Tragic circumstances and a world of uncertainty confronted Frankie and Jenny Moran following the birth of their son, Cole. Today, their musical marvel is an inspiration to all who know him.
With a few tables and chairs repositioned to create a makeshift stage in a corner of Berlin’s Atlantic Hotel, a father and son share more than their musical talents with those who’ve gathered to hear them play. The bond between Ocean City native Frankie Moran and his 12-year-old son, Cole, is profound and infectious. As camera flashes illuminate the room, Frankie, his wife, Jenny, proud grandparents Terri Moran, Lester and Corey Donaway, and several others, know how truly remarkable the scene is, because a dozen years ago, none of this would have seemed possible.
Frankie Moran grew up in Worcester County’s picturesque South Point as a fishing and surfing enthusiast. Music wasn’t even on his radar until high school, when Frankie realized that people at parties gathered around those who could play the guitar. Admittedly “shy and awkward,” and from a family of “front porch bluegrass guitar pickers from West Virginia on his mom’s side,” Moran taught himself to play on a guitar his grandmother gave him as a gift. He parlayed that ability by learning to play the harmonica to his parents’ Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen records. Before long, he was part of his first band, Local Produce, and he was actually being paid to play — from BJ’s On The Water in Ocean City to as far west as Towson, Md.
As Moran matured, so did his musical talents. He recorded his first album as a member of the band Moran Hill Hurwitz and has since produced a solo project of original tracks. Having earned critical acclaim throughout the industry for his songwriting ability, Frankie’s song “She’s Been Cheatin’” appears on the soundtrack of the film Lovely Molly, directed by Eduardo Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project), while his bluegrass rendition of “What Goes On” is among the tracks of the compilation album The Beatles Complete on Ukulele. Frankie also wrote and performed much of the original music for the Telly Award-winning A&E Network series Random 1 and the feature film Lost in Woonsocket, which aired on The Oprah Winfrey Network and Halogen TV.
For years, Frankie’s personal life was in tune with his musical accomplishments. He and Jenny were as happy as they could be and eagerly anticipating the birth of their first child — a boy named Cole.
“As a soon-to-be father, knowing we were having a boy, I couldn’t help but think about playing ball in the backyard like my father did with me,” Frankie said. “It’s an exciting event, to say the least, when your baby is finally delivered. I remember I couldn’t wait to make eye contact with him and was overwhelmed with love, excitement and pride when I looked at him for the first time.”
Doctors attempted to place drops in Cole’s eyes but had difficulty opening his eyelids. Frankie knew in his heart that something was wrong.
“I’m watching the whole time because I want Cole to see me and to let him know everything is okay,” Frankie recalled. “They finally got his eyes open enough to get some drops in, but I didn’t see his eyes. My heart sunk. I tried to reason and tell myself everything was fine, but I knew everything I thought about when imagining raising this child was going to be completely different.”
Doctors whisked baby Cole away to determine the severity and extent of his birth defects while another medical team raced Jenny to emergency surgery in an attempt to repair a life-threatening hemorrhage.
“From that moment, it didn’t matter to me what happened a day ago or a year ago or 10 years ago… everything was: What’s going to happen in the next five minutes,” Frankie said.
Cole was born with CHARGE syndrome — an extremely complex disorder that occurs in about one in every 10,000 births worldwide and involves extensive medical and physical difficulties that vary from child to child. In Cole’s case, he was born with microphthalmia, or underdeveloped eyes, rendering him blind. His right eye has a tiny globe in it, and he wears a prosthetic to help maintain the shape of his eye socket and face. Cole’s left eye has a detached retina, but he can see some light with it. Cole also has cognitive delays and apraxia of speech, which affects his fine motor skills. As a result, he did not speak until the age of five. He was also born with a single kidney, which has remained healthy and compensates the missing one.
Another aspect of CHARGE for Cole was early-onset scoliosis, for which he will undergo two corrective surgeries every year until he is fully grown. He’s had five surgeries at Johns Hopkins Children’s Hospital in the last three years alone.
Although her condition after giving birth was extremely critical, Jenny recovered fully and was able to be with Frankie and Cole at University of Maryland Children’s Hospital, where they were transferred from PRMC. In addition to the realization that their parenting methods would need to change dramatically to care for a special-needs child, Frankie and Jenny also quickly determined they needed to move to Baltimore to be closer to Cole’s doctors.
In between the multitude of doctors’ appointments and seemingly endless tests, Frankie and Jenny yearned for a sense of normality at home with Cole. What better way for the couple to connect with their son than through music?
“Before he could even sit up, I would prop Cole up with pillows at this little piano, and he’d bang on it,” Frankie remembered. “Before I knew it, he was playing melodies with one finger to songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
At age 3, Cole began exploring notes on his father’s harmonicas. That was the same year he started at The Maryland School for the Blind, and among the many specialized criteria that allowed him to grow cognitively and emotionally, it was in music class that his love for the harmonica flourished.
“I remember him coming home one day, and he starts playing a Beatles’ song,” Frankie said. “I was like: You’ve got to be kidding me! Where did he pick that up at? And we tracked it to the school; he was learning it at school. Cole had a music teacher who was letting him hear some different things, and he wanted to play along with it.”
Frankie and Jenny continued the theme at home and made a fun game of giving Cole songs to play randomly. They soon determined Cole possessed the gift of perfect pitch — a rare auditory phenomenon characterized by a person’s ability to identify or re-create a given musical note without the benefit of a reference tone.
“Cole practices his harmonicas just about every day, sometimes twice a day,” Jenny said. “He loves playing along with his dad or with whatever is cued up on his iPod. The most time off he takes is after his back surgeries, which render him inactive while his incision is healing and he regains his strength, usually in three weeks.”
About two years ago, Cole joined his father onstage at the Atlantic Hotel during a live performance. The response from those in attendance — and from those who watched later on Facebook and YouTube — was off the charts. The experience was not only a special moment for Cole, but it changed his father’s perspective on playing music.
“In that moment I realized that this is different than me just playing,” Frankie said. “I don’t have this effect on people. They’re feeling a different connection here with him, and it’s something special, so we’re building on it as much as we can.”
Cole now joins his dad onstage for a set at the Atlantic Hotel whenever his school and medical schedules allow, belting out bluesy renditions of the Beatles, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan classics, among others. Last summer, Frankie and Cole, along with a third musician, placed second overall at the famous Berlin Fiddler’s Convention under the band name Blind Wind, and the duo recently recorded their first CD together, which is due out this spring.
“Cole has always amazed me with his musical talents. Seeing him now onstage with his dad just brings me such joy,” Jenny said. “It makes me so happy that Cole has something he loves to do. I love seeing how happy playing music makes him, and I love seeing the reactions of other people when they hear him. Cole has come a long way in his 12 years.”
“Our mission is to inspire the world and show everyone that making music is something anyone can do — no matter what physical or mental disabilities one might have,” Frankie said. “And in doing so, we aspire to give confidence, break down social barriers and make the world a better place, one note at a time.”
Editor's note: Frankie and Cole return to the Shore March 20 to play at the Atlantic Hotel at 6 p.m. They also perform at The Crabcake Factory in Fenwick on March 22 from 2-6 p.m.