Pianist Michael Cavanaugh channels Elton John during his Atlanta Symphony-backed show

The musician has found surprise success playing the music of classic rock greats
Michael Cavanaugh

Photograph courtesy of Michael Cavanaugh

1979 was an important year for Michael Cavanaugh. It was when the seven-year-old taught himself to play piano, attended his first rock concert (Kiss), and first heard the music of Billy Joel and Elton John. “I remember hearing ‘Honky Cat’ and thinking it was the coolest thing ever,” he says.

While most musicians outgrow their childhood tastes, Cavanaugh kept playing classic rock staples—as a teenager in his brother’s cover band and in his 20s at an Orlando piano bar. In 1999 he was asked to perform in Las Vegas, where he caught the attention of Billy Joel. The two became friends, and soon after Joel hand-picked Cavanaugh for the lead in the Broadway musical Movin’ Out, featuring some of the Piano Man’s best-loved songs.

When the show ended its run in 2005, Cavanaugh hit the road, performing his take on the songbooks of 1960s and 1970s legends like Joel, John, and Paul Simon at corporate events and symphony orchestras. Cavanaugh says he’s into contemporary music (he’s a Bruno Mars fan) but still loves the music of his youth. “Billy is rock mixed with classical, and Elton is honky-tonk mixed with gospel.”

Still, don’t expect him to glide onstage at Symphony Hall in outlandish sunglasses or head-to-toe sequins. “A guy once asked me if I was going to wear a duck suit or the feathers, but that’s not what I do.” What you can look forward to: a rendition of “Honky Cat,” still a favorite after all these years.

See Cavanaugh during his ASO-backed concert, The Music of Elton John, May 27 through 29 at Symphony Hall.

This article originally appeared in our May 2016 issue under the headline “He’s Got it Covered.”