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Mike Kavanaugh

Oct 6, 2020

Mike Kavanaugh: From ‘No Cover’ to Unlike Any Other

Tim Wood

Photography By

M.Kat Photography
That is the magic of Mike Kavanaugh, the architect of the island’s most beloved band, JoJo Squirrell and the Home Pickles. He has played more than 6,000 shows in the Lowcountry and booked another 40,000 performances in the 25 years of his second stint on the island—our numbers, not Mike’s; his Buffalo-bred work ethic leaves little time for reflecting or self-promoting.

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His DNA can be found in most every successful working island musician in this century. His versatility is legendary, his 750-song catalog a marvel of musical diversity. But ask any artist about the 57-year-old dynamo, and the chorus is always the same: “He is as gifted a teacher as he is a musician. If you listen to Mike, learn from him, you will make it here.”

Kavanaugh first came to the Lowcountry in 1984, from western New York, with musical ambitions and worked for Lowcountry Adventures while trolling for gigs. He got his first chance at the Earl of Sandwich in Coligny. He met his soulmate, Donna, and got married here. A year later, in 1988, his daughter, Kaitlyn, was born. Though he was a very adult 25 with real-world responsibilities, he admits that musically, he wasn’t ready.

“I played the Tiki Hut, and I was singing through an old guitar amp and just not good. A GM told Tommy Beaumont, “That guy is awful; never have him back here again,’ and I earned that.

“I had folks like David Truly, a legend, telling me I was a diamond in the rough, one of the first guys to give me a break. But I took a lot of things for granted; I was too green back then,” he said. “I knew it. My whole family worked at the Marriott in Shipyard. I played there and the Old Post Office. My friends would joke with me, call me ‘No Cover Kavanaugh.’ They’d book big names like Bonnie Raitt other nights, and then the posters would read, ‘Thursday, Mike Kavanaugh, no cover.’

“We headed back to Buffalo in 1990, but I kept playing, worked a lot of odd jobs and painting houses, but my plan was always to be a career musician.”

His sister, Carol, a popular radio DJ at the time, told Patsy Delello at the Tiki Hut of her brother’s guitar skills. That led to a couple years of working vacations, where Kavanaugh would play eight gigs in a week around the island and head back north.

“Patsy said I should make a full-time run at it, so we headed back here for good in 1995,” Kavanaugh said.
He played gigs like Mug Night at Big Dogs and soon got hired at the Tiki Hut again but got a little too sarcastic with the audience one night and was let go two months in by GM Wes Robison.

“I went on to work the rest of the season at Salty Dog, and one of my last shows, Wes is in the crowd. I apologized; told him I meant no disrespect. Next spring in ’96, he invited me back, asked me to play and book the entertainment at the Holiday Inn. And this time, I appreciated every moment of it, worked hand-in-hand with beverage manager Joanne Nash for 18 years and it was just pure joy.”

JoJo Squirrell was born in the late ’90s out of that joy. The band began as a trio with good friends Todd Cowart and John Wilkins. The name came from a nickname earned from legendary rocker Kay Smith, who played percussion for Edwin McCain.

“He was a true rock and roller, play at night and show up at 7 a.m. to go fishing with a beer in his hand,” Kavanaugh said. “He’d joke about how proper and put together I was, said I was always squirrelling away nuts for the winter, called me JoJo Squirrell.”

Cowart wanted to call the trio The Home Pickles, so they compromised. The band has had remarkably few changes through the last two decades. Gary Pratt joined in 2000, an addition Kavanaugh says was kismet.
“I am a task master. I am the boss. I have a way I want things done, and Gary is amazing at putting up with me,” he said of Pratt. “There’s not a human alive more prepared than Gary. He knows his cards inside and out. I’ve watched him evolve into an incredible musician.”

Pratt is equally in awe of Kavanaugh.

“He knew out of high school that music was going to be his thing. He found a place down here where he could do that in many forms,” Pratt said. “What he does is what he does. Some musicians, they always have an eye on something else. Mike’s laser focused on making this thing the absolute best it can be; he treats it like a business, and he’s expanding the business opportunities for us all.

“But at the same time, he’s so adept at breaking down a song, learning it inside and out the right way,” Pratt said. “The longevity, it’s all about him putting in the work and inspiring us all to be better. He knows what people want to hear and he delivers.”

Pratt marvels at Kavanaugh’s ability to play everything from ’60s Motown to ’70s and ’80s country and classic rock to ’90s grunge to current hits, constantly expanding his play list while being a pioneer in expanding the entire community through booking 35 shows a week at Sea Pines, San Miguel’s and the Tiki Hut for much of the last 25 years.

Wilkins and Cowart moved on, John Bruner became the band’s first permanent drummer and played for five seasons, and Jevon Daly joined in 2009.

Kavanaugh counts Lowcountry icons like David Wingo, Larry Perigo, Bobby Ryder, the Simpson Brothers and Earl Williams as his early-career heroes but says in 30 years, he’s never seen anyone as popular as Daly.
“He is such a natural. He’s fearless and just never stops creating and growing. It’s stunning and glorious to watch,” he said of Daly.

The man behind Silicone Sister, Lowcountry Boil and Unicorn Meat says playing with Kavanaugh and JoJo Squirrell has transformed his career.

“His voice is a revelation. First look, he’s this dorky dude that’s more Bill Nye or Mr. Wizard than a musician. But then he plays this extravagant version of “Georgia on My Mind,” and your jaw is on the floor,” Daly said. “He knows his music, he knows his exercises, and he knows longevity.

“He doesn’t take breaks, he’ll put 40 hours into learning a song. We played three hours and 45 minutes straight once. But he takes care of his assets. He’s taught me to take care of my voice. You think your head is on straight and then Mike, he’ll break you down. He’s upfront, unforgiving, but he cares. And if you listen, if you get over yourself and you learn, he’ll make you a better version of yourself. Because above all, 105 degrees or pouring rain, he performs. No one knows more songs top to bottom than Mike. He knows that every moment is special for the audience, and he gives them what they want every single time.”

When Bruner got in a car accident and was unable to play with the band, Pratt and Daly convinced Kavanaugh to give real estate broker and relative musical neophyte drummer Chip Larkby a shot seven years ago.

“I played with Jevon in Silicone Sister but Mike, JoJo Squirrell, the Tiki Hut, it’s the gold standard. Here are these musicians I admired, and they spoke so highly of Mike,” Larkby said. “I got a chance to sit in and I stunk, but Gary and Jevon, they told me, ‘This is a situation that could change your life if you don’t mess it up.’ And they were right.

“Mike is a hard boss but a good one, it’s very clear he’s in charge but he makes the rest of us better. It’s tough love. He told me when I started I had a month to learn 300 songs. I did it and he’s helped me every step of the way ever since.”

Kavanaugh used to travel the East Coast doing gigs but focuses on daily gigs and private functions. He credits folks like Cherie Perigo of Hilton Head Entertainment for helping him build his private-party business, and Doug Marshall at Stratus Entertainment for helping him expand to places like Latitudes and Palmetto Bluff across the bridge.

“The opportunities just keep expanding, it’s an amazing time to be a working musician here, pandemic and all,” Kavanaugh said.
Try to focus the conversation on his achievements, and rather than focus on his résumé, Kavanaugh just keeps naming all those who have helped him—first and foremost, Donna and Kaitlyn, now 32.

“They ground me; they are everything. Donna’s more entertaining than me. My family, my dogs, it’s what makes all the work worth it,” he said. “I don’t golf or play tennis. I fish a little, love it but don’t do it enough. Off stage, I’m incredibly shy. I have a very small circle of friends, the band and my family. They keep my fire burning as much as getting on the stage does.”

Both he and the scene have evolved plenty in three decades. Kavanaugh said he smoked four packs of cigarettes a day in his early 20s before quitting; while it was a hit to the industry, getting smoke out of clubs has given him the chance health-wise to play as many more years as he wants.

He will concede that moments like being awarded the Paul Harris Fellowship from the Rotary Club of the Lowcountry last year mean a lot. And he’ll concede that he has a talent for finding and booking guys like John O’Gorman and Scott Morlock before they were sought-after brands.

But above all, it all keeps coming back to family and relationships.

“I think the fact that any member of Silicone Sister, Lowcountry Boil and Cornbred can fill in and do a polished show if any Home Pickle isn’t available, that interchangeability makes me proud,” he said. “The fact that we’ve kept it going and growing, these guys are good husbands and fathers and that all past members are on good terms and keep filling in, it’s special for me.”

Pratt said that of all the plaudits he could throw Kavanaugh’s way, his humanity is his greatest strength.
“He’s hard on people, but he cares; he sees it through with people, and he’s grown, softened his edges,” Pratt said. “He’s a true friend. When COVID hit this spring, he asked how I was doing; he asked if I knew any musicians who were hurting financially and wanted to help. That’s the core of who Mike is and what he means to us all.”

As for what’s next, Kavanaugh said it’s folks like current Tiki Hut GM Jeff Elseser and his understanding of music’s importance that keep him as focused on delivering as ever.

“We learn 10 new songs a year, go into boot camp in early spring, get the music absolutely right and then go out and deliver,” he said. “I know I’m not the name brand, but I’m proud to have made a career here. And week after week, folks come and go, but my mission is the same. I want to be the high point of their week, part of the reason they want to come back.” 

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