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Don Campbell
Now on his 21st Christmas tour, pianist Jim Brickman will perform at Abravanel Hall Thursday, Dec. 28.

SALT LAKE CITY — Jim Brickman’s path to becoming a romantic piano sensation had an unusual start: commercial jingles.

In the early stages of his career, the pianist wrote a slew of jingles for companies including McDonald’s, Pontiac and Kellogg’s, and even composed music for the children’s TV show “Sesame Street.”

“When I was in my 20s, I don’t think I was emotionally prepared to write about the things that great songs are about, and so that was why jingles were so good for me because I could write about inanimate objects,” Brickman said in a recent interview. “I wasn’t writing from the heart. I was writing ad copy to music.”

But once Brickman turned to the heart, his inner romantic found its outlet. His hits "Valentine," "The Gift" and "Love of my Life" have been sung by Martina McBride, country singer Collin Raye, Michael Whitaker Smith and many others. Brickman said compared to jingles, writing and performing love songs is a vacation.

“(Writing jingles), it’s creativity on demand. It’s instant writing and it’s a very competitive business,” he said. “One day (you’re writing) a country song for an air freshener and the next day, it’s a rock tune and it’s supposed to sound like Bon Jovi. But you get really good at producing different styles of music, which helps to inform your songwriting so that everything doesn’t always sound the same.”

Now on his 21st holiday tour, Brickman will bring his large repertoire of hits to the Abravanel Hall stage Thursday, Dec. 28. And even though his jingle days are well behind him, Brickman is looking forward to performing a virtual duet with the beloved "Sesame Street" character Kermit the Frog at his upcoming show.

Brickman, an Ohio native, is also looking forward to the show because Salt Lake City was one of the first places to play his songs on the radio, and Abravanel Hall was the first venue that took a chance on him when he was striving to build his career.

“After (my) first album came out, I tried to get an agent, (but they said), ‘You’re just going to play the piano — that’s it? So it’s just you?’ They didn’t want to sign because they couldn’t imagine what that would be,” he said. “I remember being backstage (at Abravanel Hall) in 1996, and I remember saying to (longtime guest singer) Anne Cochran, ‘What do you think we should do, like just play?’ What made me a good performer was my naivete about it, so by accident, I came up with (my) performing style because I didn’t really know what I was doing.”

Since that humble beginning, and in a songwriting career spanning more than two decades, Brickman has collaborated with a wide variety of people: Olivia-Newton John, McBride, Johnny Mathis and Donny Osmond — all performers who helped give Brickman a creative boost.

Brickman first met Osmond as a guest on the “Donny & Marie” talk show in the 1990s. On the show, the pianist performed his song “Love of my Life” with Osmond. And much to Brickman’s surprise, Osmond later asked him if he could perform as a guest artist on his Christmas tour — a tour he ended up doing twice.

“It was wild,” he said with a laugh. “And I feel like we learned a lot from each other. You learn from people who’ve had the ups and down — the career — to me, those are the most interesting people. (Osmond) in particular is very respectful of everybody. Very kind and generous.

"I’ve been on the Christmas tour for 21 years and I still feel like I’m out with my friends, having fun, and I think that people like Donny are like that, too. You’re just doing what you love.”

In one of his more recent collaborations, Brickman worked with Five for Fighting lead singer John Ondrasik to produce the song, “Christmas Where You Are,” which is a tribute to those in the military who are unable to be home for the holiday season. Most recently, the two performed the song on a BYUtv Christmas program titled “Christmas Under the Stars.”

“(John) and I got on the subject of Christmas songs and how a lot of them are really not message-oriented, and you don’t really want it to be a heavy message, but sometimes you want to talk about the humanity of the emotional challenge at Christmastime. We’re very passionate about our relationship with the military.

"We thought it would be nice to say thank you to (those) who serve who are so far away from home and how difficult that time is, so it’s a song about saying thank you for the gifts (they’ve) given us.”

And although he describes himself as a songwriter first, in addition to Cochran, Brickman will also sing some of his songs at his Salt Lake show on Dec. 28.

“If I was singing covers or having to sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at a football game or something — that would be a bad choice. But singing my own songs, it’s completely authentic. It’s very comfortable. It feels like you’re over at somebody’s house for a Christmas Party," he said.

"Even though Abravanel Hall is kind of big for a Christmas party.It’s the joy of people gathering in a community that’s not digital and not on demand — it’s that intimate connection and it’s really powerful."

If you go …

What: Jim Brickman's "A Joyful Christmas"

When: Thursday, Dec. 28, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple

How much: $45-$100

Phone: 801-355-2787

Web: artsaltlake.org