I love to sing. I mean most people do, but I really love it. Now, I’m not necessarily a great singer, I’m a decent singer, and I can definitely carry a tune and sing in the right key. We have a very musical family..my parents both sang in the church choir, my siblings and I all took a string instrument and piano, and me and my sister Sandra sang in junior choir at church.
We had a big collection of records, 45s, 8 tracks and 12 inch remixes, mostly pop, disco, r&b and dance, but a few rock and country records also. I was also the stereotypical child of the MTV generation, watching both that and VH1, and sometimes BET when they would show videos. I even liked songs like We’re Not Going To Take It by Twisted Sister, and I didn’t like hair metal, but I saw plenty of Poison and Guns N Roses videos. I remember being on the big swings on the playground of my elementary school singing Separate Ways by Journey.
One of my earliest musical memories was in the basement with my sister Sandra and we had an old cassette recorder and I had a blank cassette, so I recorded us singing Endless Love by Lionel Ritchie and Diana Ross, and I was hamming it up. The Evita musical was very popular at the time and was playing in Chicago and the adverts were constantly playing on Good Morning America and they kept on playing this funny clip of the song Buenos Aires, the “just a little touch of star quality” bit at the end, and my sister thought it was hilarious for some reason and we kept on singing it in a very high pitched voice. Must have annoyed my mom.
Another fun thing I would do is slow down 45 records to 33 1/3, especially female singers like Madonna to sound like soulful black men. When my voice started to change, I noticed I could sing along with it.
In second grade, my teacher Mrs. Watson called my parents to tell them I was singing in class and singing in the bathroom (there was a private single occupancy bathroom in the classroom). My mom asked “well is he disturbing anyone?” and Mrs. Watson said “well, no” then my mom said “well, what’s the problem then?”
I had a pretty good singing voice as a kid, and would often have to sing in musicals in school. I was my elementary schools first black Santa Clause in a play called The Christmas Doll where I had a brief solo. Then I played Johnny, in a play about oral hygiene, where I had to sing a solo in the song “Johnny Remember the Rules”, a bizarre play. I only got the part because I was out sick and no one wanted to sing a solo, so got stuck with it.
In fourth grade, my friend Pat Newell and Joe Golson we sang in a trio. Another odd musical about Americana, and eating corn on the cob and singing with home made kazoos which were really plastic haircombs with wax paper over them.
I never really sang in public again till my senior year of high school and I tried out for Madrigals and actually got in. It was a fun experience and I got to explore my voice more, which is in the lower tenor/high bass range. I liked Madrigals so much, I tried out for show choir, but I hated the music and singing style, and it made me feel like a cruise ship/theme park singer, something I always hated and cringed at, so I dropped out.
I got an AIWA stereo my senior year of high school and it had the karaoke/voice fader feature. It wasn’t the best, but it would often soften the lead vocals and you could still hear the background vocals and harmonies. I got really obsessed with this feature, trying it on every cd and tape I owned and trying to figure out the background arrangements of my favorite songs.
I had dreams of being a singer songwriter at a very young age, like at 6th grade. I was writing my own songs in my head (usually rip off of modern pop songs with different lyrics) but didn’t have the technology to write or record them till my senior year of high school where I got a somewhat decent Casio keyboard that had a record function that I could record at least one part, then go back play live over it, while recording into a boom box..all very primitive. The first song I wrote was called Forever And A Day, which was a rip off of Sarah McLauchlins Possession mixed with the Irish fiddle solo from Sineade O’Connors You Made Me the Thief of My Heart. Not very original. The other was a song called You Don’t Have to Lie About Me, a song inspired by the movie Dr Zhivago which I saw in honors English class. Laura mentions this to Dr Zhivago when he goes back home to his family, which I thought was a really interesting concept. I never showed these songs to anyone however.
I continued to write songs, but I thought my voice was too weak, so they all just became instrumentals because I didn’t have the courage.
If you worked with me over the years, you know I often got caught singing (and dancing in my chair) at work, with people telling me to keep it down, or asking “Fred, you realize we can hear you, right?” Somewhat embarrassing.
In 2011, I was feeling pretty good about my music production, and I thought, well, maybe I should try and sing. So I took singing lessons at the Music and Language School in Oak Park, Illinois. They allowed you to go for a demo to see which teacher you would like. First woman, who was at least 10 years younger than me and was VERY enthusiastic was very much a show tunes/musical woman. She asked me what musicals I knew. To be honest, I only like a handful of musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar, the Sound of Music, West Side Story, Evita, Once, Moulin Rouge, Grease and the original animated Lion King movie and that’s it) “Do you know Rent” she asked. I said, “no”, and with high pitch shrill, “how can you NOT KNOW RENT?!?!” I was like, sorry I don’t know it. I saw it once, didn’t like it besides the 5 thousand minutes song, or however it goes. Then we settled on singing A Whole New World from Aladdin, which I barely knew and really needed the sheet music for the words. Since I didn’t really like the attitude from this millinial woman, I tried another guy..who was the exact opposite of the first woman. He was also a guitar teacher at the school and looked like a long hair hippie stoner, and he acted like one. He was almost TOO chill and “go with the flow” and had me do some crazy voice exercises, “just let it all come out man”
I finally found a good match, a guitar and piano playing guy. He let me choose my own music, which was Heaven on their Minds from Jesus Christ Superstar, and a song I fell in love with in Croatia, Advertising Space by Robbie Williams. We also did Beatles songs for warm ups, which to me were foreign because I didn’t grow up listening to the Beatles (not too common in black households)
I downloaded a bunch of “singing for dummies” like mp3s and practiced in the car on the way too and from work, and teaching myself breathing and voice exercises, and practicing my head and chest voice.
In retrospect, Advertising Space was out of my range, with some high notes I could only hit in certain conditions.
I would try and record myself practicing at home, but like most people, I can’t stand the sound of my voice, and I still sounded bad and no being able to hit notes.
Needless to say, I never recorded myself singing to any of the songs I wrote, and thought to myself, maybe I’ll just be a behind the scenes singer/songwriter that never actually sings.
But some of my favorite bands have singers that really cant sing or have traditionally good voices like Bernard Sumner of New Order, or Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys or even Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.
It was a fun experience anyway!