PENDLETON, Ind. – Scott Kemper sits on the bench in front of his Yamaha grand piano, black shirt untucked, sleeves neatly rolled halfway up his forearms to accentuate his angled wrists and dancing fingers. He’s playing – no, he’s feeling – the complexly soothing notes of the composer Chopin’s “Douze Études.” Kemper sees beauty in these moments: The geometry of his hand movements. The creative ownership he feels in playing all the notes of a classical masterpiece but injecting enough feeling to make it his own. The mysterious, almost magical ability of music to transcend his ear and seize his soul.
Then he stops.
Actually, he doesn’t stop. Kemper’s fingers never rest. But he smoothly cuts out of the Études and pounds out four matching chords:
POW! POW! POW! POW!
Then his fingers break into a boogie-woogie as he starts pounding out another tune. A familiar one; a classic, even.
Step aside, Mr. Chopin, for just a moment. It’s time for Kemper, a 56-year-old grandpa whose rock-star dreams never materialized but who built a successful career making music for others, to play his one song that has endured the decades, symbolized the dreams of many thousands, and instantly transforms the mood of any room. Any Buffalo room, at least.
Kemper begins to sing:
“The Bills make me want to shout! Kick your heels up and shout! Throw your hands up and…”
Yes. This is the guy. The guy who, nearly 30 years ago, sang the Buffalo Bills’ now-iconic “Shout!” song. The song that is ubiquitous at anything Western New York: weddings, out-of-town Bills backer bars, tailgating parties and, of course, inside Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sundays. The song is a big deal, a very big deal, and with the exception of perhaps Goo Goo Dolls lead singer John Rzeznik, Kemper’s voice is the most famous in Buffalo.
But for most of the last 30 years, nobody associated with Buffalo quite knew who Kemper was. His voice was famous, but he was anonymous. And until a few days before this impromptu performance in his basement, Kemper had no idea – not a clue – of the power his voice, and that song, holds in Buffalo.
‘Do they still play that?’
Kemper was driving when his cellphone rang. It was a late August afternoon, and the call came from a number he didn’t recognize. Kemper had no association with the 716 area code flashing on his screen. He still lives and works in this rural Indiana town, the place he grew up, a place where fields of green crops are dotted with roadside vegetable stands where cucumbers and corn are sold on the honor system.
The person on the other end of the call introduced himself as a Buffalo News reporter.
“I’m calling you about the Buffalo Bills’ ‘Shout!’ song,” the reporter said.
Kemper, who has a tenor speaking voice with just a touch of scratchiness that belies his rock roots, seemed surprised. “Do they still play that?” he asked.
Uh, yes they do. Pretty much all the time and everywhere.
The reporter offered Kemper a tangible example: Last summer, when the country singer Dierks Bentley played the Erie County Fair, he mentioned the Buffalo Bills. Spontaneously, a good chunk of the crowd broke out in the “Hey-hey-hey-hey” refrain of “Shout!”
“Really?” Kemper asked.
He was clearly trying to absorb this information. Understandable, considering that he sang the “Shout!” song in 1987, and has written or recorded thousands of jingles and other musical marketing numbers in the years since. Kemper and fellow musician Rich Airis are the co-owners of ASA Productions, an Indiana-based company that operates under the name Wow Music and produces original compositions and “sound design” (essentially, audio elements that create a mood) for businesses.
Kemper writes and records music in the carpeted, cozy basement studio of his beige brick home here in Pendleton, a rural town of just over 4,000 located 30 miles northeast of Indianapolis. Airis, who was a key producer of the “Shout!” song, is based in Florida and joins in via Skype.
Over the decades, Kemper, Airis and their colleagues have created music for big-name clients across the country, ranging from Coca-Cola to Giant Eagle to the Cleveland Cavaliers. They even did a spin-off of the “Shout!” song for the Indiana Pacers.
Their success is well-documented: Their mid-90s Coca-Cola project, a song for a Christmas-themed video created by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, won fourth place in the Cannes Film Festival.
They’ve kept busy, they’ve been successful, and when you work in the jingle business – one where your product becomes the property of the client who bought it – you look forward. You don’t check back on, say, a remake of a ’50s rock hit (the original “Shout!” was recorded by the Isley Brothers).
That’s why Kemper was so surprised to get a phone call from Buffalo that essentially was saying, “Hey dude, you’re an anonymously famous rock star in this town.”
“It was a wow,” Kemper said. “It was like, How are they still using that thing? Is it really effective? Are they loving it, still?”
Polian: ‘That’s it’
They are, and although the ’80s-era Bills executives and advertising agency behind “Shout!” fell fast in love with the song, even they were surprised at the fervor it generated in fans. “Shout!” was shepherded through the creation process by Marilyn Singer of Singer Advertising, which at the time was the Bills’ agency of record.
Airis, on behalf of ASA Productions (Kemper was an employee, but not yet an owner), pitched Singer several hit-song remake possibilities. “Shout!” was the one that stood out, so Singer had her agency’s copywriters tweak the lyrics to make it Bills-specific and include the “making it happen” slogan of Marine Midland Bank, which was one of the team’s sponsors. (That’s the genesis of the line “the Bills are making it happen now.”)
For the recording session in Indianapolis, Kemper was tapped as lead singer. He also played piano and organ and joined the women working as background vocalists to sing the word “shout!” Other musicians were hired to play guitar, bass, drums, saxophone and trumpet. When Singer presented the song to Bills executives, which included the team’s general manager, Bill Polian, assistant GM Bill Munson and marketing chief Jerry Foran, it was love at first listen.
“That’s it, that’s what we’re looking for,” Polian said in a phone interview this week, recalling his immediate reaction to the song. “It was as simple as that.”
When “Shout!” was introduced publicly during a 1987 spring mini-camp, the reaction was similarly strong: Fans grabbed ahold of the song and wouldn’t let go. This was the brink of an exciting era in Bills’ history, with Marv Levy as coach, Jim Kelly as quarterback, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed emerging as stars, and Thurman Thomas soon to join as the team entered its storied Super Bowl years of the early 1990s.
“It’s something that people grabbed onto,” said Munson, now a Bills vice president. He’s seen former players sing the song spontaneously at alumni golf tournaments. “It grew in everybody’s heart and mind.”
Both Munson and Polian (including in his autobiography, co-authored with News sports reporter Vic Carucci) tell the story of former Miami Dolphin and Buffalo nemesis Bryan Cox standing in the mouth of the tunnel after a Buffalo loss and screaming at fans, “Shout about this!”
It wasn’t just players who got emotional over the song. In 1993, after Polaroid bought the rights to the “Shout!” tune, the team and the Singer agency turned back to ASA Productions to create a new jingle. Airis and Kemper produced a remake of the 1962 Ernie Maresca song “Shout! Shout! (Knock Yourself Out).”
The producers liked it but fans hated the song. They launched a small revolution, campaigning for the return of “Shout!”
Singer called a Polaroid public-relations executive to ask for regional rights to the song. She recalls the PR person snickering and telling her, “You lost the Super Bowl three times. Maybe you should have gotten rid of the song.”
Singer sent a letter to the CEO of Polaroid, including that quote from the company’s publicist and politely asking for the regional rights.
Two weeks later, the Bills had their song back.
‘I love music that much’
That was approximately the last time the “Shout!” song crossed Kemper’s mind, too. After the overwhelmingly knockout rejection of the “Shout! Shout!” remake (“That happens a lot” in the jingle business, he said), he only recalls one other time when the song entered his head: Jan. 31, 1994, the date of Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta, the Bills’ fourth appearance in the big contest.
Kemper was watching the game with his father, Phil, and avid football fan. When the Bills scored, which they did three times in the first half, Scott said, “Dad, this is when they play my song.”
Father and son strained their ears, hoping to hear “Shout!” in the background on the telecast. The younger Kemper thinks they heard it.
“My dad was proud of me,” he said.
The next day, Phil Kemper died. And with his dad’s passing, so did Scott’s week-to-week interest in football. He’s never attended a National Football League game but used to watch them on television. But with the father-son bonding element of it gone, he let it mostly go for the next couple decades, instead focusing on his business, his family (he has two adult daughters, Mayme and Annika, three grandkids, and two adult stepchildren through his wife, Jana), and his music.
Today, Kemper plays mostly in his basement studio. He’ll pound out Chopin and Beatles on the piano, and he’s learning songs like the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” on the guitar. Music appeals to him on both an emotional and logical level. When he plays, he says, “I know I’m alive.”
He envisions a picture in his head – far beyond what the naked eye can see as his hands move up and down the piano keys – and it comforts him, almost like he’s solving a challenging math problem or gazing at a building with beautiful architecture.
“When I see the Bills song in my head, I see the key of D, I see how it relates to where the singers are, and where they are on a piano, where they are, where I am, the brass is here, then you’ve got the saxes here,” he said. “I see that as a picture in my head. You just kind of enjoy that feeling. I see the patterns, and the patterns are really fun to me.”
What Kemper doesn’t see, even after the news of his long-built fame in Buffalo, is himself performing onstage. He did that in his late teens and early 20s, before entering the jingle business, before having a family. He even had two record deals – neither worked out – and he’s OK with that. He’s glad you like his music, but his music is for him.
“I’m just as happy playing Chopin for myself, just because it’s so beautiful and I love it, as to go play it for a thousand people or 10,000 people,” he said. “I’m just as happy to sing the Bills thing alone here, and be into it and do a good job, and go on about my day. It doesn’t need to be in front of all those people. I love music that much.”