Walk into Cleo Kuelbs’ home and the warmth and passion for music is instantly apparent.
From the stacks upon stacks of concert programs to the worn piano bench that has seated hundreds of eager students during the past 40 years, Kuelbs’ home in Brainerd is a concert hall of its own.
“Music has been part of my life for so long now,” said Kuelbs, who located to the Brainerd area in the 1960s. “I’m not sure I could do anything else. It’s what I’ve always known and wanted to do.”
Growing up the eldest of four sisters, Kuelbs credits her love of music back to her family where “we didn’t just have to play, we wanted to, too.” Picking up her first instrument at age 7, Kuelbs moved from the violin to the trombone and eventually to the guitar and piano.
“I started taking trombone lessons in junior high, mostly because I don’t think many others had wanted to play it,” laughed Kuelbs. “Then after I got married I picked up the guitar, which is now ‘retired’ along with my violin. The piano and singing are by far my favorite of all the musical things I have done.”
A member of the Park United Methodist Church, Kuelbs previously served as the church’s choir director, as well as its organist. It wasn’t until just 15 years ago, however, that Cleo’s singing life changed, when she met Cliff Veronick.
“I never thought I would be able perform outside of church music, especially not jazz,” she said. “I loved listening to it, but Cliff made me believe that I could perform it, too. I used to go and listen to his group perform all of the time and I would pull him aside once in awhile when they broke to sing softly with him and he said that ‘I think we should try this together’ and it happened.
“It changed my life. It was like my life had restarted at the age of 60.”
Thus the “C & C Duo” was born.
Veronick and Kuelbs performed at cafes and restaurants across the Brainerd lakes area, even recording a compilation of CDs titled “Autumn Afternoon” in Kuelbs’ very own concert hall; her living room.
“We didn’t do any retakes or really make any plans to record, we just did it,” recalled Kuelbs. “We came home from doing a gig and spent a couple hours each day and then there it was. It was amazing.”
Kuelbs and Veronick (or “Classy Cliff” as she often referred to him) performed until Veronick’s death two years ago. She then teamed up with Dennis Coryell, who she continues to perform with at a variety of venues until this day.
For those who haven’t had the chance to catch a glimpse of Kuelbs performing, odds are, they may have still seen her at an area event. Kuelbs, a member of the Lakes Area Concert Association Board of Directors, attends “zillions” of concerts each year.
“My calendar’s black with concerts and musical things that I plan to do each week,” Kuelbs said. “Between meetings and concerts, music truly is my life.”
And Kuelbs has made herself a musical part of many others lives as well. Currently teaching piano lessons to 30 students ranging in ages from 5-70, she maintains a relationship with all of her students, even collecting newspaper clippings and announcements for all students past and present.
“All of my students check to make sure I have their picture or newspaper story,” Kuelbs said and smiled. “And I feel like I really connect with so many of them. For a 19-year-old young man (a former student), to come home from college and want to sit on my couch for three and a half hours and visit, it’s just a great feeling.”
And Kuelbs’ own “concert hall” isn’t going anywhere.
“I just feel so blessed, music has brought me so many wonderful gifts and the chance to meet so many people. As long as I can do this, I will continue to. For me, I can’t see any other way.”
JESSI PIERCE can be reached at 855-5859.