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The LeVee: Tapping Albany's musical heritage

ALBANY -- Blake Cook had the 9-to-5 thing down pat. With his accounting degree in hand, he landed a position with a chemical company. It was a job he did well and one he grew to love.

But even as he got deeper into his job in the corporate world, there was something missing. It took three years for Cook to come to terms with just what it was he found lacking.

Passion.

So in January 2008, with the full support of his wife Traci, Cook turned in his calculator and ledger book and opened the LeVee Creative Group. It was a business based solely on his life's passion: music.

The LeVee was a simple enough start-up: Music lessons in his office building at 2516 Dawson Road in the Largo Plaza. But over a two-year period, the LeVee has grown to incorporate a state-of-the-art recording studio, a performance stage that is the site of weekly entertainment events, a rehearsal stage that offers budding musical artists a space to develop their chops, a media arm that does videography, photography and Web design, and a full-on events production/marketing arm that does ... well, just about everything else.

"I always wanted a career in music," Cook, 28, said. "I decided to go ahead and jump into this business with both feet. I figured if I do it and mess up, at least I'll mess up while I'm still young. The idea was to create the business with as little investment as possible and slowly piece things together. But we've grown at a much faster rate than I expected.

"We've poured ourselves into this because it's something we believe in. And we've been able to tap into the rich musical heritage of this town. I had the great corporate job, and it was an opportunity to make good money. Well, money's nice, but my vision is music."

The LeVee is a music geek's wonderland. Just beyond Cook's office are seven private instruction rooms where between 150 and 200 students of all ages take drum, bass, vocal, keyboard, guitar and violin lessons from a group of musicians that includes Cook, Jared Humphries, Brandon Morgan, Joel Maxey, Jason Bowden, Courtney Spencer, Trey Cooper and Claire Reynolds.

Just off the instruction suite is an open room with a performance stage, wired with a top-of-the-line sound system and fronted by space for a 300-plus audience. At the back of the open area is an offshoot of the Brown Bean Cafe, which signed on at the LeVee recently to great response and now is open weekdays from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Behind the stage area is a recording studio, run by engineer Dennis Frazier, that is decked out with the best Pro-Tools equipment and other necessary machinery. That studio has welcomed local artists like Bobby Joiner, who recently completed a Christian music album, and the Bo Henry Band, which is in the process of recording its latest album there.

"We've recorded at other studios around the area, and we enjoyed all of them," the Bo Henry Band's namesake said. "And we're having a lot of fun working at the LeVee. Blake's got a great staff there, and it's real laid-back He's surrounded himself with creative people whose hearts are in what they're doing."

In the rear of the LeVee's massive 8,000-square-foot facility is a second stage available for rent by bands looking for a space to rehearse.

"Within two months of the time we started the business, we were trying to figure out how to expand," Cook said. "We actually got the adjoining space on November 10, 2009, and on November 13 (rock violinist) Bobby Yang played the first show here.

"We painted the ceilings and the walls; we built the stage; we ran the snakes in the ceiling and hooked up the sound system. We birthed the venue."

Since then, the LeVee has been the site of choice for entertainment events and a number of private parties. Shows planned for the coming week include a Thursday performance featuring local alternative rock band Queen Kong, a Friday Cystic Fibrosis benefit featuring area Christian rock band Everyday Evidence and a Saturday show with Atlanta new wave group SpectraLux headlining.

With the foundation of the LeVee firmly in place, Cook soon found himself entertaining the prospect of taking on a business partner. He met sales manager Vince Dettore when Cook was asked to set up and run the PA for local band Thick Ankle Nancy. It so happened that Dettore, 46, had hooked up with the band as a fill-in bassist.

"I learned to play guitar back in high school and played with several bands in high school and college," Dettore said. "Trey (Cooper), who is a teacher here, mentioned the band needed a bassist, so I agreed to fill in. Now, I'm in the band with these young kids, and I'm having a ball.

"Outside my family, I have two loves: music and sports cars. So (playing with the band) is like a fantasy."

Dettore and Cook hit it off in their brief time together, and the more the former learned about the latter's music business, the more impressed he was. So much so, Dettore recently signed on as a partner in the LeVee Creative Group, forgoing a 20-plus-year career as a sales manager.

"I'll tell you how strongly I believe in what Blake's doing at the LeVee," Dettore said. "I was part of the booming electronic medical records industry, which got a $19 billion federal infusion of recovery money from the federal government. But when Blake and I met and started talking, with absolutely no expectations, we started tossing around all kinds of marketing strategies.

"One thing led to another, and as of (May 24), I became his partner. I was in the number one industry in America, and I know I'm backing away from a huge opportunity. But I saw this place and knew this was a diamond in the rough, one of Albany's hidden treasures. Blake's built a solid foundation here. The choice was easy, and I'm totally at ease with it."

With Dettore on board, the LeVee will branch out into the area of full event production.

"We'll do weddings, everything from tent set-up to caterers to band to bar to flowers," Dettore said. "And we'll do marketing campaigns from shooting commercials to Web design to instructional video to e-mail campaigns ... a complete A-to-Z marketing strategy."

Cook said the addition of Dettore is already paying off.

"The only area we didn't really have covered was event packaging," Cook said. "Vince is brilliant in that area; with his background and his ideas, it just made sense to bring him on. He's already paid dividends for us, and he hasn't even been here a week."

Now that the LeVee has established itself as a haven for all things musical and for every conceivable medium available, its owners are not content to sit pat. Cook said he's already looking to branch out.

"Within the next year or so, I think we'll probably do this at another location outside Albany," he said. "But that doesn't mean we don't have big plans here. We actually want to really hit the Albany market, be the trendier spot -- for lack of a better term -- in town where people can walk in and think, 'Man this is different.'

"This is a pretty unique place, and we feel like we're able to connect with pretty much anyone who walks in the door. I love music, but my true passion is helping others express themselves musically. I don't necessarily want to be a John Mayer, but I want to help others discover that in themselves. We have the foundation in place to do that; now we want to build on it."