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Rob Mathes Behind-the-Scenes Music Career That Makes Stars Shine

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THERE was a time when 45-year-old Rob Mathes wanted to be a rock star. That never happened, for a number of reasons.

One, “I was trying too hard,” said Mr. Mathes, who, on Jan. 18, directed a small army of pop and rock luminaries at “We Are One,” the HBO-televised preinaugural celebration at the Lincoln Memorial. “Bands that are really moving and insightful and interesting — they have a different attitude, like, ‘If you want to sign on, fine. If not, we don’t care.’ I was never in that pantheon.”

Also, he said, “I was always a chunky guy — I never cared about image, really.”

Mr. Mathes doesn’t begrudge the Mick Jaggers of the world their fame, though: “Let’s be honest,” he said recently from his home office here while nursing a Diet Coke and struggling to get several phones to stop ringing. “When I watch a band, I want to watch a cool-looking band like anybody else.”

Put another way, you can’t always get what you want. But if you are musically skilled enough to work your way into the ears of legendary singers and producers, you may find what you need, including the opportunity to micromanage a string of star performances for the president-elect of the United States and hundreds of thousands of fans.

Mr. Mathes’s behind-the-scenes career in music has led to some stunning moments, like producing the 2008 album “Pretty. Odd.” for the indie buzz band Panic at the Disco, and picking up two Emmy nominations for his annual musical direction of the Kennedy Center Honors. It was his work at the Kennedy Center that attracted the inauguration committee and landed him what was the most star-studded show of his career, with performances by Beyonc, Mary J. Blige, Bono, Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow, Renee Fleming, Josh Groban, Jon Bon Jovi, Herbie Hancock, Heather Headley, John Legend, Jennifer Nettles, John Mellencamp, Usher, Shakira, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Will.i.am and Stevie Wonder.

Despite his current prominence, Mr. Mathes remains a dedicated Greenwich family man. At age 5, he moved to Old Greenwich with his parents, both music teachers and still residents, and has lived here since. His wife, Tammy, is a first-grade teacher at Greenwich Country Day School. His three daughters — Emma, 13; Sarah, 11, and Lily, 8 — go to school here. He has never stopped making music locally.

Mr. Mathes said his early-90s-era Steely Dan-flavored music confused the handful of record labels he managed to attract. So after he decided that he wasn’t going to try and get a record deal anymore, he said, he “got interested in Christmas music.”

“I did some interesting arrangements with carols and called it ‘Heart of Hearts,’ ” he said. That was in 1992. Mr. Mathes presented the music at a Christmas concert in town in 1993 and has been putting on an annual show ever since. “Three hundred people came to that first concert at Second Congregational because I was a Greenwich son, they knew me,” he said. “We sold it out.”

His reputation as a gifted musician helped, too: In the 1980s, when he was part of the house band at the Empire Club in Manhattan, the jazz musician Chuck Mangione tapped him to go on tour as keyboardist/guitarist. He kept that 120-shows-a-year gig from age 21 to 25. The Phil Ramone connection, which led to Mr. Mathes’s credits as an arranger for luminaries like Vanessa Williams, Elton John, Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole, sprang directly from “Heart of Hearts.”

“Someone sent Phil Ramone the music from that first concert, and he called me up,” he said. “The first thing I did for him was Andr Previn’s 65th birthday concert. He asked me to arrange something for him.” That was in 1995. “I’ve been toiling happily in Phil Ramone’s sweatshop since,” he said.

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