Songwriter, pianist and record producer Donnie Demers has traveled the world wowing crowds with his music. After he and brother Jimmy performed to a standing ovation on Jerry Lewis’ long-running muscular dystrophy telethon in the 1980’s, the legendary comedian encouraged Donnie to move to LA to pursue his craft. Both brothers ended up following that advice, staked out successful careers, and played their biggest venue ever together: the 2007 Special Olympics in Shanghai, China, where more than 65,000 swayed to the melody of Donnie’s song, “Benediction (Let The Best of You Go Free).” ABILITY’s Geri Jewell and David Zimmerman met up with Donnie recently and the three of them enjoyed a freewheeling conversation.
David Zimmerman: Where did you meet Geri?
Donnie Demers: At Norman Lear’s. Wait a minute—
Geri Jewell: —It was a book signing at that big mansion on Sunset Boulevard owned by the Reznick’s.
Demers: Yes, good memory!
Zimmerman: Who was the book signing for?
Demers: Norman Lear!
Jewell: It was a huge party, a lot of fun.
Demers: Norman is a rare gift. Every word that comes out of his mouth you just feel like he spent hours thinking about, yet you know it’s not possible, because he just blurts out these amazing sentences on the spot. I always find myself thinking, “Wow, I wish I had said that!” He’s one of my favorite people.
Zimmerman: I was blessed to be introduced to him by Geri, and then we did an interview with him. It brought tears to my eyes because I felt like I was visiting with my dad.
Jewell: That’s his energy.
Zimmerman: I saw that article you wrote for the Huffington Post where you said, “When you listen to Norman Lear speak, it’s like a master class in humanities.”
Jewell: He discovered me and launched my career on The Facts of Life; how did you and Norman meet?
Demers: In 2003, my brother Jimmy sang at the funeral of our friend Christopher Hemmeter, a real estate developer who designed the Jimmy Carter Library. Hal Gaba, who co-owned Concord Records with Norman Lear, was at the funeral and came up to Jimmy and me right afterwards. He asked if we were signed to a record label. When we told him we weren’t, he said, “You are now!”
I’d wanted to meet Norman ever since I found out that he co-owned Concord. Jimmy had already known him for some time, and then one night we were at a dinner party and Norman was there. I asked Jimmy to introduce me to him. But Norman must’ve already known about me because later that evening he came up to me and Jimmy and asked, “Would you two gentlemen come to my office tomorrow? I’d like to speak with you.” When we got there, Norman said, “What’s keeping you from moving forward?” I wondered if it was because our album was not doing as well as everyone had hoped.
Jewell: Is that what it was about?
Demers: No. He looked at me and said, “You’re both so talented, but I wonder if you are holding Jimmy back.” Norman thought that, because of my disability, perhaps Jimmy was spending too much time taking care of me, and not enough focused on his own career. At first I laughed because anyone who knew us knew that, if anything, the reverse was true. Jimmy is the youngest of four boys and a girl, and has always been coddled and pampered. I said, “Norman, I love you, but you’ve got it flip-flopped.”
Zimmerman: (laughs) You told him right away?
Demers: Right away. I said, “If anything, Jimmy has [indirectly] held me back because I’ve spent my entire life waiting for him to make it big, so that we could do our “brother act.” I always believed that we were born into the same family for a reason, and that the two of us would share our different, but complementary talents as a team, like the Carpenters. I mean, it was the perfect scenario: He was a great-looking singer with songs written by my, his brother, who just happened to play them on the piano while seated in his wheelchair. It was perfect. Our story was made for Oprah!
Zimmerman: How did Jimmy react to that?
Demers: Deep down, Jimmy knew it was true that I wasn’t holding him back. I think he was just as dumbfounded as I was by what Norman said.
Demers: So that was my first interaction with Norman Lear. I was struck by his candor and by his willingness to help us with a situation that he thought could have become a distraction. Since then, Norman has become one of my all time favorite mentors. And he has the most loving wife and children, all of them brilliant in their own right.
Jewell: They are.
Demers: And then there are all the magical things that Norman has done for the world of television. I remember watching all of those great shows. I was a kid in the ‘70s, and that is when Norman Lear owned television! I loved Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. That was probably my favorite. I couldn’t wait for the next episode.
Zimmerman: Every week!
Demers: Exactly, but not a lot of people know about that one today. It wasn’t as popular as All in the Family.
Zimmerman: It’s a cult classic.
Demers: Louise Lasser was so brilliant as Mary Hartman. Initially I was stoked to meet Norman because he created Mary Hartman.
Zimmerman: Do you remember the first time your fingers touched the piano keys?
Demers: Yes. Our neighbor Janet Hilton would often watch me when my mom and dad were unable to. Well, she had this piano at her house, and the first time I heard her play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” I was profoundly moved. I remember it vividly because even at four years old, I didn’t want her to see that I had tears in my eyes. It was a gift to be able to stir that kind of emotion in someone. So that Christmas I asked for a piano and got a toy version that I played incessantly.
Another Christmas I received a cassette player. Mom showed me how to use it by singing, “Dream a Little Dream” into the mic and then playing it back. I remember thinking, “Wow, what a great voice!” But she never thought of doing anything with it. She died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2006.
Zimmerman: How old was she?
Jewell: My mom died at 69, too.
Demers: Really? Wow!
Jewell: Of cancer. And I watched that whole thing, too.
Zimmerman: That’s tough.
Demers: Yes. She was my world. Fortunately, my dad’s still around. He’s 84 and doing well. He was just here from Boston for three weeks. We had a great time.
Jewell: That’s great.
Demers: As I was saying, a couple of months after Mom died, we began working on Jimmy’s record for Concord. One day, he found the cassette with Mom singing on it. We decided that it would be a really special moment if we used Mom’s voice, singing, as it opens. And then I asked my friend Owen Elliott if she would consider singing on the track. Her mom, Mama Cass, made the song famous in the early 1970’s, but because Owen had never sung her mom’s song before, she initially said no. I asked her to come to the studio and listen to the arrangement, nonetheless. Once she heard the track, she was all in and ended up doing background vocals, too. The song was deeply personal song to all of us, so we decided to call the album Dream a Little.
So getting back to your question, our whole family can sing, but not like Jimmy. He was the baby, and I taught him how to sing the songs I was already writing. He and I used to pretend that we were performing in Las Vegas.
Jewell: I love it!
Demers: By the time he was six years old, we took our middle names—my middle name is George, his is Francis—and became Geo and Fran.
Zimmerman: (laughs) I love it!
Demers: After I graduated high school, I went to the University of Arizona, which had a state of the art recording studio. I learned so much there and ended up recording an entire album, financed mostly by my dad. Then I invited Jimmy to come out and sing on it. He ended up taking it to another level, and a few years later he followed me to Los Angeles and ended up singing with artists like Cher, Garth Brooks and Patti LaBelle.
Zimmerman: Backup? Duets?
Demers: Backup. He also became the voice of the “Always Coca-Cola” ad campaign. He’s experienced some amazing luck in music. But it all began as Geo & Fran in Worcester, Massachusetts!
Zimmerman: How did you meet Paula Abdul?
Demers: Through Jimmy. He knows everybody. My dad calls Jimmy the “most famous unfamous person in the world.” Jimmy introduced me to Paula about 30 years ago. I loved her right away; she’s like a sister to me. This was before her enormous success. She was a Lakers cheerleader at the time. We watched her blow up, and it was like, “Wow!” Her career is remarkable. And now, to see after all these years that she’s still at it is a source of inspiration.
Jewell: So are you! I’ve only known you a relatively short time. But I’m amazed at how you travel the world.
Demers: We’ve traveled a lot in our work with various charities. One of our favorites is Special Olympics. Timmy Shriver is a good friend of ours and, as you know, he took over Special Olympics from his mother, Eunice.
Zimmerman: I heard the song you did for the Special Olympics on YouTube.
Demers: That was the theme song for the 2009 World Winter Games opening ceremonies. They had this giant orchestra with a huge chorale, and it was pretty amazing to have them accompany me and Jimmy on a song that I had written.
Zimmerman: How did that come about?
Demers: We’d been involved with Special Olympics on the local level, and then we were invited to perform it in Idaho for the opening of the Winter Games. We also had a chance to perform the song at the Closing Ceremonies of the 2007 World Summer Games in front of 65,000 people. It was so cool. We were like little dots on the stage… It was massive, impressive and brilliant. Shanghai spared no expense.
Zimmerman: I need to travel more.
Demers: The upside of traveling with a wheelchair is that you sort of get the same kind of treatment that a celebrity does. You get to cut in front of all the lines and there’s no waiting at security, although they definitely do frisk you. So having Muscular Dystrophy comes with its pros as well.
Jewell: I went to school with a lot of kids with muscular dystrophy.
Demers: Unlike cerebral palsy, there are many different kinds of muscular dystrophy.
Jewell: That’s what I wondered.
Demers: Muscular Dystrophy encompasses several varying disabilities all involving the weakening of muscles. ALS is under that “umbrella.” I have a form of MD that’s called Myasthenia Gravis.
Zimmerman: When did you know?
Demers: Early on. I was around three when my parents took me to the doctor because I was falling a lot. Ironically though, having people stare at me made me feel as though it was kind of cool to be different. One of the most common questions I get asked is, “Do you find it difficult to be the center of attention?” And it’s an ironic because anyone in show business kills to be the center of attention. But of course no one wants to be the center of that kind of attention.
My friends would get way more uptight over it than me, saying things like, “Why don’t you take a picture, it will last longer!” And if a child was pointing at me because I was in a wheelchair, the parent would almost always reprimand them for doing so and I’d end up feeling bad. When I was little I’d ask my mother, “Mom, they’re pointing at me, how come?” And her reply was the best, “Because you’re special.” That worked for me because one of my heroes was Mr. Rogers. He would look into the camera with such sincerity and say in his gentle voice, “You are special just by being you.” I always believed that he was talking to me. In many ways he was my savior growing up.
Demers: He validated me. I always said that if I ever was fortunate enough to be in a situation where I could speak directly to the world, whether it was because I received an award or some scenario like that, I would thank Mr. Rogers before anyone else. And while I have met so many amazing people over the years, I’m sad to say that I never got to meet Mr. Rogers.
Jewell: When did you come to California?
Demers: In 1983. A year earlier, I was a guest on The Jerry Lewis Telethon. I was 22 and performed my song, “If We Fell In Love Again.” It was off the album I recorded in college. We got to do it with the orchestra, and the audience gave us a standing ovation that lasted nearly three minutes! That’s a hell of a long time on national television. Afterwards, Jerry said, “If you want to do music, you should probably think about Nashville or New York or Los Angeles.” That was all the encouragement I needed. I moved to Los Angeles within four months.
Zimmerman: With your brother?
Demers: No. Jimmy was in high school at that time, but he followed me out here after he graduated.
Zimmerman: How many years are you apart?
Demers: Four and a half.
Jewell: And your parents were supportive of this?
Demers: One hundred percent. They said: “Find your purpose, be a good person, and do whatever makes the greatest contribution in life.”
Zimmerman: What is your biggest joy?
Demers: I feel the greatest sense of joy when I finish a song, because I truly feel like I’ve been a vessel. And I love to cook.
Zimmerman: What’s your best dish?
Demers: I don’t really have a best dish. I just love to open the refrigerator and cupboards, take whatever is available, and create something delicious! That gives me profound joy.
Zimmerman: We’re coming for dinner.
Demers: I’ve got a tiny apartment, but I’m happy to cook anywhere there’s a sizable kitchen. Paula has a great kitchen. I love cooking there.
Jewell: When Norman introduced us, he was excited because you were having success on a new medication—
Demers: —Albuterol. My Muscular Dystrophy had taken a toll on me. I was getting worse and worse, and Paula invited me to stay with her in Australia while she was working on So You Think You Can Dance Australia. At that time I really didn’t think that I’d be able to go because my health had gotten so bad that I could barely lift a glass. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to a country I’d always dreamed of. I was there about 5 weeks, and the week before I was leaving to come home, I was in the bathroom at Paula’s apartment in Sydney and a towel had fallen off the sink. I leaned over to pick it up, and couldn’t pull myself back up.
Zimmerman: Oh, no!
Demers: And to make matters worse, my wheelchair was blocking the door. I was in a bad situation because I was headed face first into the toilet. I started to freak out. I remember telling myself, “Don’t panic. Don’t panic.”
Jewell: That’s funny: You were leaning into the toilet bowl!
Demers: Exactly! I didn’t even have the strength to yell, but I tried to call out to Paula’s assistant. At first she didn’t hear me, and Paula was in the living room, in the middle of an interview with the press. Finally, after a few harrowing moments, her assistant just happened to walk by and heard me calling her name. She said, “Donnie, are you all right?” I was on the verge of tears. I said, “No, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” But the door would only open just a little, and she couldn’t get in. This chair weighs about 400 pounds, and wouldn’t budge. I felt like I was losing consciousness, I had no strength, and my arms felt dead.
She went and got a hanger, hooked it into the back of my shirt somehow, and managed to pull me up. Then I was able to regain some control and move the wheelchair so she could open the door. When the press left, I fell apart into Paula’s arms. She made me promise that I’d go to a doctor when I got back to the States.
Demers: A lot of this was my own fault. I’ve always been anti doctor because I’ve just seen too many bad things happen to too many good people as the result of false diagnoses. I was actually improperly diagnosed three times. The first time they told my parents that I had Duchene Muscular Dystrophy and wouldn’t live to be 17. My parents tried to prepare my siblings so they wouldn’t be shocked when that time came. Another time, I went to a doctor for insurance purposes. He said I clearly didn’t have Duchene. It was of his opinion that I had some other form of MD. Then, after I got back from Sydney, I went to a doctor at UCLA who specializes in treating people with Muscular Dystrophy. He looked at me and said, “I can tell just by looking at you that you don’t have what’s on your chart.” He asked me if it would be okay to re-diagnose me. I said, “Absolutely!”
When the results came back, he told me I had myasthenia gravis, a rare form of MD. My doctor had apparently read an article and found out about Albuterol (a bronchodilator that relaxes muscles in the airways and increases air flow to the lungs), and what it was doing for people with my condition. He wanted to see if it would work for me. I said, “I don’t want to take any drugs.” He said, “It’s completely up to you.” So I didn’t take it.
Demers: But I kept getting worse, and when I found out that Albuterol is not invasive, and wouldn’t make my kidneys fail (or other terrible side effects), I ended up taking the medication. I took the first pill right there in the CVS parking lot in Montecito, where Jimmy lives. I woke up around 2 a.m. to go to the bathroom. Normally, it was a grueling process that took 10 to 15 minutes of getting out of bed and into my wheelchair. But this time I walked to the bathroom without even realizing it.
Zimmerman: You just got up and did it?
Demers: Yes, and when I realized what had happened, I started crying. My tears splashed the floor because I hadn’t walked in nearly 30 years. I was able to because of the new medication, and because I had always stretched my legs, even as a kid. I knew another kid who was also in a wheelchair and had to have his legs surgically straightened because they had become permanently set in the sitting-down position.
So that moment changed everything for me. Everything! My doctor became my hero. The next time I went to see him, I walked down the corridor to his office, when the time before I couldn’t get out of my wheelchair. Whoda thunk it? His team was blown away. They had no idea that I would respond to the Albuterol so quickly and so well.
Zimmerman: And this was after one dose?
Demers: Yes. They still have no idea why it works, but because somebody had my rare form of muscular dystrophy and also had asthma, [pharmaceutical] worlds collided, and they discovered the “miracle” medication that works for my condition.
I hesitated at first because drugs scare me. Especially the misuse of drugs in America, which is at epidemic proportions. I never wanted to become a statistic.
Zimmerman: What are you doing now with your music?
Demers: I’m working on a little “hush-hush” musical. The idea for it was born in London around 2010, when I was having dinner with my actress friend Joan Collins. I don’t know if you remember that time when a lot of flights in and out of Europe were cancelled over about two weeks’ time because ash from an Icelandic volcano filled the skies? So Joan says, “Have you heard about all of these people who are stuck in London?” I was like, “Wait a minute, stop! That’s a musical! I can already see it on Broadway!” To which Joanie quipped, “Well then, I hope there’s a part in it for me!”
Zimmerman: That sounds amazing! Are you writing the lyrics and the music?
Demers: I am. But I won’t be writing the play. Someone else will do that. I’m just setting up the workspace so that we can do a presentation for investors. I already see it on Broadway, can’t you? Stuck!
Zimmerman: I just pictured the ash coming down on the stage.
Demers: Yes! I’m also working with this talented singer from France named, Amir. I have a song on his debut album that’s been getting a lot of attention over there. It hit the top of the charts and he won Best New Artist. I hope he makes his way to the US.
Zimmerman: Is that out now?
Demers: Yes. The song is called, “Broken Heart.” Google “Amir” and “Donnie Demers.”
Zimmerman: Are there certain moments in your life when you were like, “Oh, my God, that’s the moment that just—”
Demers: I’ve had a lot of those. Every moment with Norman Lear. China was one of those moments. Being on that stage and realizing: Wow, I’m a kid from Boston with a disability, and here I am, entertaining 65,000-plus human beings who are applauding something I’ve written.
Zimmerman: What do you want most at this moment in your life?
Demers: To find a place where I’m content, and done feel pressured by this circus of mediocrity that has taken over the music industry. My songs hitting the top of the charts is not my goal. As long as I’m able to inspire one person, I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It all goes back to that four-year-old who welled up hearing, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” But you certainly don’t need to write songs to make that happen. Look at Norman, he can do it just by speaking.
Demers: But I do wish Karen Carpenter would’ve recorded one of my songs before she passed away. To me, she was the most gifted and magical singers of all time. The perfect complement to any songwriter.
Jewell: Did you know her?
Demers: I got to meet her several times when I was a kid. I loved her. She was my focus. She was why I wanted to do music. I wanted her to interpret something that I’d written and share it with the world. One of my songwriting partners wrote the Carpenters’ hit, “All You Get from Love Is a Long Song.” I always tell him how envious I am of that supreme honor.
Jewell: Do you believe that Karen is working with you in spirit?
Demers: 100 percent. And the great thing about my affection for her is that I’ve dreamed that she has sung my songs so, in many ways, I’ve actually gotten a facsimile of my dream. My mother comes to visit me in my dreams, as well. Sometimes I don’t want to wake up. Have you guys ever had an experience like that?
Zimmerman: Signs from the other side.
Jewell: You and I are a lot alike.
Demers: Of course we are. We have a lot of the same experiences, too. You probably more so because you actually were in the mix, big-time.
Jewell: That one time.
Demers: That’s all you need. Think of all the people you inspired. Did you even realize the magnitude of what was happening with The Facts of Life?
Jewell: Today I do. Not then.
Demers: It wasn’t about this young actress; it was about this human being who had the power to transcend somebody’s vision of what a person with a disability is supposed to do. I’ve never really felt like I was that different from anybody else. Yes, physically I’m different, but emotionally I never felt disconnected. That might have been because of the way I was raised. No one ever picked on me in high school or junior high school either—although my brother being the toughest kid in the neighborhood probably had a lot to do with that. Still, I have deep compassion for anyone who’s been bullied. I’ve seen the repercussions and it’s a million times worse than my condition because of what it does to your self-esteem. If you’re in this and you’ve got great self-esteem, you’re golden. It doesn’t matter. You know your limitations and you move on.
Zimmerman: Have you written a book?
Demers: I’m too young to write a book!
Jewell: Hey, I wrote a book!
Zimmerman: But you’re an old soul.
Demers: My mother always said, “You’re an old soul.” Anyone who’s in our position has lived another life or 20 or 100, and we’re born this way to make a difference to those who haven’t lived the other lives. We have the power to be teachers and show people that none of this matters. It’s about being kind. Living in gratitude. Making a difference. Helping someone out when they least expect it. Those kinds of things are powerful. And they change the world. I think people who are challenged come from different lifetimes of experience and learning. That’s why I think we’re more inclined to help people. Which is ironic, because you would think we’re the ones who need the help.
Zimmerman: Two years ago I had a massive heart attack, and one of the main reasons I’m still around is because of my extended family.
Demers: Did you know that it was happening as it happened?
Zimmerman: I woke up and I felt pressure in my chest and I said, “This is not acid reflux.”
Demers: Good for you!
Zimmerman: I told my housemates, “Take me to Cedars-Sinai.” They said, “No, no, there’s a closer hospital.” When I got there, they gave me some tests, sent me home three hours later, and said, “You’ll be fine.”
Eight hours later I was throwing up and I called my doctor. He said, “We’re going to put you in Cedars until we find out what’s wrong.” I went there, took the same tests, and then 11 people rushed into the room. They said, “Mr. Zimmerman, you’ve had a heart attack.”
Demers: That’s unbelievable! How damaged did your heart get from that? It sounds to me like that first hospital is responsible in some way.
Zimmerman: I know there’s some damage. That being said, at my last appointment, they said, “Your heart is beautiful. I’ll see you in six months. Yes, I can hear that you had a heart attack, because it sounds different. But you probably won’t have any problems with your heart until you’re 100-something.” And I said, “It’s the bus that’s going to get me as I walk across the street after I see you!” Bottom line, though, you have to listen to your gut.
Demers: That’s what I’ve always done. It’s like that story I told you about stretching my legs. A doctor had encouraged me to do it, and in my gut I knew that it was the right thing to do. Had I not been doing that, I would never have been able to just walk to the bathroom, no matter how successful the Albuterol was. I’d been in a wheelchair since I was in my twenties. It had been a long time since I was able to just freely get up without difficulty. Putting clothes on was a nightmare that took forever. I would get on the bed and slide into them. Now I can stand up and pull my pants up. Are you kidding me? Now I can drive.
This whole experience has rekindled my mindset, while strengthening my muscles enough so that now I can physically be 100% independent, which includes driving without any special car controls. I just guide my wheelchair into my van, transfer to the driver’s seat, and go! My future is a lot brighter than it was in 2013.