Elk Grove family pays for college by forming street band

About 100 children and their parents rocked out in Crocker Art Museum’s courtyard to the pop and R&B stylings of the College Fund Street Band, the fabulous five Fongs from Elk Grove occasionally backed by their dad, Ted Fong.

Friday’s was their third gig at the Crocker and one of the nearly 100 shows a year they perform at farmers’ markets, outlet malls, parks, art galleries and plazas throughout Northern California, along with weddings, parties and fundraisers. “Without them, we wouldn’t be able to put five kids through college,” said Fong, 42, a Chinese American with Hawaiian roots who plays piano, cello, guitar, bass and ukulele when he’s not working as a development officer for Peach Tree Health in Marysville.

The Fongs have hit on a novel way to cover the rising cost of college, which for five kids will break several hundred thousand dollars. They’re solidly middle class, but Fong’s wife, Marielle Valdez-Fong, has given up her job with a software company to be a full-time mom and manager of the band, which they hope will cover college tuition and help them forgo loans or financial aid. They generally get paid several hundred dollars just to show up, plus whatever they take in in tips.

“They’re an incredibly charming family,” said Jennie Simpson, an art educator at the museum. “We love them – they cover hit songs with their own spin so you get this refreshing twist on classics so multiple generations can appreciate their music.”

Front man and lead singer Mario, a 14-year-old sophomore at Franklin High School, insists, “We’re a normal family that plays music for money for college.”

Although not every kid shows up for gigs – sometimes youngest brother Leland, 11, has a basketball game – the whole gang often comes together in the summers.

At the recent Crocker gig, Mario deftly strummed his ukulele and sang to Dave Barnes’ island classic “Hey Now.”

“I love a lady, she lives down by the seashore, I love a lady, she lives down by the bay. ... I say, ‘Hey now, what do I do?’ And I said, ‘Hey now, why won’t you tell me?’ ” He also warmed up the crowd with “Animals” by rock band Neon Trees: “Here we are again. I wanna be more than friends...” Two sisters in blue and white pinstripe dresses sitting in the front row popped up and began dancing, while others couldn’t keep their feet still.

Oldest sister Nina, 17, took the lead on “Thinking Out Loud,” crooning, “Your smile is forever in my mind and I’ll be loving you until I’m 70.” Then Leland, clad in a Hawaiian shirt, cranked it up for rock classics “La Bamba,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Old Time Rock and Roll.”

Baby sister Jennifer, 8, poured out the Beatles’ love ballad, “I Will,” before Mario closed out the 10-song set with “Valerie,” popularized by Bruno Mars. Oldest brother Maxwell Fong, a 20-year-old business major and filmmaker at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo played the box drum and the djembe drum.

The idea for the band, which now has a 40-song playlist, was born in Ashland, Ore., in 2012 when Leland wanted money for the petting zoo and carnival games but couldn’t get any from his parents, Ted recalled.

“He only knew two chords and couldn’t sing, but he picked up a ukulele and put on a hat,” the dad said. “The cute factor was discovered, and in an hour he made $60.”

The other kids caught on fast, and Ted and his wife, a Filipina American who sings in church, came up with the name. By 2013 they had taken off, the dad said. Mario, who wants to pursue engineering at Cal Poly, is a modest rock star, but the band’s achievements are growing – they have CDs, merchandise and YouTube videos. They’ve also headlined a fundraiser at Crest Theatre for My Sister’s House, which helps victims of domestic violence and trafficking.

“Music brings happiness, and it’s colorblind,” Valdez-Fong said. “The kids have had numerous opportunities to connect with people of all backgrounds. ... One dollar from a homeless person is worth more than all the $20 bills because of how much it’s worth to the giver.”

Nina, who enters San Jose State this fall, is the first to have her tuition, room and board financed by the band. “I choose the songs,” said nina, who’s handing over the reins as music director to Mario. “It’s a lot of fun – we get to go to cool places.” This weekend, they performed in San Rafael, the State Fair and on Fourth Street in Berkeley.

Ted, who plays piano and teaches ukulele at Chinese Community Church in South Land Park, said his grandfather, an immigrant from Guangzhou, China, had a restaurant and store in Old Sacramento called Willliam’s Market.

The Fongs met when both were attending business school in Los Angeles, she at Pepperdine, he at UCLA. “She knew I was into music, and I don’t think it thrilled her,” he said. “What do you call a guitar player without a girlfriend? Homeless.”

That love of music has now become a way of life, he said, and a means to a better future.

“I sit in with my kids when they need a bass player. We prefer to be at farmers’ markets or on the street pressing the flesh with people because that’s what we do; we’re street musicians.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @StephenMagagnini

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