To truly understand the depth of Rick Chiricosta’s passion for rock and pop music, you have to see his home office. Three of the room’s four corners are dominated by an enormous CD tower at least 5½ feet high by 2½ feet wide, the shelves neatly lined with selections catalogued alphabetically or by location on a computer spreadsheet.
The Medical Mutual of Ohio chairman, president and CEO’s favorite artist, former Guess Who lead singer Burton Cummings, is a major presence. A bobblehead rendering of the Canadian-born rocker occupies a shelf above the oak desk, while a photograph of Cummings with Chiricosta and wife, Sheila, at a 1986 solo show in Toledo tops the stereo cabinet. Chiricosta has seen Cummings in concert, either with the Guess Who or as a solo artist, a whopping 40 times, most recently at his 60th birthday party at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
“Nothing’s ever going to come close to matching that,” he declares. “That was an incredible night.”
Among the items stacked next to the photograph is a CD in a jewel case with a simple gray insert bearing the title Complete Rick Chiricosta. The disk contains covers of 23 songs, a number recorded over three decades ago. Some, such as the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride,” were taped while he performed at weddings; others were recorded with a guitarist neighbor’s 4-track recorder or, like Art Garfunkel’s “Bright Eyes,” cut with a karaoke CD and VCR.
A couple of years ago, the self-described “closet singer” began living the classic rock ’n’ roll fantasy in public by fronting Witness Protection, a three-man cover band that includes Medical Mutual executive vice president and chief communications officer Jared Chaney and vice president of sales Dan Polk on acoustic guitars.
“It’s kind of a dream come true,” he says.
Chiricosta began developing an interest in music while growing up in Springfield, Ohio. As a grade-schooler, he entertained himself during visits to his maternal grandmother’s house by listening to his teenaged aunts and uncles’ records, 45s by the Beach Boys, Beatles, Everly Brothers, Herman’s Hermits, Gary Lewis & the Playboys and Ricky Nelson.
“Next thing you know, I was the little kid that loved music,” Chiricosta remembers. As he got older, he began realizing an emotional benefit from it. “It helps you get through things. When you’re happy, it makes you happier. When you want to go out and get psyched up to play a tennis match, it can get you pumped up. When you’re feeling stressed out, it can be relaxing.”
At Springfield Catholic Central High School, Chiricosta made the concert choir and a 30- to 35-man singing group, lending his baritone to show tunes, religious songs, holiday favorites and a few pop hits. As a senior, he was recruited to deliver Chicago’s “Colour My World” a cappella at the prom. “I don’t know how I ever agreed to do that,” he marvels.
After graduation from the University of Toledo, he began singing at the occasional friend or family member’s wedding. He thought he’d sung his last song in public 30-plus years ago, when the last of his longtime buddies married.
That all changed in October 2013, when Chaney asked Chiricosta to join him and Polk onstage at a Medical Mutual sales retreat slated for Sawmill Creek Resort in Huron. Chaney and Polk had delivered a well-received business-function performance that summer. And Chaney knew Chiricosta liked to sing, a fact most recently evidenced by his recording Gene Mitchell’s “My Little Girl” to play during his dance with daughter Christine at her 2012 wedding.
“It sounded like fun,” Chiricosta recalls. “My only objection to it — which is the only objection I’ve ever had — is if you’re going to stand up in front of people and perform, you want to be halfway decent. We started comparing schedules [to practice], and it was a fiasco! I’ve got about two or three open dates a month, and those guys have two or three open dates a month.”
The trio managed to find time for two rehearsals before the retreat. “We just thought, we’ll give this a shot.”
Chiricosta’s debut singing hits by the likes of the Beatles, Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson went better than he expected. “I don’t think anybody’s going to say to the boss, ‘You’re really bad!’ ” he concedes. “But then, I don’t think we were.” A friend suggested the group try getting a gig at the Sawmill Creek lounge, an idea that spawned a benefit in the bar for Goodwill of Erie County, complete with Medical Mutual and a couple of other sponsors, that attracted a sellout crowd of family, friends, employees and business associates.
During a break in a subsequent show at Brothers Lounge in Cleveland, Witness Protection proposed doing a fundraiser for the Diversity Center of Northeast Ohio to president and CEO Peggy Zone Fisher, who was in the audience that night.
“[The Diversity Center] said they made $15,000 in probably a three-hour night,” Chiricosta says of the June 2015 benefit at Brothers Lounge, still sounding somewhat surprised by the success. “It was a blast.”
Chiricosta estimates he’s fronted Witness Protection a dozen times to date. He sings lead vocals on 60 percent of the songs; Polk handles the remaining 40 percent. “For me, it’s perfect,” he says of the arrangement. “We did 45 songs when we played just a couple of weeks ago. That’s a lot of songs for a bunch of old guys that don’t do it for a living.”
He credits Chaney, “just a natural promoter-type guy,” for the band’s increasing number of engagements, albeit ones where the requested compensation is free food and drink. Shows have ranged from a set in the food court at the 2015 Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati — one that resulted from Medical Mutual’s relationship with the professional tennis tournament as its official health insurer — to repeat appearances at Brothers Lounge and Sawmill Creek. Their next big date is June 24 on Playhouse Square during the Tri-C JazzFest.
“Jared gets a little annoyed with me once in a while — he’s had a million ideas for us to do gigs, and I love them all,” he admits. “But we never just go and say, ‘We’re going to practice once or twice a month.’ We don’t have time to do it.”
Chiricosta stresses that he isn’t worried about preserving some buttoned-up corporate image. Performing allows him to present his true self: a regular guy willing to step out of his comfort zone and take a chance in front of a crowd. “It’s not like you’re going out golfing in the privacy of your own course, with no one watching you,” he notes. “If you’re bad, you’re right there.”
He points out that approximately
25 percent of the audience Witness Protection attracts on any given night has seen the band before. He and Chaney have talked about recording a CD of covers and taking on more fundraisers. “We just can’t do all of them,” he says of the requests. Burton Cummings, however, has nothing to worry about.
“We’re not trying to have another career outside of insurance,” he says. “We’re just doing something to have a little bit of fun.”