Michael Louis Kuk was born on January 11, 1949 and raised in Clinton, Iowa. His father was a highly decorated WWII Marine, who was recovering from severe war injuries at Great Lakes Naval Base Hospital, when he met Michael’s mother at a wedding dance for one of the Base nurses. Ten months later the healthy infant showed up!
He has been a life-long musician and vocalist, never stopping to pursue his passion in the arts. Influenced by both his mother (Pianist/vocalist) and grandmother (Violinist/vocalist) at the age of five, he was indeed a childhood prodigy.
He started formal lessons at age seven, and quickly outstepped his Catholic nun teachers, then going on to individual classes with a Chicago based musical theory instructor. His Chicago classes were to be a series of six months, but Michael quickly completed all the requirements and instruction in six weeks.
Today, he excels not only as a performer, but as an arranger and songwriter, with his work captured in both a Hollywood movie and on a “live” double album CD.
At age nine he started playing the Hammond organ in the Chapel at St. Mary’s in Clinton, and within a year graduated to the Pipe organ in the main church.
At age sixteen he joined the Professional Musicians Union Local 79 in 1965, and continues to be a lifelong member and Executive Board member to this day. He has achieved International Lifetime membership with Locals 67, 79, and 116.
Michael started performing at Clinton area supper clubs and veterans service organizations as a solo act, and then became involved with several Clinton based Rock’n’Roll bands of the 1960’s, such as the Batmen, Peter Brian & the Disciples, the Aardvarks, and eventually becoming the organist and leader of the celebrated Union Jacks (2006 IRRMA Inductees) with a Top 40 45 RPM record being produced.
The Union Jacks went on to not only have a successful career themselves, but they opened up for many name acts at that time. The partial list finds the Robbs, the Vogues, the Five Americans, the New Colony Six, the Ides of March, Yardbirds I (Clapton), Yardbirds II (Beck), Michael and the Messengers, the Buckinghams, Vanilla Fudge, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience topped the show list.
Shortly after Michael did a high school concert in his freshman year at Saint Mary’s in Clinton, that he was invited to be on KWOC TV in Davenport, Iowa. He performed on live TV the very difficult composition “Czardas” on the Hammond organ with full foot pedals. The local papers carried the story and Michael became well known regionally as an upcoming talent.
In 1964 he was a contestant in the Clinton County 4-H talent contest. At the end of the contest he was offered a job at the age of fifteen for Bender Music in sales and remained there on the store’s team until his induction into the U.S. Army in 1969.
During that time he became the opening and closing music behind the live KROS radio show being broadcasted live from the store on every Saturday morning that showcased local high school band musicians. And sometimes Michael was the showcased talent!
It was during the latter part of the 1960’s that he was the “Liberace” style entertainer for the radio station’s annual KROS Cooking School, which was held at Clinton High School’s Yourd Gymnasium. It was a well-known and very popular event with resounding success for the River Cities area by having well over three thousand attendees.
Not to be forgotten during the Christmas season, he also recorded a live hour of special Holiday selections in the organ style of Lenny Dee in 1965. The recording remains in the KROS Vault, and is still played on Christmas Day.
Military duty called and Michael went into the U.S. Army in July 1969. He was sent to Fort Polk, Louisiana for both basic and advanced training, and while he was stationed there, he played church services at all of the military chapels for the many different Faiths, and found time to perform at the Officers Club for the Command Staff on the weekends.
Despite his musicianship and related talents, and expecting to be part of Special Services in the Army as a Jazz Musician or Chaplain’s Assistant, Michael was sent to be in Special Troops as a Combat Firefighter at Long Binh, Vietnam.
The military position of Combat Firefighter was one of the toughest and most dangerous assignments in a war zone. It was nothing like serving as a firefighter in the States. The job duties were extensive and Medal of Honor work was performed almost daily by these brave soldier-firefighters. He excelled at that position, going on to serve as the NCOIC of that unique military detachment of specialized soldier-firefighters until his return home in 1971. This highly specialized position no longer exists in the military, as it went away in 1983, with the dangerous elements of combat encounter being eliminated from the soldier’s duty.
During his time in Vietnam he played religious music for the military Chaplains as his duty time permitted, and even played wedding music for one of General Westmoreland’s aides who married a female contractor in country. (Kuk wrote about his time in Vietnam in a recently published book “An Army Firefighter in Vietnam 1970-1971”.)
Kuk returned to his birthplace and joined the Clinton Fire Department, serving as a Tillerman on the Hook & Ladder Truck and one of the first EMT’s in 1972. During this timeframe he was a solo act and had a small combo around the River Cities.
He was offered a unique position in December of 1975 in Lake Charles, Louisiana as the fire protection specialist at OLIN Chemicals and moved there in January of 1976. In Louisiana, he quickly found numerous musical venues and he continued his musical avocation as both a solo act, and in several country and Cajun themed bands.
As his reputation spread, he found extra work as a guest keyboardist for many regional and top name acts, especially Louisiana Cajun and Zydeco artists, and recorded on many records of that day throughout Acadiana. He was in the house band for many years at the French Quarter lounge at the Motel Belmont in Lake Charles. Friday night was the open jam session, and artists from Louisiana and Texas came to the 2 a.m. showcase special. Michael played keyboards behind countless big name entertainers. Some of which were Charles Mann, Little Alfred, Don Rich, Johnny Allen, Rockin’ Sidney, Percy Sledge, Warren Storm, Wayne Toups, John Wesley Ryles, Shawn P. Saucier, Howard Sonnier, and too many to mention.
He formed his own band “Six Pak” and they were the 1st place regional winner of the Dodge-Wrangler Country Showdown contest in 1983. He was also the keyboardist for two country-rock bands of the Lake Charles area known as Buckskin and Cypress Creek.
During Michael’s career time in Louisiana, he served as fire chief at OLIN Chemicals, PPG Industries, and was the founding chief of the Ward 1 Fire Protection District in Moss Bluff. It was during his fire service vocation in Louisiana that he became known as the “Chief of the Keyboards”. The story goes as that one of his assistant chiefs started calling him by that title and it has stuck to this day, as he was the first to use multiple keyboards during his many shows and performances.
A stroke of luck found Michael’s first encounter with Jerry Lee Lewis in 1983 at the Lake Charles Civic Center as Jerry Lee’s opening act. What was unique about this, is that this was the first concert given by Jerry Lee Lewis, after his extended hospital stay in Memphis for his stomach hemorrhage condition. The show was on Wednesday night and Jerry Lee was released that previous Tuesday morning.
Michael became good friends that evening with Jerry Lee’s longtime guitarist and fiddle player, Kenny Lovelace, and they recently reunited at the funeral of Jerry Lee Lewis in Ferriday in November 2022.
Michael was going to be a part of Jerry Lee’s new band as the Hammond organist for the huge New Orleans JazzFest in August 2019, but Jerry Lee suffered a stroke in February and started slipping in overall health. Plus, the JazzFest ended up being cancelled due to COVID.
In late 1985 Michael moved back to Clinton to accept the fire chief’s position at Savanna Army Depot in nearby Savanna, Illinois. He quickly reunited with his musician colleagues in Clinton, and started playing everywhere. By a chance encounter, he joined the very popular Country Rock band “Secrets” based out of Dubuque and went to Nashville to serve as the arranger and a songwriter for the band’s two White Horse albums.
Then the Secrets’ lead guitarist and Michael also formed a duo called “North and South” and played a busy schedule of small venues on free evenings outside of the band’s schedule.
He then once again became a solo act and held a regular spot at Woody’s Rendevous in Fulton, Illinois. During the start of one of his performances on the evening of June 27, 1987 a serious fire broke out in the kitchen’s ventilation system, and he courageously went to work in his role as a firefighter. Michael’s personal pickup truck carried his off duty fire clothing, medical equipment, and fortunately two heavy duty professional fire extinguishers. He immediately deployed the extinguishers to suppress the blaze, as the local volunteer fire department would be about 20 minutes away. He enlisted the help of two patron/friends to use a broken piece of fencing as a makeshift ladder, so he was able to scale the wooden exterior wall of the restaurant to kill the flames licking the very flammable siding.
After the fire, the local newspaper reporter asked why he took such a risk in fighting the fire by himself and quoted him in the paper saying “it was easier to fight the fire than trying to move all of my heavy musical equipment by myself”. (BTW…Kuk was happily paid for his show that evening by the owner despite the fire’s interruption.)
At the annual Clinton Riverboat Days five day festival in 1997, he was the opening act for the rock band Survivor, as a soloist. He was able to reunite with his old friend and colleague, Jim Peterik, of Ides of March fame during the show.
Savanna Army Depot ended up being closed in March 2000. Towards the end of the base’s closure, he found time for two more bands, as he joined the “Country Eagles”, and also started a novel three piece band that used dual drum machines with sequenced bass lines called “Daytona”. In fact, Daytona performed at the Army Depot for their finale’ and Hail & Farewell show.
Of special note, there was a shortage of Army musicians during his time at Savanna, and Michael came to the rescue for military ceremonies and special military events. He programmed his synthesizers to sound like a military brass band for the countless events, like the annual Prayer Breakfast that required a “Pomp and Circumstance” decorum performance.
It must be noted that during Michael’s fire service time in Iowa that he became a lifelong member of the Iowa Firefighters Association, which led to another turn of his musical contributions. The IFA built a memorial site for honoring Fallen Firefighters in Coralville, Iowa. The IFA had a ground breaking dedication in 1994, but without ceremonial music.
After reading about the lack of music in the IFA newsletter, Michael wrote a letter to the memorial committee explaining what he did for the various military ceremonies, and was immediately invited to perform at the first memorial event in 1995.
He has been their Master Musician ever since, and even made a special CD of his music for the IFA to have, should he be absent. He continues to return every year in June to perform despite the distance.
In 2011 Michael was presented the highest recognition that the IFA could bestow. He was presented with the IFA Individual Achievement Award for his steadfast service and contributions as the ceremonial musician. On a sidebar, Michael continues to serve as the ceremonial protocol advisor and as the memorial service brochure historical article writer.
Near the closure time of the Savanna Army Depot, he played an actual musician’s role in the 1998 Hollywood movie “White Boyz” as it was filmed outside of Davenport, Iowa. The movie required a talent show contest to be a musical part of one scene.
Fortunately two Hollywood talent scouts discovered Michael and a local female vocalist, who were performing at the Jackson County, Iowa Fair’s talent contest in 1997, and offered the roles to them after seeing and hearing the duo’s performance. The female vocalist wrote an original song “There’s A Boy” for the movie, and Michael arranged it to adapt to the movie’s overall theme. They were both filmed performing the song live for the movie and now have a Hollywood legacy.
After the closure of Savanna Army Depot, he was sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where he once again established his musical avocation. He found a blues band in nearby Kansas City that used his Hammond organ talents, and he also continued to perform for numerous military events at Fort Leavenworth and the City of Leavenworth as a solo act, until he was transferred once again by the Army in late 2004.
November 2004 found Michael becoming the new fire chief at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and historically this is where he began his life’s career as a professional firefighter in 1969. It should be noted that Fort Polk is the nation’s largest land mass military base, extremely busy with specialized troop training and related missions, thus his job would be a rigorous and demanding assignment.
Without question, his musical talents and skills immediately became a distinct part of his career at Fort Polk, further enhancing the morale of the military community and supporting workforce.
But upon his return, his former and well established friendships found him warmly welcomed back to Louisiana’s intense music scene. He became a part of it all once again in the Cajun, Zydeco, Rock, Country, and Swamp Pop venues.
He remains in demand with his keyboards to play for many name artists and bands of the region, and Michael travels extensively throughout the State of Louisiana and Southeast Texas to perform. Several of the bands are well known, such as the Texas Tornadoes, Louisiana Scramble, the Backyard Boys, Mercury Blue, and Louisiana Heartbeat. He’s always a welcomed guest member of the Lafayette based band “Atchafalaya”, whenever special festivals occur.
It should be noted that Michael is well known and received at all of the Veterans ceremonies, and he continues to remain an endless venue at the area’s veterans’ service clubs and organizations.
His keyboard skills also found him to become the Post Musician at Fort Polk, which details his talents to the military Chaplains and their weekly Chapel religious services. Other requests call for him to perform at nearby area churches and various worship services in this capacity.
In 2005 the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office began the construction of their memorial site, and appointed Michael as their Musical Director and Protocol Director for their Steering Committee to oversee and direct the annual memorial service. He has continued on in that role faithfully to this day.
As part of a special ceremony in 2012 for the Louisiana Fallen Firefighter Memorial Service, he co-wrote a firefighter tribute song with Louisiana’s top female Christian recording artist, Lottie Collier. The song “Nobody Burns in this Place” was studio recorded and performed at several ceremonies since then.
Michael has been serving as the Adjutant Command Fire Chaplain since the inception of the Louisiana Fire Chaplain Network in 2010. Thus, his musical talents are always a part of the Network’s ceremonies throughout a given year in the State.
While on duty at the Fort in early 2006, he received a surprise call from one of his Union Jack colleagues that the band was going to be inducted at the IRRMA Hall of Fame in Arnolds Park on Labor Day weekend. Thus, Michael requested and was approved for scheduled special leave time with his military Command Staff to attend the induction ceremony.
A return to Iowa was planned and the band diligently rehearsed for two weeks solid before the Induction to ensure that the vintage and signature sounds of the Union Jacks were to be performed once again for all to enjoy. Of special note, most of the band members have not seen each other, nor performed together for over 40 years.
Since 1994 Michael has been called upon by the State Department to serve as an American Fire Service team delegate and travel to foreign countries to share his expertise in his career field with his foreign counterparts.
During his trip to Poland in 2016, he was asked about the music scene in Louisiana with emphasis on Jerry Lee Lewis. During the reception for the five American fire chiefs, a piano was present in the reception hall at the National Fire Headquarters of Poland, and of course Michael entertained all present with a few Jerry Lee Lewis “Rock and Roll” numbers. Needless to say, he brought the house down!
Throughout his musical career some extra special ceremonies and events called upon him to provide unique music to enhance their programs, thus Michael took on the challenges. These organizations found his talents going on to support Clinton County’s Welcome Home Ceremony for the Desert Shield/Storm Veterans in 1994, the unique patriotic tribute in 1996 of the Clinton County Iowa Sesquicentennial Celebration, and especially the 10th Anniversary of the Congressional Fire Service Caucus at our Nation’s Capital in Washington, D.C. in 1994.
It should be noted that Michael has received numerous awards throughout his time in the American Fire Service for his musical contributions.
He has received the following awards: U.S. Army Firefighter of the Year in 1998, Illinois State Firefighter Memorial Committee Honor Guard Medal in 1999, U.S. Army Material Command Certificate of Appreciation in 2001, Fort Leavenworth Firefighter Honor Guard Certificate in 2003, Department of the Army Certificate of Appreciation in 2005, the 519th Military Police “Vipers” Certificate of Appreciation in 2005-2006-2007, International Association of Fire Chiefs President’s Award in 2006, Strathmore Who’s Who Professional of the Year in 2007-2008-2009, IAFC Federal/Military Section Outstanding Service in 2009, U.S. Army Fire Chiefs’ Hall of Fame in 2009, Louisiana Walk of Honor Foundation in 2005 and 2012, Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Fire Chief of the Year on 2012, Continental Who’s Who Pinnacle Professional in 2012, Strathmore’s Who’s Who Worldwide in 2009 and 2012, Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk Religious Support in 2012, Million Aire Military Transport Certificate in 2012, Department of the Army Superior Civilian Service in 2012, Commanding General’s Hero of Fort Polk Certificate in 2012, Louisiana Fire Chaplains Network Certificate in 2011 and 2015, Military Firefighter Hall of Fame in 2018, Commanding General’s Certificate of Appreciation in 2018, State of Louisiana Senatorial Resolution in 2012 and 2018, the Fort Polk Library and Morale/Welfare/Recreation Appreciation Plaque in 2019, Albert Nelson Marquis’ Lifetime Achievement Plaque in 2021, and Albert Nelson Marquis’ Top Military Professional Plaque in 2021, and countless on-the-spot awards of Challenge Coins after musical performances.
For the future, Michael will be inducted into the Cajun French Music Hall of Fame in November 2023.
The greatest honor of Michael’s musical life has been to be the sole ‘Live” musician in the world to perform at the funeral of Jerry Lee Lewis. Dressed in full Swamp pop Royalty attire, he started performing “Amazing Grace” on his Zydeco accordion as the casket crossed the threshold of the funeral home’s Chapel, and he continued the hymn until Jerry Lee’s remains were placed in the snow white hearse. He also remained playing until the immediate family were seated in their funeral cars.
Since then Michael has been a guest artist at several venues hosting a Jerry Lee Lewis tribute. On March 18, 2023, Michael was a featured performer in Farmerville, Louisiana for the “Jerry Lee Lewis Remembrance Day” celebration.
The Union Parish Police Jury issued a special proclamation to recognize the Lewis’ family contributions to their area, of which this is where Jerry Lee won his high school talent contest and started his entertaining career.
Michael received several treasured gifts from Jerry Lee’s widow, Judith, that day, and has them on display in his music studio.
What Michael did at the funeral is called the “Cajun Send-Off” tribute. He started doing this for his military veteran friends and 1st Responders at the end of their funerals. He plays the accordion instrumentally first, and then invites everyone to sing with him one verse of the initial stanza.
This was a promise made to Jerry Lee’s older sister Frankie Jean Lewis-Terrell many years ago, and Michael kept his word to the family.