Singer Jeff Jimerson a rock star to Penguins fans
The tattered piece of paper containing the words to a famous inspirational song is tucked away inside Jeff Jimerson’s pocket before he even sings one note.
He doesn’t need to look at the lyrics, because he knows the tune — the National Anthem — by heart.
“That piece of paper is so old, I probably couldn’t read it if I had to, but I always bring it because it’s a superstitious kind of thing,” says Jimerson, who performs at most Pittsburgh Penguins’ home games, including Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on May 29 at PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh’s Uptown. “There are quirky things like that in hockey. It’s contagious.”
The minute he gets out of his car in the parking lot across from the arena, fans flock to him. He can barely cross the street as people ask to take photos with him or to just shake his hand.
Wearing the Penguins gold jersey he from the team — No. 91, the year he began singing for the Penguins, with his name across the back — he’s definitely recognizable. He’s also performed for the Pirates and Steelers.
It also has helped that Root Sports, which carries most Penguins games, has been airing the anthem for three years because they want the fans to take in the entire experience, Jimerson says.
“I love the fans,” he says, as he’s surrounded by them, taking photos and shaking hands. “This is wonderful. They add to the overall game experience.”
He says he feels comfortable singing because he is familiar with the arena, which takes some time to adjust to. “I don’t really get nervous, but there is some anxiety,”Jimerson says. “It’s euphoric, like an adrenaline rush. It’s like an emotional high. I get teary-eyed sometimes.”
“(Monday’s) game was pretty emotional, because it was Memorial Day, the anthem takes on an even greater meaning,” says Jimerson, 62, a North Side native and Perry High School graduate, who lives in Franklin Park with wife Robin and their son, Colin, 13, his two biggest supporters.
“My wife and son are amazing,” he says. “They understand the type of schedule I have and I can’t thank them enough. There is no way I could do all I do without their support.”
Jimerson says he can’t remember a time he hasn’t sung. He’s been in a band since 7th grade. He was working at PNC Bank and auditioned to sing the anthem for Pirates. Then he called Jim Rohr, former PNC Financial Services Group Inc., chairman and CEO to get an in with the Steelers.
He was doing a fundraiser at the Omni William Penn in Pittsburgh for a celebrity hockey game and told them if they needed someone to sing, he would, and it was then he was discovered by the Penguins.
He says the Penguins roll out the red carpet for him, which is good, because he doesn’t know how to skate. He also sings the Canadian National Anthem and recalls the most meaningful time he sang it in tribute after a killing in Ottawa. Even though two American teams were playing, the Penguins’ organization wanted to show support.
“It was pretty intense,” Jimerson says. “It was a time when sports teams pulled together and the response was amazing. I got emails from everywhere. I had no idea how that would impact a sports city.”
He recalls the game after the Franklin Regional stabbings in April 2014 when he was asked to invite the fans to sing the anthem with him.
“I was like, ‘You want me to speak’?” he says. “They thought I would be comfortable doing that since I sing, but it’s different speaking into a microphone versus singing into it. It was such an emotional night.”
He does most regular season Pens games and all of the home playoff games. When asked about his “competition” with some of the famous singers in Nashville, he says the Predators having celebrity country artists sing is what they should be doing.
“They have access to all those stars,” Jimerson says. “(Country star) Carrie Underwood (wife of Nashville Predators captain Mike Fisher), well, I can’t compete with her voice or her legs. Each city has their ‘hometown singer or singers’ and those (country singers) are Nashville’s ‘hometown singers.’ ”
Jimerson predicts the Penguins will win in five. He says, jokingly, he can’t take the pressure of another Game 7.
Seeing the Penguins raise the Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh would be an amazing scene, he says.
“This playoff thing never gets old,” Jimerson says. “The regular-season games are great, but there’s nothing like playoff hockey.”
When he’s not on the ice, Jimerson is still singing, with his band Airborne, a variety band, which he started in 1990.
“Jeff is pure Pittsburgh,” says James Santilli, vice president of marketing for the Penguins. “His dedication to the Penguins and our fans — and his impact on the game-night experience, when all the fans sing with him — is amazing and much-appreciated.”
His performance of the anthem usually takes between 1 minute 8 seconds and 1 minute 20 seconds. He arrives 30 to 40 minutes prior to the game and has worn his jersey to every playoff game.
“Sometimes I make eye contact with the audience when I am singing,” he says. “I will often look at the video board to make sure I am in sync with the words being shown.
“Sometimes I take the moment to enjoy it, but I should do that more,” he says. “I wish I had a GoPro on my chest so others could experience what the moment is like for me. It’s intense … I can’t put it into words how it feels, but I will look over and there is (Matt) Murray and (Marc-Andre) Fleury and (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin, right there. I am kind of mechanical at times. I don’t want to get side tracked — you can over analyze it, you know.”
Penguins Hall of Fame broadcaster Mike Lange says Jimerson has become an integral part of the Pens’ landscape. The crowd responds to him. His band is really good and he is a terrific entertainer, Lange says.
“Pittsburghers are a superstitious bunch,” Lange says. “Don’t mess with what works. It seems that when Jeff steps forward whether he sings or the crowd sings, there is a feeling that everything is going to be hunky-dory, Pittsburgh-style. It makes me smile like a butcher’s dog.”
Off the ice
Dave Marion of Greensburg, who plays drums and sings vocals for Airborne, says Jimerson is a true singer.
“He loves singing and it comes natural to him,” Marion says. “I’ve worked with him since roughly 1986, and I know that he would say he is a singer who plays bass guitar as opposed to a bass player who does some singing.”
When the band performs, Jimerson has a knack for reading the crowd and that enables the members of the band to adapt their music for each particular venue.
“He likes to keep our sets high energy, and if our audience is dancing then we do our best to keep them on the floor,” Marion says. “The people of Pittsburgh, especially hockey fans, enjoy Jeff’s rendition of the anthem and I believe the Penguins’ organization recognize his talent as well. He’s a die-hard hockey fan from way back, and it shows in his performance.”
Ask any musician and they will tell you how difficult it is to keep a band together. Jimerson has been a successful band leader keeping Airborne and its core members performing in the tri-state area for almost three decades. Jimerson grew up listening to bands such as Yes and Led Zeppelin, but keeps an open mind to all music.
His band does 60 to 75 shows a year and has performed at nearly 300 weddings as well as private events and venues such as casinos and golf clubs. They schedule gigs around the NHL schedule.
Playoffs can be tricky because there aren’t pre-determined dates. Such as the time he had a police escort to get from one place to another. He had a wedding at the Sheraton Station Square so he attended the cocktail hour, then got chauffeured to the start of the Pens game and then back to the wedding.
To take care of his voice, he says he tries to get enough sleep and doesn’t abuse his vocal chords by singing out of his range. He also doesn’t drink or do drugs and makes sure to warm up, even if it’s in a broom closet.
As for a chance to sing at the NFL’s Super Bowl?
“Who wouldn’t want to sing in the Super Bowl?” says Jimerson, who has sung at the outdoor NHL alumni game at Heinz Field on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.