CRANFORD, NJ — Mark Baron was spending a quiet Sunday afternoon dutifully whipping up a batch of chicken enchiladas. His kitchen is about 120 miles — and a world away — from where he’d been the previous night.
Baron shared the stage with music royalty on a recent Saturday night as he played a gig with The Duprees, The Chantels, The Happenings and Lou Christie in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
From his perch behind the keyboards, he could peer out through the bright lights and see the thousands of people who packed the F.M. Kirby Center, swaying to such iconic songs as “See You in September” and “Maybe.”
Music has taken Baron, 49, on a journey from Cranford to small-town Pennsylvania to some of the biggest stages around the world.
Since giving up his teaching job in Jersey City to become a professional musician 17 years ago, he’s played shows from Sao Paulo to St. Paul, and from Indianapolis to Istanbul. He has served as a backup musician, musical director, orchestrator and arranger at different times for more than 40 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees, including Aretha Franklin, the Beach Boys and The Temptations. That’s not to mention his work with Kelly Clarkson, Reba McEntire and Lou Gramm of Foreigner.
Even with collaborations with the likes of Darlene Love and the late Ben E. King on his resume, the thrill of playing with some of the biggest musical acts in the world occasionally dawn on him anew.
“Like Saturday night,” Baron said. “I’m on stage and I’m playing ‘Lightning Strikes’ with Lou Christie and I think, ‘Oh my God, how cool is this.’ You really have to remind yourself every once in a while.”
How a former elementary school music teacher — who played weddings on weekends to earn a little extra cash— came to play with Stephen Bishop, Josh Groban and Gary U.S. Bonds is a funny story.
It can be traced to the day he landed a job as keyboard player for The Duprees, the doo-wop darlings famous for their 1962 hit, “You Belong to Me.” Actually, he was the second keyboard player, but no matter. After a series of unlikely events, Baron was asked by The Duprees to be the group’s musical director and help head up their backing band.
Fast forward about 15 years and Baron is like a fifth Dupree
. He plays dozens of shows with the group each year, arranges its music and has even helped the group record its recent albums.
Tony Testa, a member of the Duprees, says Baron is not only talented — he taught himself to play bass about 15 years ago — but has always remained focused on making The Duprees and other bands look and sound great.
“That’s part of the humility that he has as a person and it’s projected into his proficiency as a musician,” Testa said. “He’s the best musician I’ve ever worked with and the best musician anyone has worked with because he has a flavor of what is necessary. He’s there to do for the artist. Last night, he backed up along with other musicians as well as The Duprees. He’s adamant about making their presentation perfect.”
Word of Baron’s work spread and he began working with other groups on the 1950s and 60s circuit. Then out of the blue, he got a call to join Gloria Gaynor, who can stake a claim for the title of “Queen of Disco.”
Nine years later, Baron is still jetting around the world to play dozens of shows each year with Gaynor. He was just to the right of front and center when she sang during her induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, at the Grammy Awards after-party and at a benefit concert to aid flood victims in Houston.
He has played her hit “I Will Survive” more times than he can count, but the anthem for jilted lovers everywhere still feels fresh for him.
“I never get tired of the material,” Baron said, “and on top of that, you do a 75-minute show with someone like Gloria and the audience is really loving it, but you hit that first piano chord to ‘I Will Survive.’ You see the place explode. There’s no way to look and say, ‘Oh, I have to do this song again.’ It just doesn’t happen. It’s too exciting. Your adrenaline just goes through the roof.”
That’s not to say that the life of a backup musician isn’t without its ups and downs. The travel is sometimes brutal. A few weeks ago, he flew to Italy for a show, came back to Cranford for 36 hours, then flew to Seattle.
And something is always bound to go wrong, like at a private show with Gaynor in Miami a few years ago. The afternoon soundcheck went well, but when the band returned to do the show, disaster struck. Just as the show was starting, Baron discovered that five keys on his keyboard had broken off when it had been knocked over by the curtain. No one had bothered to tell him.
“We start the show and all of the monitors are wrong,” he said. “The sound is abysmal. We’re up there suffering through this, just trying to get to the end. Gloria is looking at me and we’re looking at each other and we’re both thinking, ‘Just get this over with.’ We go into ‘I Will Survive,’ and we look down in front of the stage and who is standing there? Gloria Estefan. One of the worst technical shows we’ve ever played and that’s the one Gloria Estefan came to check us out.”
Baron has also found several other outlets for his musical creativity. He penned the score for the off-Broadway show, “Frankenstein, A New Musical.” In July, he is working on “Nunsense,” which stars Joyce DeWitt, at the Hunterdon Hills Playhouse. He has had a long relationship with Plays-in-the-Park in Edison. In fact, while working on a production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” he met and fell in love with his wife, Bernadette.
Together they are raising their children, Maggie, 10, and Joseph, 5.
Bernadette said that when her husband is home and away from the spotlight, grand stages, the cheering fans and loud music, he’s just Dad, a guy who is at peace boiling some Spanish rice on a Sunday afternoon.
“I think, from an external perspective, you think of performers as super-outgoing and they never turn it off, but Mark is quite introverted,” she said. “He’s a little more introverted and laid back. When we’re out places, I’m like, ‘Just tell them. Tell them you play with Gloria.’ I almost have to push him to sell himself. He’s very laid back and not a name-dropper. He’s humble about his musical talents.”