The sunset view from Don Cheek’s west-side home is spectacular, looking across a neat swath of green grass and past his garden of beefsteak tomatoes, tightly fenced off from the javelinas and deer. The shady trees, granite boulders and Thumb Butte in the distance say there’s nowhere in AZ this could be but Prescott, and like the Butte, Don is an identifying fixture on our local music scene for 16 years, with a relaxed, low-key disposition and only good words to say about anyone.
Rock’n’roll is an unexpected career for him.
“I spent a lot of summers here ‘cause my dad, Red Cheek, was a horse wrangler out at Sky-Y Camp on Senator Highway. He used to get up and play with Bob Cox and Rod Hart, they’d get up to play a song or two, he was a picker and storyteller, a great big Texan with a big voice and a bigger ego.”
When he retired after 30 years working as a teacher and administrator in a Valley school district, he chose Prescott. “I didn’t know I was gonna be a musician. I’d always been a player, and when I got to Prescott, where I’d spent so much time as a kid, I thought I’ll probably meet some guys I can play with at home, just like I’d been doing, mostly.”
Don had been away from playing in bands for a long time. He’d started as a drummer in high school because “I liked banging on things, so it fit,” up to a point.
“I was right at that age when the Beatles landed, and it’s like, ‘I wanna play that song! I love that song, I know all the words to that song,’ cause I’d heard it a thousand times in a week. I liked playing drums, but it was natural to play guitar so I could play that song. ‘I can sing it as good as him,’ you know. So it was learning the instrument to get to the music I liked.”
“My dad had a guitar and a Mel Bay chord book, and I propped that up on my mom’s piano, and I’d sit there and work on chords. While I was learning a chord on my left hand, I’d learn it on piano with my right hand, picking out the notes. So that kinda taught me music theory, chord structure, all that stuff. And I learned how to play very basic piano at the same time as guitar.”
“My first gig was on January 21, 1966, at Dysart High School, where we knew a lot of kids. I was a senior.” The crowd loved it. “You’d have thought we were the Beatles themselves, even though we were so shitty.”
His career path led him to Texas and a masters degree in educational technology. He retired as a district technology director and administrator in 2005, with two grown children living in the Valley, also in tech careers. There wasn’t much time for music, but he wasn’t out of it completely. “We had a rock’n’roll band, all of us were teachers, and I think we played three gigs.”
With work life behind him, the spark rekindled.
“I went to open-mic night at Coyote Joe’s on a Thursday in October, the weather was good and it was crowded, and I didn’t play, I just sat there and listened, but I met people I still know today. The next week I came back and started playing, and a few months later they offered me Sunday nights, ‘cause they needed a new guy. My first paid gig in Prescott was for $30 and a $20 bar tab, January of ‘06, something like that. I got snowed on.
“I’d never played a solo gig in my life, and I found out it’s not the same as playing at home. You’ve gotta actually know what you’re doing, you gotta be thinking about the next song, when to tune, how long to tell stories while you tune, you know, you’re doing a show. But the next week I was ready, and that started me off. By ‘07 they gave me Saturday night, and I started doing open-mic with Dallas Norman, the mandolin player, on Thursdays.”
Bassist Marty Love asked to sit in to learn new songs, and Don thought the house needed a full band on Saturdays. The CheekTones developed from there, organically onstage. Countless gigs and three albums later, the band is still going strong, featuring violinist Inesis Vitols (the only other remaining original member), guitarist Drew Hall, drummer Scott Ellis, and bassist Cozzy Bohrman recently replacing Love, who passed away during the pandemic and is greatly missed.
The band reflects Don’s easygoing nature and love for all kinds of music, incorporating the broad range of Americana in a jam-band format, with special emphasis on vocal harmony, a must-have element for him. Through several changes in ownership he’s still hosting Thursday open-mic nights, at the Bird Cage since 2014.
Since the pandemic Don’s been working to further improve his playing, taking guitar lessons from bandmate Drew Hall. “It’s good for my brain,” he says. “Running the band,” making promotional materials and merchandise, booking gigs and organizing to learn new material takes up most of his offstage life, but he thinks of himself as “living the life of somebody who doesn’t have a day job,” taking time for his family and girlfriend, growing his tomatoes, working out and getting up in the woods.
He says his favorite hike is the Flume Trail. “It’s kinda short and sweet, gives me a good workout, and doesn’t take too much out of the day. It’s kinda nice when there’s a ‘thing’ at the end of a hike,” like a mountaintop or other landmark. “Maybe that’s metaphorical for the music I like: you get somewhere. On the Flume Trail, you get to the dam and you look out and see the water flowing away.”
At age 73 Don is not expecting to slow down anytime soon. “Even though I’m in the Geezerdome, I think my role is to show that you don’t quit, you keep going till they wheel you offstage.” He’s grateful for the audiences who regularly fill the gigs. “As long as the crowds keep coming out and the bar keeps making money, I get to keep doing it.”