Hastings graduate Ben Utecht shifts focus to music
A close friend, a chance meeting and an impromptu audition may have given Hastings native Ben Utecht the big break he needed. Now, this fall, Utecht will be the lead male vocalist for some 35 nationwide shows staged by well-known pianist Jim Brickman.
Utecht is well-known for his athletic prowess in Hastings. He was a three-sport athlete, eventually going to the University of Minnesota on a football scholarship. He was drafted by the NFL's Indianapolis Colts and won a Super Bowl ring with them, even catching a touchdown in the big game.
Now that his playing days are over, Utecht has focused full-time on his other passion: music.
Since an early age, it was a passion that rivaled his interest in athletics. It's taking the back seat no longer.
Utecht has a new CD coming out this fall with inspirational holiday songs, and then there's the tour with Brickman.
While Utecht was playing with the Cincinnati Bengals, he got to know the maestro of the Cincinnati Pops, Steven Reineke. Utecht sang with him at a concert and the two hit it off. Reineke eventually moved on to become the maestro of the New York Pops Orchestra.
Utecht ended up in New York one week, meeting with his public relations firm. He planned a visit with Reineke over dinner, but his friend called and told Utecht to arrive earlier than originally planned. He had someone who he wanted Utecht to meet.
It was Brickman.
"It was a little intimidating," Utecht said. "I had a chance to share my story with him, and some of my music on a demo CD. All of a sudden, Jim asked if I would sing right there on the spot with him."
Reineke had a piano in his apartment, so Brickman sat behind it. They both learned they had recently learned an Italian song, Caruso.
"Right there, on the spot, it was like him giving me an audition," Utecht said. "I sang this song in Italian and since then it has been very exciting."
Brickman was intrigued by Utecht's story - that of the singing, 6-foot, 6-inch 240-pound football player.
"He just really kind of fell in love with the story, and with what I stood for and the music," Utecht said. "He's become a huge champion for me."
Brickman invited Utecht to Grand Rapids, Mich., to sing at a performance there. When that went well, Brickman ended up hiring Utecht to travel on his holiday tour, which begins in November and runs through Dec. 31.
"Pretty much every day, except for Christmas, has a show," Utecht said. "It's a huge opportunity for me. I get to give this career a full go. I'm really excited about that. It's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Jim's audience is the right demographic for me. I'm trying to break into this classical pop world."
The fact that the music industry is a hard one to break into Utecht understands.
"That's why this tour is such a big opportunity," he said. "Exposure is such a rare entity in that world. For me to have this exposure is a big deal, then you just have to leave it up to the fans.
"People have to like your stuff in order for it to continue. I think the thing I've got going for me is the story - I just don't think people expect a 6-6, 240-pound guy who used to be a football player to walk out on stage and be able to sing. That gives me a little bit of an avenue to surprise people. That's an exciting thing for me."
The new holiday recording comes out the first week of October, but Utecht hopes to have advance copies available when he helps out the Hastings Area United Way at its campaign kickoff, set for the first Hastings High School home football game of the season on Friday, Sept. 2. Utecht will sing the national anthem and will have his Super Bowl ring on hand, too.
About 75 percent of the songs on the album are classics everyone knows, and the rest are originals.
Pre-orders of the CD are also available on Utecht's website at www.benjamin utecht.com.
Brickman is the executive producer on the Christmas album and plays on about half the songs.
The real-life Glee guy
The television show Glee features a character resembling Utecht in many ways - a big, tall athletic high schooler who can sing.
"I've had more than a couple people say to me, 'You're the real-life Glee guy," Utecht said. "I've kind of chuckled at that. As I've thought about it, that really was my life. I was a three-sport athlete. I was in five choirs. Band. Show choir.
"My life was more music and music theater in high school than it was sports. That was real life for me. They're playing fictional characters on the show, but that was non-fiction for me."
While Utecht excelled in music in high school, athletics appeared to be the smoothest career path.
"Sports always seemed a little bit more feasible," he said. "You grow up in a small river town in Minnesota and you don't really know about how to become a professional singer. I didn't know what a talent agency was. I didn't know how to pursue anything like that. Sports was a huge part of the culture in Hastings. The paths just kind of led in that direction."
Utecht and his wife Karin (Stordahl) live in Lakeville with their three girls. They moved back to the Twin Cities earlier this year.
"That was eight-and-a-half years in the waiting," Utecht said of the move. "Our families are here. Our hearts are here. We've always wanted to come back. It just seemed like this was the time to do it."
His parents Jeff and Lori live in Rochester.
Utecht is hoping to get involved in Hastings again, hoping to bridge the gap, he said, between athletics and arts.
He's proof, he said, that you don't have to be involved in either athletics or in music - you can be involved in both.
"I've got a passion to help overcome the stereotypes," he said. "There's a lot of truth to what some of these shows have put to light - which is that kids struggle with finding their identities because of bullying and how people treat them. When kids discover what they are passionate about, they are discouraged from following that because it might not fit with this clique or that clique.
"That's something that has to be confronted."