About midway through the past school year, Three Trails Elementary principal Kevin Lathrom decided to play some music over speakers on some Fridays while students had lunch.
The music came from a solo artist – a clean, soulful voice accompanied by his acoustic guitar – that he'd heard about before the school year and then fully realized his talent after a quick internet search brought up the artist's YouTube channel.
Lathrom said the students were amazed when he told them the singer was Alo Key – better known as the Independence school's head custodian.
“They were like, 'No way, it's not him!'” Lathrom said. “(Key) would just smile and shake his head and said, 'Yeah, that's me.'”
Key later delighted the children with some little concerts during summer school last month, something he's done just a few times while working in the Independence School District.
It's not that he's been hiding his musical ability. His YouTube channel has more than 1 million views, and he recorded a little inspirational musical video with Three Trails' music teacher before state testing this year. Rather, Key didn't want to flaunt it, lest he not be taken seriously for his job.
Previously, Key's job had been music – recording and touring. As recently as 2015 he toured New Zealand, and it wasn't the first time.
In fact, he would have graduated from William Chrisman High School in 2000, but instead he had earned his GED in 1999 after dropping out two years earlier to pursue a music career that involved touring Europe.
Key put music on a backburner and took up the custodian job to better help his family – wife, a son entering high school this year and four younger daughters.
“Music has always been a part of the family,” said Key, who learned the guitar basics from his father but is mostly self-taught. “My brothers would play drums and bass. Everybody sings in the family; my kids sing, too.”
As an adolescent, Key, an older brother and two older cousins formed an a cappella singing group that won a Kansas City talent competition at the Scottish Rite Temple. The group got noticed and signed a record deal with a company out of Austria, one he said was looking to capitalize on the boy band craze in Europe at the time – remember Backstreet Boys and N'Sync – and then strike gold back in the United States.
Key said his parents saw that opportunity as too good, a once-in-a-lifetime shot, to pass up, so out of school and across the ocean he went.
“We were gone 1 1/2 years; I left three weeks into my sophomore year,” he said. “It didn't work out, but it was a great first musical experience.”
While his singing mates moved on with their lives, Key was still of high school age but had already graduated.
“I would've wanted to go back to high school, but I couldn't,” he said.
For several years after that he wrote songs “here and there” while working and posted them on MySpace – “just throwing them on there for fun,” he said. By 2008 and 2009 his songs started to trend, and in 2010 he produced an independent album that he dropped online. Then came the full-time music years.
When he returned to Independence from his last tour in 2015, Key started working with ISD, whose superintendent, Dale Herl, had helped coach his son in basketball. During a long-term substitution gig at Blackburn Elementary (his childhood school), someone came across his YouTube channel and told the music teacher, who invited him to sing for the class.
“After that, she emailed the YouTube link to all the staff at Blackburn,” Key said. “I did a song at lunchtime the last day I was there.”
Key just joined the Three Trails staff last year. Lathrom said he'd heard Key was a good singer, and he knew of the family, as the two had older brothers who were in school together.
“I didn't really know about the YouTube stuff, and about midway through the year I did a search. I didn't know how popular he was. More than a million views – that's pretty big.”
Key remembers former Deputy Superintendent Dred Scott telling him of the weekend Scott and his wife spent hours checking out his songs.
“He told me, 'Man, you've really got some soul!'” Key said.
When asked if his is a stage name, Key laughs and acknowledges that it does sound like one, and it's not the first time he's answered that question. In reality, Alo is simply short for “Alofaiga” – much easier to pronounce, as well, he knows.
Key said he hopes to eventually go back to music full-time, but in a way that allows him to maintain a balanced life with everything.
With the internet and computer music programs, he has possibilities there one could hardly fathom back when he left high school.
“I'm finding different ways of utilizing the internet, learning now to market.”
Lathrom knows his school will now have a little local celebrity working the halls when the next school year starts.
“He's a fantastic custodian and nice as can be,” Lathrom said. “This will make people notice him even more.”