FACETIME- Coles' soul: Singing for a cause

Kenneth Coles

When a friend and client of Kenneth Coles revealed that diabetes had forced doctors to amputate her arm, Coles says, he was heartbroken.

"She looked so desperate," he recalls. "I just broke down and couldn't handle it." Coles, who has a brother and a sister who are both diabetic, didn't stay down for long: instead, the hairstylist and well known R&B singer planned a charity performance on June 3 to benefit the American Diabetes Association. Admission to the event at Live Arts is by donation, and all proceeds go to the association.

Raising money is nothing new for Coles, 51, who has held benefit performances for the American Kidney Foundation and various AIDS groups in the past. In addition to the fundraising, for Coles the event is a relatively rare opportunity to perform– something he's been doing since he was a child when he got his start as a member of the The Coles Family band.

"My father pulled me out of the congregation and invited me to come perform with his brothers and sisters at a singing engagement," Coles recalls, pointing out there were plenty of those brothers and sisters– Coles' father was one of 16 children; Coles himself is one of 10. In addition to The Coles Family, various permutations of sibs and parents created The Traveling Four and The Coles Sisters, groups that performed locally and across the state for decades starting in the 1950s.

While everyone in the family loved music, little Kenneth's talent was obvious even among such an accomplished group.

"He always had an ear for music, and rhythm for certain beats," says his aunt Clarice Harris, who performed with him.  And, she says, he was a perfectionist. "He'd sing everybody's part til we got it right," she laughs. 

Coles didn't have formal music education until high school, but watching his relatives was enough. "I got the bulk of my training from my uncle Ryland," he says. "I just stared at him, and the sounds and notes came out that were just amazing." Likewise, Coles taught himself piano sitting on his grandmother's porch. 

Though Coles spent nearly 15 years away from Charlottesville– much of that time pursuing a music career in New York City– he says the draw of family brought him back. His last major performances were during a tour through Italy in 2003, and he says this performance is particularly meaningful for him. 

"Putting together this charity event is my way of wrapping my arms around people in need," he says, "offering some sense of comfort and hope for people."

Kenneth Coles performs "Three Sets for Charity" at 7:30pm on Sunday, June 3, in the Live Arts Main Space. Admission is by donation, and all proceeds benefit the American Diabetes Association.