Now on a world tour with the iconic band Chicago, Longwood’s Jeff Coffey
went from work-at-home dad to rock ‘n’ roll front-man almost overnight
A few days before, he was fixing lunches and chaperoning field trips. The next thing Jeff Coffey knew, he was about to take the stage as a lead singer for Chicago, the world-famous rock band that literally filled young Jeff’s dreams when he was an up-and-coming musician in the 1980s and ‘90s.
When Chicago needed to find a fill-in for lead-singer Jason Scheff, who took a hiatus during the band’s concert tour this spring, those in the music industry pointed to someone who had been away from the scene for a while. Jeff, 48, is a bassist and vocalist who began his music career in bars and small venues throughout Central Florida. But years ago, he gave up life on the stage to stay home and help raise his two young sons. Jeff traded cheering crowds for the sight of first bike rides and preschool graduations, but his love for the music itself never waned.
Now, thanks to some serious serendipity, fans of Chicago are being treated to a tour that has not missed a beat, and Jeff’s friends get to witness his dreams come true right before their eyes. And Jeff has more than filled in; he is turning heads with his ability to seamlessly jam with the eight other members on stage.
“It’s been amazing,” Jeff says. “Chicago has been a real positive band experience. I get to play with world-class musicians.”
Born and raised in Eustis, Jeff attended Apopka High School, where the music bug began to bite hard. He was in the school band, blowing trombone during the early 1980s, and the big horn sound of Chicago intrigued the teenager, especially after he strutted his stuff with his high-school band during halftime of Super Bowl XVIII in Tampa.
“That was a pivotal moment for me,” Jeff says, remembering how he loved playing music for the cheering crowd. He started a rock band and began dabbling with the bass.
Following a stint in Walt Disney World’s student musician program, Jeff received a full scholarship to Stetson University, but the music program there was too classically oriented for his evolving tastes. Jeff transferred to the University of Central Florida, joined the university band, and had the opportunity to play in front of crowds in Germany and The Hague. In 1990, Jeff made the decision to leave UCF to go on the road with his own rock band in an old U-Haul named Gus.
“I decided I wanted to play music professionally,” Jeff says.
After that band broke up, Jeff formed a new band, House of Dreams, with drummer Tom Hurst, whom Jeff had met at his Disney gig. They were signed by RCA Records in 1997 and headed to Los Angeles to record their first album with legendary producer Keith Olsen (of Fleetwood Mac, Pat Benatar, and the Grateful Dead fame).
But after 10 years in the industry, Jeff needed a break. He came home to Central Florida in 2000 to marry longtime girlfriend Holly Studenc, now his wife of 16 years. Jeff stayed local, launching a solo career and releasing two albums. Then he hit a wall.
“After a decade of going solo, I just got burnt out and stopped playing,” says Jeff. Holly had spent years building her own benefits administration company, and business was good, so Jeff decided to stay home and help raise the couple’s two sons, Chase (six years old at the time) and Bryce (then four).
With his instruments stowed, Jeff did all the at-home-dad things. He ferried the kids to and from school and other activities, helped with homework, did laundry, cooked meals, and coached little league. He was a fixture on field trips from Heathrow Elementary School and later Woodlands Elementary. Jeff transferred his creative energy into entrepreneurial pursuits, inventing and bringing several products to market, all while maximizing his time with Bryce and Chase.
“He loved it,” says Holly. “We are so grateful that he had this quality time with the boys. Jeff was there for all of their milestones. He didn’t miss anything. But, I always knew the music was never far from his heart.”
Indeed, as the boys grew older and the daddy-demands diminished, Jeff began hearing familiar tunes in the back of his mind. He unsheathed the bass guitar and began resharpening his skills. Eventually, Jeff started traveling up to Nashville to jam with his old House of Dreams bandmate Tom Hurst and other professional musicians.
“My first jam was a year ago,” Jeff says. “I was networking with these country musicians who were playing with some of the best, like Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean, and Kenny Chesney.”
Jeff impressed people in the industry with his skills and demeanor during the jam sessions, and when Chicago’s Keith Howland began asking around for a bassist who could sing tenor to stand in during the band’s upcoming tour, Jeff got the call.
“No way did I think that playing in Nashville could lead me to Chicago,” Jeff laughs. “We hit it off, and I auditioned with the band for more than four hours. That was May 20.”
On May 21, Jeff was on stage with Chicago in Findlay, Ohio.
“It was weird,” he admits. “I was standing side stage with Lamm [Robert Lamm – Chicago keyboardist, guitarist, and vocalist], and I see the Chicago logo up behind the band equipment. I said, ‘Well, here we go.’”
So far, Jeff has played to packed houses of screaming fans across the country, including a three-show sellout of the Hollywood Bowl during the Fourth of July weekend, during which Chicago played with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra.
Jeff sings lead vocals on the songs made famous by Chicago’s original lead tenor, Peter Cetera, including “You’re the Inspiration,” “Hard Habit to Break,” and the Grammy-Award-winning “If You Leave Me Now.”
Does Jeff have a favorite?
“I don’t, really,” he says. “So far, I have enjoyed singing the ballads, and I sing a lot of them during a show. ‘Hard Habit to Break’ and ‘You’re the Inspiration’ are always special moments. The crowds really get into it. It’s a great connection moment.”
“Jeff was a musician when I met him, and I’ve believed in him from that day on,” says Holly. “This is an incredible experience for him, and what an amazing message it is for our sons and anyone else. He made it a priority to be with them at an important time in their lives, and now he’s living out his dreams.
“I’ve been with him through all the ups and downs of a career in music. To see him now is really special. He’s on the road a lot, and we miss him, but we video-chat every day. We don’t know how long it will last, but we know he’s having the time of his life.”
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