Sometimes – say, with a microchip – taking something very small can lead to something really big.
Chris Donnelly is all over that.
The Ahwatukee resident spent a professional lifetime in microchips and semiconductors, including nearly 16 years at the director level with Cadence Design Systems and six as an engineering director at Intel in Chandler.
Two years ago, at 54, he had enough.
“Most of the areas I worked in were high pressure, 60-hour workweeks, and you’ve got to deliver,” Donnelly said. “It’s tough to find a laid-back side of that business, where I want to work less than 40 hours a week. I talked to my wife, Molly. We did the math and said financially I could retire.
“But, as she said to me, ‘Mentally, what the hell are you going to do?’”
Donnelly, who grew up immersed in a musical family, decided to go back to his roots, which had become a casualty of corporate America. He’s now playing musical gigs across Chandler and Ahwatukee.
He started with something small. His legion of personal friends followed him from gig to gig but he is building a new audience of those who hear him play and return to his next engagement.
All tips collected from his playing to go the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, which impacts Donnelly and took the life of Glenn Frey of the Eagles. Donnelly’s audiences, who evidently forgive him for his eight years as chief umpire of Ahwatukee Little League, donated more than $1,000 in the first year.
Donnelly’s dad was on Broadway in “Life with Father.” His mom was an opera singer and also choir director at their church.
“There were five of us kids, a big Irish-Catholic family, and almost as soon as we could talk we all sang in the church choir,” said Donnelly, who today sings in the Corpus Christi Catholic Church choir in Ahwatukee.
He picked up the guitar while in high school. It was strangely foretelling: A microchip cannot do much by itself. The information stored on one is a sort of a binary-code alphabet, and its transistors control which letters are being used and tell the chip how to work – sort of the way a guitarist controls a guitar’s strings to produce chords and make music.
“I’m self-taught,” Donnelly said. “Back then it was hard. There was no internet.”
Armed with that background, when he got to Widener College in Chester, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, he couldn’t miss the guy playing guitar and singing at a pub near campus.
“I asked how many songs he knew. Thirty songs. How much they paying? Back then it was about a hundred bucks playing for 2 ½ hours,” Donnelly said. “In college that was big money. I went to the guy who ran the place and said, ‘Hey, will you book me?’ And he was like, ‘Sure.’
“I played twice a month. It was extra money and it was a lot of fun. I‘ve always enjoyed performance-based music, being out having a good time and having people enjoy the music.”
Now back at it, Donnelly has a repertoire of about 200 songs and prepares a setlist of about 40 for each gig, allowing time at the end for requests.
He enjoys folk music that is good listening, tells a story and resonates socially from musicians like Loudon Wainwright III, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and the Grateful Dead.
“It’s been fun and the audience is engaged. That’s what it comes down to,” Donnelly said.
He has upcoming gigs in Ahwatukee at Keegan’s and CK’s Tavern & Grill, and at the Elks Lodge in Chandler. He has played the Angry Crab, Florencia’s Pizza Bistro and the Irish Hare in Ahwatukee, as well as Jersey D’s in Chandler and the Dirty Blonde Tavern, near the Intel plant.
“My old Intel buddies come to my shows no matter where they are,” he said. “They’re a fun group. They’re like, ‘Hey boss, how you doing?’”
He’s hopeful of cracking the wine-bar circuit in Ahwatukee and Chandler next.
“Getting back into music is fulfilling and it’s flexible, as well,” he said. “I can go to New Jersey in the summer (where he played eight gigs this year while escaping the Valley heat at his lake home).
“I’m a big skier so when I go to Colorado I ski during the day, and then go to local bars. I’ll go in and ask if they have an artist playing tonight. If they don’t and they have a P.A. system, I’ll plug in and sing for free.”
He’s still knocking on doors trying to get gigs and gain recognition, but after one year, his post-tech avocation has not hit control-alt-delete.