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Blessed with a musical life

St. Peter woman was given a musical gift, and she continues to share it

St. Peter residents may not know of the musical prodigy in their midst. That’s because Kay Koehler seldom mentions her many musical talents. She can sing in any range from soprano to tenor. She has sung backup for more country stars than most of us can name. She plays keyboard, including the piano, and other instruments. She has been involved in numerous church choirs and other musical activities. For most of Kay’s 72 years, music has been a vital part of her life.

Kay Koehler is at home behind the keys or behind a microphone. Music has been a major part of her life for nearly all of her life. Her musical career has allowed her to work with some musical icons, including Kenny Rogers, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Reba McIntire, Garth Brooks, Waylon Jennings, Ray Charles and Frankie Avalon, to name a few. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

Considering the question of nature versus nurture, one might think that Kay and her twin sister, Karen (also a singer), inherited their talent from a family member–and perhaps they did. They were adopted as infants by the Klinger family, and Kay is quick to point out that every talent, however it is received and used, is a gift from God.

The Klinger family provided nurturing for the girls’ talent. They sang with their mother on an Estherville, Iowa, radio station in the late 1940s and took part in numerous contests.

“Mother entered us in every musical contest in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa,” said Kay. “We missed a lot of school, won many prizes and sang at conventions in Des Moines.”

Kay sang in her high school choir, as well as in trios and quartets. She took part in school musicals and was the first chair clarinet in her school band.

After high school graduation, she enrolled at Morningside College in Sioux City, where she tested out of music classes (except for voice and piano lessons and choir) and completed other required classes. When Kay’s sister dropped out of college, Mrs. Klinger returned to promotional mode. Wanting to keep her daughters together, she sent photos and tapes to various musical groups, including the Fred Waring Orchestra. The young women received telegrams (Kay’s arrived while she was taking a final exam in a religion class), telling them to report to a Fred Waring workshop in Bloomington, Indiana.

First Professional Opportunity

Kay’s first TV gig was The Johnny Cash Show in the late 1960s, shortly after she graduated from college. She now lives in St. Peter. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

“It was summer 1967 when we went to Bloomington and auditioned,” Kay said. “We got jobs immediately and were flown to New York City. We toured with Fred Waring for a year. When the tour was over, I joined several other singers who said, ‘Let’s all go to Nashville.’ When we got there, a newspaper sent a reporter to interview these 22- and 23-year olds and took our photos. I was called to be a back-up singer for Tammy Wynette–that’s how it started–and the phone kept ringing for 21 years.”

Kay also attended Peabody/Vanderbilt University in Nashville, earning a Bachelor of Music Education degree.

“I was busy,” Kay said. “I thought, ‘if my voice doesn’t get me the job, I don’t need to be here. I don’t need to give my body away.’ I pride myself in having kept my standards. I wasn’t the only one. Many of the folks in Nashville when I was there were Bible-reading believers–Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Johnny and June Carter Cash–and others.

“My first TV gig was on The Johnny Cash Show in the late 1960s. It was filmed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. I met June Carter Cash and was invited to their home, along with all of the other musicians in the show. This was when I realized it was a whole different ball game from Fred Waring. Johnny would point at someone to sit in the ’hot seat’ and make them sing a song or tell a story. I got to love those musicians with whom I made music all the time.”

Remembering the ‘Greats’

Kay and her husband, Warren, live in St. Peter. She continues to be involved in music on a daily basis. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

Kay recalled the time she was selected from among hundreds of back-up singers (“I have no idea how”) to fly to New York to sing for the third anniversary show of the Nashville Network. She said, “Here was the little girl from a dairy farm in Iowa singing Georgia on My Mind with Ray Charles and three other back-up singers, with Ray Charles on the piano. If you listen to the original recording, you can hear the quartet.”

The second act of that show was Sammy Davis, Jr., who exemplified the philosophy that “the show must go on.” Kay remembered it thus: “We were standing up there, by the piano, and I looked stage left, behind the curtains. Sammy was standing bent over, then walking slowly to his entrance. You could see he was in great pain. As he was introduced, he stood straight up and walked to the microphone. He did his songs with all of us, left the stage and resumed his crouched position, walking with assistance.”

“Another singer I respect is Dolly Parton,” Kay said. “She is an extremely intelligent and gifted business woman. She’s cheerful and sweet to everyone, just like on stage, but she has a fabulous brain for business. She once was asked if it all came to an end, what would she do. She said she’d still write songs and sell CDs out of the trunk of her car.”

Kay has memories of other musical greats. She said, “Kenny Rogers is a total gentleman, very business-like, very quiet, the nicest person. Loretta Lynn is the ‘countryist’ girl I ever talked with. The one I was most impressed with was Minnie Pearl. In real life, she was regal, smart and tactful. Then she’d put on the costume . . .”

Kay also created jingles and produced commercials for television and radio, including those in which she did voice-overs. One of Kay’s more active ongoing gigs, from 1972 through 1975, was as a singer and dancer in I Hear America Singing at Opryland USA. In 1976, she applied for–and got–the conducting job, for which she had to audition every year. She filled that position for a number of years because, she said, “It was a lot less strenuous on my body.” She also sang and played the organ and piano in various churches, as well as leading choirs, gave private voice and piano lessons, and taught in classrooms.

Getting High

Although Kay had no difficulty keeping her personal standards, a different temptation became part of her life. She explained, “I did try marijuana and loved it. It was readily available, and I used it only in private. I did everything ‘high’ for 16 years. One day, when I was out of marijuana, I went to a friend’s apartment to get more. She wasn’t there, but I had a key, so I went to her dresser and put my hands in one of her drawers. Then I heard a voice saying, ‘Look where your hands are.’ I knew my friend would have shared, but she was not there, and I was a thief.

“That was the turning point. I began to walk and pray out loud, ‘Lord, I have a hole in my soul that I’m trying to fill with everything but You.’ I heard a voice saying, ‘Go see Father Fleming’ at a cathedral where I sang and played the organ. I walked in and unloaded on Father Fleming, who told me to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings every noon, Monday through Friday. I attended NA for three years, surrendering to God. It changed my life forever. For the past few years, I‘ve been writing a musical about addiction.”

In 1990, Kay, then 44 years old, decided it was time to leave Nashville. She moved to Estherville, Iowa, where her parents lived. Over the next several years, she worked as a music director, choir director and principal organist at several churches, and gave private piano and voice lessons. Then, in 1997, she received another gift from God.

“What I didn’t know when I moved back to Iowa was that God was bringing me home to meet Warren, who would become my husband,” Kay said. “Friends set us up, and I had feelings for him instantly. We were married two months later.” The following year, Kay founded a music ministry producing contemporary Christian concerts and CDs.

The Koehlers moved to Warren’s home state of Minnesota, where Kay continued making music. She spent some time on the piano keyboard at Nordstrom’s at the Mall of America. In 2007, a friend asked Kay to do a concert in Bella Vista, Arkansas, which led to the offer of becoming the music director and worship leader in two churches. (Because Warren’s expertise as a crop insurance adjuster is in demand, the couple chose to make the move.) They eventually returned to Minnesota, where Kay has continued her involvement with music, including the formation of a church choir.

Five years ago, Kay was diagnosed with a growth on her brain. With Warren having lost two wives to cancer, Kay’s response was, “I won’t be his third wife to die of brain cancer.” The tumor was benign.

Kay said, “I thought I had started a choir in Mankato to sing, but I learned that God got them together to pray for me. I believe that everything that has happened has been God-ordained. He asks, ‘Are you going to rely on Me or on other people and things?’ I’ve been called to talk about my story and to sing in several churches. God uses our stories to help one another. He has given me music to bring Him glory and to help others.”

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