When Grammy Award winning vocalist Al Jarreau died last month, I was reminded of the first time I heard his voice. It was a moment I will never forget. Then I began to think about other musical experiences that are embedded in my memory, performances, whether recorded or live, that shook me to the soul, and that had a profound impact on me. I am not talking about favorite songs or records here…I’ve covered that before…but experiences that transcended normal music appreciation.
I became aware of Al Jarreau on a mid-1970s trip to Los Angeles. I had gone to a music venue I had seen advertised in After Dark Magazine (Who remembers After Dark?) From the street, I could tell, to my surprise, that The Blah Blah Café was quite small, perhaps the size of a three-car garage. The café’s size implied it was a venue for unknowns, dreamers who had come to Hollywood to be discovered. A sandwich board greeted me as I neared the door; it announced who was performing that night. I didn’t recognize the name so it didn’t register in my memory bank. When the emcee introduced the performer, I again let the unfamiliar, unusual name sail past my recall center. And then I heard the voice and the unique style. I listened, rapt, mesmerized. I had never heard anything like it and I felt I had single-handedly discovered a new star. When the show was over, I dashed to the sandwich board by the door and stared at it until the name Al Jarreau was imprinted in my brain. I couldn’t wait to tell others along the way and back home about my discovery. Little did I know, Jarreau had already been discovered; he just wasn’t a household name yet. Little did I know, he had already recorded his first album. Little did I know Al Jarreau would, within a year, win his first Grammy.
I also remember seeing and hearing The Beatles in concert twice. The concert on their first US tour in 1964 was memorable for numerous reasons. But it was their concert on their 1966 tour, when I sat in the fourth row center stage, that means something special to me. When Paul McCartney sang “Yesterday,” he looked right at me. Our gazes met. Paul McCartney sang “Yesterday” to me! “Oh, bullshit” you say, “Paul didn’t see you. The lights probably blinded him. He couldn’t see you in the fourth row.” And I respond with, “Shut the fuck up, you communist bastard! You weren’t there.”
Beatle music played a major role in another moment that transcended “entertainment” for me. I had gone to Las Vegas to see, to experience, Cirque du Soleil’s Beatle Love, a tribute to the Fab Four. The combination of the incredible physical performance and the hypnotic story, backed by my favorite music, so overwhelmed me that when the performance was over and the audience around me stood, clapped, and cheered, I could not. I did not have the strength to stand or clap. I was physically drained. I could not cheer. My throat was gulping emotion. I just sat, bug-eyed, in disbelief of what I had just experienced.
I had waited 50 years to hear Barbra Streisand’s voice live. So, when I attended her Vancouver B.C. concert in 2013, it was a dream come true. And I wasn’t about to allow my Cirque du Soleil Love reaction to be repeated. I stood, clapped, and cheered throughout the evening. It was the only way I knew to thank her for the 50 years of music and film magic. To this day, I mark the years in my life with BC or AD…Before the Concert or After the Dream came true.
Another musical moment indelibly imprinted in my mind, occurred, oddly, at the 1984 Winter Olympics. When Jayne Torville and Christopher Dean ice danced to Ravel’s “Bolero,” figure skating was forever changed. They changed ice dance, transforming it into art. They raised it to an unexpected, unimagined level. Whenever I see that performance, and I have seen it many times, my heart races. I had followed figure skating before that performance with tepid interest, but Torville and Dean’s “Bolero” made me a dedicated fan.
I clearly remember the first time I heard “Nights in White Satin” by The Moody Blues. I was driving on I-5. It was after 2:00 a.m. I had never heard anything like that record; no lyric had personally touched me so. It brought me to tears and I was unable to focus on my driving or see the road clearly. I had to pull off the freeway to gather myself. And, even though it was during my college years, I do not believe I was stoned.
I was stoned, I’m pretty sure, when I attended a Rock ‘n Roll Revival in the early 1970s at which a number of 1950s and 1960s acts played their classic hits. For the concert finale, Chuck Berry (who died just days ago and whose importance in American music history is immeasureable), Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bo Diddley jammed on the stage together. I remember looking in awe and listening to these founders of rock ‘n roll, music pioneers, and legends, and saying, “This is like listening to Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms play a joint composition together.”
When disco arrived in the 1970s, shoving jukeboxes out of the way with a bitch slap, only a few major cities had bars and dance clubs with suitable sound systems to properly play the new music style. Seattle was not yet one. But San Francisco was and I made my annual vacation trek there. But this time it was as much to experience this new music as it was to experience the men. My first disco, The City, was on the edge of San Francisco’s North Beach and the overpowering sound coming from its speakers and the driving rhythm filling the cavernous room immediately welcomed me. I embraced the new form of pop music with a joy and excitement I hadn’t felt since the British Invasion of the mid-1960s.
While I recall hearing several records for the first time that night, records that became favorites of the era, none impressed me more than the instrumental “Love’s Theme” by the Barry White-led Love Unlimited Orchestra. I had never heard a pop orchestration like that, drowning me in its melodic waves. And just when I thought Love’s Theme was over it became “Under the Influence of Love” by the female vocal trio Love Unlimited. The perfect disco segue had been born and I found the music genre that has defined me through life.
I had always known of Sarah Vaughan, even as a child. But I was not well-versed in her work nor did I have a special place in my musical heart for her. Until the mid 1970s. I was preparing to go out on a Saturday night. PBS was airing Ms. Vaughan in concert. I could hear it in the background as I went through my disco prep routine. As I was finishing, she began to sing “Send in the Clowns.” I turned my attention from my hair to the TV and bolted into the living room. Sarah Vaughan, covered in perspiration, was standing in a cramped night club, on a postage stamp-sized stage. She glowed as she ineffectively attempted blotting herself with an inadequate hankie. She was singing “Send in the Clowns,” a song I had heard countless times by numerous gifted artists, but no one had ever sung that song like she was. I froze in mid-step, stared, and, apparently, stopped breathing because when she was done singing, I was out of breath. I may have been glowing in sweat, too.
Jennifer Holliday performed at The Cuff’s Seattle Pride Block Party during the late 1990s. Ms. Holliday had been the original Effie in Dream Girls and had won a Tony for her work. As Effie, she introduced us to “And I am Telling You (I’m Not Going),” the painfully powerful plea that every female singer who fancies herself the next Aretha, Streisand, or Jennifer Holliday. I’ve heard poor versions, OK versions, good, versions, and even some great ones, like Jennifer Hudson’s. But hearing Ms. Holliday, and watching her from perhaps 50 feet, belt out that iconic song as if it were a new experience for her, left me speechless and spent. While there were hundreds of people around me, I felt as if I were alone, as if I were in my own world. I tried to cheer, to scream and to applaud, but I couldn’t. I was emotionally wiped out. I would not feel that kind of musical euphoria again until a decade or more later when I attended the Cirque du Soleil’s Love production.
And I feel that exhaustion now, after writing this, typing this. I can’t clap in appreciation. I can’t scream my thanks to those performers. I am drained. I can only stare as I remember those life-changing, memorable moments and warm, awe-filled feelings.