LONG ISLAND CITY – Robert Kinkel had a hefty problem. It was the mid-to-late 1980s, and he was a successful studio musician and jingle writer in New York City. Years earlier, he had dropped plans of becoming a doctor, and later, quit out of a full ride to Columbia University’s graduate school.
Kinkel wanted to pursue the one passion that, from the time he was a little boy in Williamsville, always kept his rapt interest: music.
He did, and it worked well. Heftily well, if you measure the impact of his first splashy tag-team creation: The iconic “HEFTY! HEFTY! HEFTY!/wimpy-wimpy-wimpy” Hefty commercials.
Kinkel cashed in on that trash-bag voiceover jingle.
“I remember a stack of checks an inch thick,” he said during an interview in his Queens studio.
He was surrounded by keyboards, synthesizers and an assortment of recording gear, some of it purchased back in the ’80s with the Hefty money.
As he recalls those early days, Kinkel – who goes by Bob – cracks a smile. He’s a lanky guy with shaggy hair the color of a sand-washed beach stone. He has gentle eyes, a soft voice (until he breaks into a growl-shout “HEFTY!” imitation) and a dry humor, so it’s difficult to discern if he’s being literal when he intimates a fear sparked by the commercial’s success.
“At some point I remember being terrified: That’ll be the only thing I’m ever known for,” Kinkel said, unleashing a drumbeat of laughs. “That’ll be it.”
That wasn’t it. Not even close. More than a decade later, Kinkel would play a vital role in the creation of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the band whose signature smash-up of classical, metal and rock has become a musical staple of the Christmas season.
Two versions of TSO – an East Coast group and a West Coast group – tour the nation every holiday season, which this year includes a two-show stint Sunday at KeyBank Center. Kinkel hasn’t played on stage since 2010, but the music its fans hear is, in large part, his creation.
“It’s one of the big successes,” Kinkel said, markedly understating himself. Hanging in the adjacent lobby are awards for some of the five TSO albums Kinkel co-produced. That ranges from the band’s triple-platinum 1996 debut “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” to the 2009 platinum-selling album, “Night Castle.”
“Now I have something other than the ‘Hefty! Hefty! Hefty!’ I think I may be remembered for,” he said.
Barbara Kinkel Bronkie has a black-and-white picture of her son, at age 2, standing next to a piano and reaching high overhead to press the keys. Bronkie, who’s 86, said Bob’s love and talent for music came so easily that, once he started taking weekly piano lessons around age 7, he rarely practiced until the night before – or even the half-hour before.
His teacher, Carol Foster, called Bob’s mom and said, “If ever he put his mind to it, he’d be a genius in music.”
The lessons left an impact on young Bob – “She was great; she would bring any music I wanted” – but his refusal to prepare resulted in a few years’ worth of cancellations.
“We couldn’t get him to practice,” recalls his father, Robert Kinkel Sr., who is 86. “But once he found out that people did enjoy hearing somebody play the piano … he became interested in bands.
I’m glad we stayed with him.”
By the time he was in high school at Williamsville South, Kinkel was a serious musician. He played piano and alto saxophone. With $1,000 he saved from his Courier-Express paper route, he bought a Mini Moog synthesizer that still sits in his studio today.
After graduating in 1975, Kinkel entered Hamilton College in Clinton, as a pre-med major, then switched to science after half a year. His passion for music was unmistakable, though; it reverberated across the 2,000-student campus. Kinkel was one of the pipe organ players, and used to practice in the chapel late at night during thunderstorms.
“The next morning you’d go into breakfast and people would go, ‘Did you hear the creepy music coming out of the chapel?’ ” he said.
Out of sheer interest, Kinkel earned a music degree; he earned enough credits for the major by his junior year. Still not sure if or how to pursue it has a career, however, he stuck around Hamilton for a year after graduation, working for the physics department. One of the professors helped connect him with the physics graduate program at Columbia University, and Kinkel was offered a fully paid fellowship. He moved to New York to begin his program, still hoping to ultimately crack the music industry.
“My goal was to be producing and engineering behind the scenes,” Kinkel said. “I thought more education was necessary to do that. But the more I learned, I realized it wasn’t.”
That led Kinkel to a tough decision: He had a full ride to graduate school and, thanks to the fellowship, was actually being paid to study at a prestigious university. But he was studying physics – something he enjoyed, though didn’t love. He loved music, and music didn’t require more classwork.
It required actual work. Lowly paid, grunt-and-grungy work.
So he quit.
Kinkel left Columbia and spent the next few months talking his way into an entry-level music industry gig. Using a connection made by a friend, he showed up every two weeks at one of New
York’s premier record studios, Record Plant, to ask for a job. He even offered to work for free.
Eventually Kinkel got in, and though he earned only $3 to $5 an hour, it was instantly worth it. On his first day alone, Cyndi Lauper was working on her debut album, Willie Nile was recording, and the J. Geils Band was doing the final mix on their “Freeze Frame” album.
Kinkel found himself performing a mix of tasks, from assisting the carpenter to moving around walls to setting up cables. He also spent time in the production studio working with the engineers, learning how to run the board and produce music. He landed a role working in the studio’s live truck, assisting with on-location recordings for massive acts like Genesis and the Rolling Stones.
Kinkel, who was still an active piano player and keyboardist, also started building a reputation as a skilled session musician and jingle writer. That led to the Hefty opportunity. Kinkel’s colleague,
Charles Morrow, called him one day and said, “I just got a sheet of paper from an ad agency, and it’s an all-out competition between the music houses in New York. It’s this thing for Hefty trash bags. I’ve got the lyrics here and it just says ‘hefty, hefty, hefty, wimpy, wimpy, wimpy.’ ”
They got together at Morrow's home studio with an eight-track recording device. Kinkel and Morrow recorded a loud, grunty “HEFTY! HEFTY! HEFTY!” and slowed down the eight-track to give the words deeper resonance. Morrow added a mousy “Wimpy! Wimpy! Wimpy!” to characterize non-Hefty trash bags.
With that as the core, the developed, packaged and submitted the commercial – which won. It played regularly for the next few years.
“I went from making $3 to $5 an hour at Record Plant to having $100,000 come in,” said Kinkel, who earned union membership for voiceover work.
He put the money to use, investing in more equipment that allowed him to stretch what he could offer as a session player, recording engineer and jingle writer.
“I always had all the gear and all the toys, and that’s what made me popular to work with in sessions,” Kinkel said.
The work was lucrative, but costly too. For nearly a decade, Kinkel was constantly in action, churning out his own material and shaping the visions of others. By the end of the ’80s, he was burned out.
With his then-wife Eliza Green, whom he had been dating since age 19 when they both were Hamilton students, he took off for a year in a VW van. They traveled the country, skiing and windsurfing and hanging out with friends.
“It was good for my head,” Kinkel said, “a needed sabbatical.”
But when he returned, ready to work, Kinkel realized his business had dried up. There was a less demand for jingles.
“It made things a little more adventurous,” Kinkel said, characteristically understating himself.
Kinkel’s closest colleagues and friends speak in sync on this point: The man never gets flustered. Or if he does, he won’t show it. So, when Kinkel came off his self-imposed sabbatical into a music landscape that was more “adventurous,” as he puts it, others in his position may have been stressed.
But he didn’t stress. He stretched.
Kinkel decided to focus on things that were new. One of those new endeavors was devoting himself to work with a guy named Paul O’Neill.
Kinkel first met O’Neill, a guitarist-turned-writer and producer, in 1986. O’Neill was working with the metal band Savatage and hired Kinkel to create orchestrations in studio. Initially, Kinkel wasn’t sure what to expect; when he walked into Record Plant for his first day with Savatage, the studio was dark and lined with candles and filled with musicians wearing skull necklaces.
But the appearance belied the reality. “They were the sweetest people ever,” said Kinkel, who become a regular with O’Neill and the band. At first he was a client of O’Neill; later, he became a collaborator when they started writing music together.
“Bob always had a very mellow, laid-back (persona),” O’Neill in a phone interview. “He’s right out of the ’60s. Bob eats healthy. Bob does yoga. Bob does everything that I don’t do.”
That includes technology. The scientific side of Kinkel’s brain was, and remains, an important complement to O’Neill’s more free-flowing and byte-free creative form.
“Bob is a great engineer, a great musician, and also Bob understands computers,” O’Neill said. “I literally learned how to text four months ago. I’m not kidding.”
In the mid-’90s, O’Neill asked Kinkel to work with him on a song called “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24).” It was an instrumental medley that blended “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells” that tells the story of a cello player in the Bosnian conflict. The song landed on a 1995 Savatage album and began getting strong radio play. O’Neill, sensing an opportunity to do something more with this idea of mashing metal, rock and classical music, recruited members of Savatage, and Kinkel, to form the creative core of a new, larger band called Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Over the next few years, TSO recorded albums that blurred and blended musical styles. O’Neill was – and remains – the driving force, with Kinkel among those working closest with him as a composer, musical director and instrumentalist.
“Bob had an incredibly gifted way of taking Paul’s crazy ideas and making them come to life,” said Chris Caffrey, an original TSO guitarist who continues to play and host the show’s East Coast tour.
Musicians who saw Kinkel and O’Neill work together describe the collaboration like this: O’Neill would describe an idea for melody or riff in a series of sounds that, to most people, would be an indistinguishable series of DAH-da-das and RAH-tuh-tuh-tuh-tas. Kinkel, however, had a knack for absorbing what O’Neill wanted, and translating it into music that could be played by a large band. (TSO has 25 performers on stage.)
“I call him a musical translator,” said Mee Eun Kim, who Kinkel hired as a TSO keyboardist in 2000. “He always knew what Paul wanted immediately, and he translated it in a way that the rest of us would understand. The sound of TSO now, what I hear, that was the product of this combination.”
As TSO grew into an arena-sized act, Kinkel spent more than a dozen years working alongside O’Neill as a composer and producer, and traveling with the East Coast tour as musical director and keyboardist. He became known among his employees as a gentle, nurturing boss, but also as an unflappable problem solver.
“There could be the biggest crisis you could imagine happening, and he just remains calm through everything,” said singer and producer Dina Fanai, his former TSO colleague.
“Nothing fazes him,” said Fanai, who recalled many times when Kinkel would calmly solve a technical issue with sound, wiring or staging. One time, she said, Kinkel’s large keyboard stand spun around and collapsed – a near-catastrophic mishap.
“He stood there and smiled,” she said.
But years into Kinkel’s TSO heyday, that affable, often placid exterior was masking an inner pain. Years of being tucked away in a studio and traveling the country had worn on his personal life, including his marriage. He won’t go into detail, except to acknowledge that around 2010 – when he stepped back from TSO – his marriage also ended. He describes that period simply and vaguely:
“All about the same time, lot of things at once, all different changes.”
Kinkel, who has two adult children with his former wife, also acknowledges that he needed some time away from music immediately after leaving TSO. But after a short respite, he was back, working out of his Queens studio that’s a few subway stops from his Manhattan apartment. Kinkel works as an engineer and producer, often with Fanai, who’s now his girlfriend as well. Together they’ve worked with Chloe Lowery, who’s also a TSO singer, and most recently, with 16-year-old soprano Jackie Evancho, who was catapulted to fame at age 10 on “America’s Got Talent.”
Fanai and her collaborator, Heather Holley, are the lead producers on Evancho’s just-released record, “Someday at Christmas,” and her upcoming album of original music. Kinkel co-arranged Evancho’s versions of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Someday at Christmas,” and played piano and keyboard for all the songs on both albums.
“It’s like he sits down, and the way we’d pick up pen and paper and write down words, he can do that with music,” Evancho said. “He makes it seem so simple and easy.”
It’s neither, of course, but that’s Kinkel’s special skill: He takes something as esoteric as a musical concept and makes it describable, playable and – if he does it right, which the TSO legacy confirms he has – eminently memorable.
Robert S. (Bob) Kinkel
Why you know him: He’s a co-creator of Trans-Siberian Orchestra and arranger/composer of most of the band’s most famous work, including TSO’s first five albums and holiday-radio staples such as “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” and “Wizards in Winter.” Separately, Kinkel is also the co-creator of the iconic 1980’s “Hefty! Hefty! Hefty!” commercials for Hefty trash bags.
Career: After graduating from Hamilton College and briefly attending graduate school at Columbia, Kinkel broke into the music industry in the 1980s working at the storied New York recording studio Record Plant. From 1996 till 2010, he was a key member of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra team, working as the band’s East Coast music director and keyboardist in addition to composing, arranging and producing. Today, he works with singer/producer Dina Fanai out of his studio in the Long Island City section of Queens. Kinkel has produced or collaborated with artists including 16-year-old soprano Jackie Evancho, the band Five for Fighting, and singer Chloe Lowery. He and TSO creator Paul O'Neill may soon dust off a musical they wrote decades ago for potential production.
Residence: New York City
Family: With his former wife Eliza Green, Kinkel has two children: Oliver, 25, and Gretchen, 21
WNY Roots: Kinkel was raised in Williamsville as the only child of Robert Kinkel Sr. and Barbara Kinkel Bronkie. He graduated in 1975 from Williamsville South and is a member of the district's Wall of Fame. In 2007 he was inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame.
Paul O'Neill, Trans-Siberian Orchestra creator, who first hired Kinkel to work in studio with the metal band Savatage: “Bob brought tons to the table. He was a great engineer, great musician, and also very cutting-edge recording-wise. Bob gave both Savatage and Trans-Siberian Orchestra extra freedom."
Chris Caffrey, original TSO guitarist and Savatage member, on O'Neill and Kinkel as a team: "Paul is a visionary and when he would think about a classical piece going into the hard rock world and realm, there’s something about when Paul and Bob would do that together that was really magical.”
Mee Eun Kim, whom Kinkel hired in 2000 as a TSO keyboardist: “He’s a multi-package of musicology, creativity and a leader.”
Jackie Evancho, 16-year-old singing star, after working with Kinkel on two albums: “Working with Bob was very fun. He’s a very interesting character. He’s warm, inviting, and he’s like a genius with music."