I was not good at that,” she said. “It lasted for about three weeks, although we’re still friends.”
Performing with Anne DeChant has taken Kelly coast-to-coast, from New York City to clubs in California. “I’ve played everywhere with Anne,” she said. “It was a weird late-in-life kind of youth, joining the band when I was thirty-three. I thought I could be a kid again. It has led to many great things for me.”
Although she still tours, her priorities have shifted back to her family and the Borderline Café. “That was a bump in the road for this place,” she said, “because it put a lot of responsibility on my sister. I risked the wrath of my dad, too. I don’t take every gig out of town anymore. I try to be a good partner to Carrie.”
Nevertheless, Kelly continues working with Anne DeChant, recording in Nashville, as well as playing guitar and singing in an acoustic combo at summer spots. She is also the voice of a jazz duo often heard at Brothers Lounge on Cleveland’s west side.
In addition, she is involved with the Ohio City Singers, an all-star cast of Cleveland-area musicians including a choral group and sometimes featuring more than thirty vocalists, musicians, and their family and friends.
“It’s all the guys from local indie bands, like Chris Allen of Rosavelt and Doug McKean of the Stuntmen,” Kelly said. ”They write original rock-and-roll Christmas tunes and we do a big show every year.”
The Ohio City Singer carols aren’t the kind of carols Bing Crosby sang, nor are they the kind heard in the background at shopping malls. More than 300 revelers packed the Around the Corner Saloon in Lakewood on an icy afternoon when the group in Blues Brothers-style steamed up the windows. They have brought their raucous holiday jams to Cleveland’s Stone Mad Pub, Music Box Supper Club, and House of Blues.
“How I got started in music was an accident, like many of the things in my life,” said Kelly. “Music was a great part of school for me and I am forever in debt to my first teacher. I never actually knew I could sing. It really did change my life.”
At Christmastime the Ohio City Singers and Kelly Wright perform at several outdoor venues, like the Holiday Circlefest on Wade Oval in University Circle and Light Up Lakewood. Even if it’s cold and blustery, or some flakes fall, or there’s a snowstorm, as will happen in winter on the North Coast, Kelly doesn’t mind.
“I’ve bopped around a little bit, although I don’t travel very much anymore. I’ve lived here my whole life, for the most part,” she said. “I love this neighborhood. I’m not good with just two seasons. The Midwest is better for me. I’m a big gal. I like to layer, so I love it here.”
And at the end of the day, after belting out tunes outside at Light Up Lakewood, she can always slip back down the street inside to the Borderline Café, strip off the layers and wrap her hands around a steaming cup of hot joe.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.