Friday, February 10, 2017

Put Me In Coach

Merle Miller, on left, performing with Bette Midler and the Harlettes
My friend Merle was a back-up singer for Bette Midler.  Bette's trio of singing and dancing dolls was called the Harlettes and as they rehearsed for their first big show, with Bette's piano man and arranger Barry Manilow, Merle, who had never heard Bette, found herself not particularly impressed with the Divine Miss M. She admired the talents and the beauty of her fellow Harlettes, but the singer, this so-called diva destined for stardom, this Bette Midler, was another story. Yes, she was good. Yes, she had good moves.  But, as Merle tells it, "she wasn't all that."  Then came the first concert. It was at Carnegie Hall and the place was packed.  That's when Merle finally understood just what, exactly, she'd become part of.
     "Bette blew the roof off the house," Merle says. "I was so shocked I almost fell over. I realized she didn't use her full voice to rehearse. She only used it to perform. And what a voice it is!" 
    I think Merle was using that story as an analogy -- something about not showing off everything you've got at the first opportunity, or the wisdom of playing your cards close to your vest. Merle was sharing some of her hard-won wisdom with me. But I wasn't hearing that. I was only hearing about Bette Midler and stories of the Harlettes.
    The tales of the great divas resonate for me. I've always wanted to sing, and I have. I played the flute, too. In the 60's, I was the girl who jumped up on stage to sing "Angel Baby" or "Me and Bobby McGee".  In the 70's  I sang Stevie Wonder's "You are the Sunshine of My Life" in various saloons around New York.  For a very short time I sang with a band but never got to sing a solo.  Just choruses and a couple of flute riffs. Once I answered an ad for a singer for a band in New York City and came upon a hopeful group of musicians who handed me the sheet music to Van Morris's "Moon Dance" and suggested we start there.  I had never heard the song, certainly had no idea how to sing it -- it was jazz and I was a rocker. The audition was over before I even got my flute out of the case. You try singing "Moon Dance", cold. 
    Then came love. Then came marriage. Then came June with a baby carriage and the happiest, little boy imaginable.
A happy litter drummer boy who grew up to be my darling Miguel.

Miguel, still following the beat
Miguel, a Montessori teacher, rocking with kids and friends
The Band, now disbanded. No back up singers . . . big mistake? Miguel on left looking rock 'n roll-y
Miguel with the beautiful Mia and diva wanna-be mom, June
 He loved music, too!  My son's brain, heart and soul are surely tattooed with the music he fell asleep to, the music he awakened to, and the music we played all day, every day, in the house were he grew up.  We parents were thrilled that we'd received a baby who slept blissfully at any noise level.  When our baby was 4 months old we took him with us to the Opera House in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and snuggled in his little carry-around bed, he slept like a lamb.
    Later, when Michael Jackson's "Thriller" came on MTV, Miguel would call us to the TV and we dropped whatever we were doing to watch the performance. And later still, when Miguel was too old for the bedtime story, I put a cassette player next to his bed and at bedtime he listened to soft jazz and rock. When the clink of the player sounded, and the music was over, Miguel was asleep. We also frequently listened to "Peter and the Wolf" and Miguel learned to identify the various instruments in the orchestra.
    I once told Miguel that although I didn't like spending my hard-earned money on faddish toys that were quickly tossed aside, I would never deny him a book or a CD. It was a vow my son never forgot. And when he got his first job, he bought me a gift with his first paycheck.  It was the Prince album, "1999".  I remember saying to him "Oh my! This was $20!" and Miguel said to me, "Mom, you're worth it."  A cherished memory.
    It comes as no surprise that Miguel has become a musician/performer.  Music is his passion, his mistress and his reason for getting out of bed every day. At the beginning of his stage career I tried often to show up.  Now, the performances are far too many for me to keep up with. But there's something else, too. When Miguel is singing those old songs, the ones I introduced him to, the Rolling Stones "Miss You", Lou Reed's  "Walk on the Wild Side" or the Temptations  "My Girl, " I want to be up there singing with him, just like in the old, old days of his childhood. Who was there for all those hours of background music and singing along to the radio, or the cassette player, in the car on a thousand miles of car rides?  His mama. That's who.
    One night Miguel and his guitar man Sweet Matthew were performing at Salute on the beach.  It was a breezy night, the air kissed with the familiar mingled scent of the beach and coconut oil. There was a crowd. I sat with friends, sharing antipasto and big chunks of chewy Italian bread when Miguel began to sing Elvis's  "Suspicious Minds," one of our favorites.  Suddenly he said "You know what? I'm gonna get a lady up here who knows all the words to this song."
    A shock of excitement went through my bones like a bolt of lightening. It's happening, I thought. I am going to share the stage with my son, this brilliant boy whose musical talents I have nurtured for over half of my life!  But what of the bread in my mouth and the tables and chairs between me and that coveted place on the stage, next to my own baby? I swallowed the bread and hastily wiped my mouth.  I quickly planned my route to the front of the room.  I sucked in my stomach and pushed out my chest, cleared my throat and prepared to make my move.
    "Jada," Miguel yelled. "Come on up here."
    A tall, lean, tanned blonde beauty hesitantly rose from a chair and tentatively made her way to the stage. Her friends, their friends, cheering her on. Meanwhile, my heart sank. It turned out Jada didn't know the words to the song and didn't even want to be up there. Everyone laughed as Jada mumbled something to Miguel and hurried back to her seat, covering her pretty face with her hands, shaking her head, feigning embarrassment.
    And that was the moment I knew that my role in my son's musical evolution was truly done. And so were my days on the stage and my visions of back-up singing. But I can still dream. And I do.  I so shooby shooby do.
I can do that! (Merle next to Bette, on stage)