Ed Caner vividly remembers the first time he took the stage with Smokey Robinson. It was 1990, and Caner was playing violin for Robinson’s fans on a floating stage in the Cuyahoga River. The crowd, Caner recalled, was “overwhelmingly supercharged.”
After that first night, Caner was hooked.
Since then, Caner has played violin in an estimated 40 to 50 shows with Robinson, who will receive an honorary degree from Case Western Reserve at the 20th Annual Music Masters Series tribute concert Saturday. He’s also played with other famed musicians, including Natalie Cole and Wayne Newton, and started his own band.
Caner, now the director of the Science & Technology Entrepreneurship Programs (STEP) and instructor of physics, got his first taste of the spotlight through his own graduate school professor. Caner had been pursuing his master’s in music at Cleveland State University—he later earned a master’s in physics from CWRU—while performing in the university’s ensemble in residence, the Cleveland Chamber Symphony.
Caner’s conducting professor also was a contractor for musicians, and put Caner’s name out there as a potential violinist for acts—which led to his first show with Smokey, and then more and more down the line.
Performing with Robinson was a great experience for Caner, who reflects fondly on those shows.
“He was just so friendly,” Caner said. “He always had a smile on his face.”
Robinson also was willing to share his own tips he’d learned after years in the spotlight. When Caner was struggling to adjust to the harsh lights at rock ‘n’ roll and country concerts and couldn’t see the audience, Caner turned to Robinson for advice.
“He said: ‘Oh, just don’t let it bother you. Just believe they’re out there smiling and having a good time. They don’t want to know your troubles. … You just want to have a good time, and they’ll have a good time,’” Caner remembered.
Robinson performed true to these words: When things went wrong during a show, he just kept going. Caner recalled other musicians scowling at the sound person or swearing at the bandleader. But Robinson wasn’t like that.
“It was really great to watch someone like that,” Caner said.
Watching and learning from Robinson helped Caner with his own musical career: Caner performs with Hey Mavis, an Americana-folk band that launched in early 2009. In the years since, the band has performed in nearly 50 shows a year, often traveling to Rochester, Buffalo, Columbus and Cincinnati, as well as playing locally in the Cleveland area.
Caner’s wife, Laurie, provides songwriting/vocals and manages the business side for the band. The couple plans to keep Hey Mavis as more of a part-time job in their lives, choosing instead to focus on their three children and Caner’s career at CWRU, where he oversees STEP, a family of professional Master of Science degrees in the College of Arts and Sciences, in partnership with the law and management schools.
“I wish I had more time to practice [violin], but I don’t,” Caner said. “The balance is not there; it balances on the side of the job, for good reason.”
While this week has been a busy one for Caner—he was in Kansas just a few days ago for work, discussing a collaboration with the Kansas State University physics department—he couldn’t miss the American Music Masters tribute concert to the man who he’s played alongside, and from whom he’s learned so much.
“I think [the recognition of Robinson] is overdue, just looking at the amount of influence that he’s had on rock ‘n’ roll and pop music. I don’t want to take away from anyone else who’s been honored, but he definitely he deserves it,” Caner said. “He played an important role in the history of music.”
See where Caner is headed with his own music by checking out the Hey Mavis website at heymavis.com and read on to learn more about him.
1. What’s the one place in Cleveland that’s your must-visit for out-of-towners?
It is the West Side Market. It’s a combination of sight and smells. There’s no other place in the world that looks or smells like it. Or maybe there is—I don’t know—but I just love the West Side Market.
2. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received from a teacher?
“Be true to your passions.” That sounds cliché, but it is true.
3. What’s the one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
I can ride a unicycle and juggle at the same time. That was [something I learned in] fourth grade gym class.
4. What famous person—past or present—would you most like to have dinner with and where would you go?
This is dynamic. If you had asked me a year ago, I would’ve said somebody else. But I think it would be Jack London, the author. I’ve always been impressed by the way he interwove his beliefs and philosophies into his stories. I would want to know to what extent he really believed or lived those philosophies. We’d go to Skyline Chili in Cincinnati or Harry’s in Manhattan, Kansas. I can’t decide.
5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
The diversity. It is amazing across the board—intellectually, subject matter and people.