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Hempfield grad hits the big time as Stewart, Manilow

Mary Pickels
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Rick Digiammarino
Jay Gates, a Hempfield Area High School graduate, will bring his show impersonating Barry Manilow, and performing many of his hit songs, to Irwin's Lamp Theatre on Jan. 13.
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Jay Gates
Rod, meet Rod. Jay Gates, formerly of Hempfield, is a musician who impersonates Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow. Above, he had a chance to meet one of his musical heroes, who showed his appreciation with a buss on the cheek.
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Seth Dominick
Former Hempfield resident Jay Gates belts out Rod Stewart's hits during a performance. Gates impersonates both Stewart and Barry Manilow, sometimes taking on both personas in one show.

Jay Gates jokes that he sometimes has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, depending on whom he is impersonating.

Originally from Irwin, the Boston-based entertainer makes his living as both an elementary school music teacher and performer, often assuming the personas of Rod Stewart or Barry Manilow – sometimes both in the same performance.

The 1984 Hempfield Area High School graduate will bring his Barry Manilow show to the Lamp Theatre , 222 Main St., Irwin, on Jan. 13.

“It’s a bit of a balancing act,” says Gates, 51, of his professional life.

He ran into one of his musical idols a few years ago backstage, following a concert Stewart gave.

“I had always heard that he hates impersonations of him. I was bracing for the worst. He could not have been nicer,” Gates says.

The two were chatting about a possible Faces (an earlier Stewart band) reunion and someone took a photo just as Stewart gave Gates a smooch on the cheek.

“That was my Christmas card that year,” he says, laughing.

He has been impersonating Stewart for 10 years and Manilow for two years.

“Barry Manilow has really taken off,” he says.

“Before this I was a drummer,” Gates says.

One of his gigs was playing in a Van Halen tribute band.

“I’m no stranger to the tribute world,” he says.

A 1988 graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston, Gates is the son of Pat Gates, now living in Omaha, and the late J. William Gates.

In 2003, he survived a horrific nightclub fire at The Station in Warwick, R.I., where the ’80s metal band Great White was playing. Pyrotechnics from the stage show were blamed for the fire that resulted in nearly 100 deaths.

“Of course I’m very lucky. I’ll never get luckier than this,” he says in a Tribune-Review interview shortly after that incident.

Taking his other identities on the road

“I got the (Stewart) haircut about 10 years ago. Almost every day someone says, ‘Hey, man, you look like Rod Stewart,'” Gates says.

Vocal coach Mark Baxter helps him achieve the sounds and performances he tries to give.

“I was a fan of (both singers),” he says.

“I remember singing (Manilow’s hit) ‘It’s a Miracle’ in the West Hempfield Junior High School chorus. We never got around to (Stewart’s) ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?'” he jokes.

Gates performs all over the East Coast, as well as in Canada, Las Vegas, and Florida, he says.

He typically performs about 75 shows a year.

“It wasn’t always that busy,” Gates acknowledges.

“I get four times as much work for (Manilow),” he says.

A wig and make-up help with his transformation. He plays a white baby grand piano and the show includes a multimedia presentation.

“With (Stewart), it’s kicking of the soccer balls, drinking of the martinis. Rod’s a bit more of a tart,” Gates jokes.

“There are more costume changes. I’ll do him through the years … the leather, leopard print pants. It’s a blast,” he says.

“With Barry, I really like singing ‘Even Now.’ That’s a tearjerker. … I don’t get sick of it. I picked guys whose music I really enjoy,” Gates says.

During a telephone interview, he easily breaks into song, belting out, “I remember all my life” from Manilow’s early hit “Mandy,” sounding eerily like the superstar.

He’s thinking about expanding his repertoire, based on his look – and looks he can morph into – and his voice.

Future Gates’ impersonations may include David Bowie, David Lee Roth, Brett Michaels or Keith Urban.

He performs with and learns from impersonators The Edwards Twins about make-up, wardrobe, vocal techniques, Gates says.

“I love this, the whole impersonation thing. My mom took me to see ‘Beatlemania’ at the old Stanley Theater. … It stuck with me,” he says.

Lamp Theatre board president John Gdula attended school with Gates, and for a while was in a band with him during junior high.

Gates, he says, was on a “fast track.”

“He was a true musical talent, and helped (some of) us find we were not true musical talents, including me,” Gdula says, laughing.

He was happy to learn that the Manilow impersonator coming to the Lamp was his old school pal.

“I have seen a lot of Facebook chatter, a lot of people looking forward to seeing his show. … I’m looking forward to it,” he says.

Gates also is anticipating his upcoming show, and has fond memories of his hometown.

He recalls going to the Lamp Theatre as a kid with his brother to see movies, but hasn’t been inside since its recent renovation .

“I was even a morning paper boy for the Tribune-Review,” he says.

“The show at the Lamp is turning out to be an unofficial Hempfield reunion. … Bring your yearbook,” Gates says.

Tickets for the show are $24.

Details: 724-367-4000 or lamptheatre.org.

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or [email protected] or via Twitter @MaryPickels.

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