Video of singer leads to invite to open, close Ebertfest

Video of singer leads to invite to open, close Ebertfest

CHAMPAIGN — While visiting Washington, D.C., a month or so ago, singer Jimmy Demers and his friends visited all the monuments — after midnight.

At each one, he would sing.

A friend videotaped him at the Jefferson Memorial and posted it on social media. A mutual friend, Marla Maples, saw it and forwarded it to Chaz Ebert, executive producer and emcee of Roger Ebert's Film Festival.

After seeing it, Ebert decided she wanted Demers to open the 19th Ebertfest on Wednesday night at the Virginia Theatre and close it next Sunday with his brother, Donnie, on piano.

"It's so surreal and random," Jimmy Demers said during a phone interview. "I'm so happy I did that at the Jefferson Memorial."

Jimmy is not sure what he will do yet at Ebertfest but believes he will open it singing "God Bless America" and help close it performing with his brother at least one Cole Porter tune and a few of his brother's original songs.

The festival closes with "De-Lovely," starting at 11 a.m.; it's about Cole Porter, starring Kevin Kline as the great American songwriter and Ashlee Judd as his wife. It was directed by Irwin Winkler, who will be here in person.

No matter what they do at Ebertfest, Jimmy said people will love his older brother, who taught himself at age 4 to play piano — on a toy piano.

Both are completely self-taught musicians.

"He's amazing," Jimmy said of Donnie. "Our mom had seven kids in nine years. She's a saint. Of all those kids, Donnie is the only one that was musical. I don't consider myself a musician because I just sing."

Donnie grew up teaching his brother to sing. "He's done his own thing and has done really well with it," Donnie said. "It's just by a fluke that he happened to have this incredibly amazing voice. You have to hear this voice in person."

Paula Abdul once called Jimmy "the greatest male vocalist in the world." He was on "Star Search," hosted by Ed McMahon; he tied with the person who eventually won it. Jimmy also was "the original voice" of the "Always Coca-Cola" advertising campaign and in the '90s recorded jingles for many other high-profile clients.

He sang the national anthem at major sports stadiums, performs all over the world, has worked with the likes of Diane Warren, Giorgio Moroder and Tim Rice, and recorded back-up vocals for many artists, among them Garth Brooks, Patti LaBelle and Cher.

His father likes to joke that Jimmy is the most famous unfamous person in the world.

The two were born and raised in Worcester, Mass. Jimmy and Donnie later moved to Los Angeles to pursue their careers.

Donnie is more of a songwriter than performer; singer-songwriter Diane Warren has sung his songs, and British singer Joanna Forest included one on her debut album, "Stars Are Rising"; after its release last month it went straight to No. 1 on the Official Classical Album Chart. Donnie also works with French-Israeli singer Amir Haddad, a major artist in France whose 2011 album is certified double-platinum.

The brothers made their national U.S. television debut in the 1982 Jerry Lewis' Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon, performing "If We Fell in Love Again," written by Donnie.

The standing ovation that followed the performance led Lewis to do an impromptu interview with Donnie, who has MDA.

The two performed two consecutive years on the telethon, which used for three or four years a jingle written by Donnie.

"As I look back now and the way things are today, I feel so blessed to be able to have been part of an era that even supported shows like that," Donnie said. "It was an event on Labor Day, and my participation was big huge deal for my hometown — it gave me a day in my honor."

Another career highlight for Donnie: performing with Jimmy his song "Benediction" for 65,000 people in China for the closing ceremonies of the Special Olympics Summer World Games.

"It was a pretty mind-blowing experience," the pianist said. "There's been a lot of highs. A lot of lows too. It's a crazy business, what can I say."

Jimmy said he and Donnie don't perform together nearly as often as they could or should.

"There's always something magical when he's behind the piano," Jimmy said. "There's always a moment when he sits down to play that is always an authentic moment. Nothing is ever rehearsed with Donnie and me. I just get up and sing, whether at Norman Lear's house or another event."

That performance for Lear is a career high for Jimmy, who sang "My Funny Valentine," one of the TV legend's favorite songs. Lear — who will at Ebertfest on Saturday with "Just Another Version of You," a documentary about him — told the two if he lived to be 200 years old, he would never be able to explain what they did with the song.

Jimmy and Donnie both love Lear.

""He's one of those people who in his presence you're sort of reminded of what a miracle is," the singer said. "He's one of those amazing men — wherever he goes he illuminates the space he's in. His wife, Lyn, is equally magnificent."

Both brothers feel they've been blessed in their careers.

"It's been a good life," Jimmy said. "In many ways I feel my life has just begun. Every time I step up to sing a song I feel like it's the first time. I love to travel the world and do what I love and in the process make a difference in somebody's life."

Topics (2):Film, Music