One Time I Sang They Didn't Dance
The spectators could have had anyone sing in front of them, they had the money and desire to, but there I was singing in front of them at Marietta Diner, after our band had finished a job in Atlanta and they’d been out all night drinking and dancing. Not moving anymore, they just sat and watched me. They just wanted to hear me sing, but their stillness alarmed me.
When my eyes met the father's steady gaze, an immigrant from Greece who made a fortune opening diners across the eastern seaboard, the wordless eye contact seemed too deep for me. I’d seen him use a force of words to crush a waiter’s spirit and yet he stayed kind to us, wondering what we liked to eat until the entire table would fill with plates he’d guess would suit us.
I looked also at his oldest son, chauffeured even at the table, as his driver opened his mouth and put a water bottle up to his lips to restore him. After I finished singing, the son pulled me up next to him
and whispered, with some weird semblance of respect, "Think of us when you become famous. Don’t forget us."
The point of my flashback is to help set the tone of this post. The story above is an example of when the actual situation was nothing like what my performance insecurities would have had me believe about it. When, in fact, that night I probably sounded most like a true singer than I ever would, I never thought the work I did performing was adequate. Placing myself in the public eye is sometimes the last thing I want to do, so I think it's important to know some of the details that led me toward this path.
I sang in a traveling Greek band actively for six years. I got paid in cash after every gig. The band leader paid me a small cut from the contract and we divided money thrown on the floor evenly. That's the Greek way of giving tips, showering money on the dancers and band members. Money gets stomped into the floor. One time I brought a pile of dirty, beer-smelling dollar bills to the bank to deposit into my account. The puzzlement in the face and disgust which the teller handled the noticeably dirty money was palpable.
No planning put me in a Greek band as a singer. It happened after a series of crucial circumstances that seemed unrelated at first. I moved to Greece and then married a classically-trained, but adept at Greek folk musician before returning to the US. My parents supported us while we worked jobs here and there and networked for more sustaining employment. A Greek acquaintance from St Louis gave us the phone number of a Greek band owner who lived in Louisville, Kentucky with his family. I encouraged my, now ex, husband to keep calling him until he answered his phone, essentially badgering him. The band leader gave my ex-husband a gig playing keyboards, I believe at a Greek festival in Omaha, Nebraska. A few months later, we traveled to the next gig, Memphis, Tennessee, in a moving truck whose ultimate destination was Louisville. I remember that trip because the maniacal European driving, ignoring lane lines in a rental truck moving all our belongings, terrified me. I had to take over the driving. Then, I joined the band about 8 months later, debuting at a Greek festival in Greensboro, South Carolina.
The only vocal training I received was when my high school counselor had to stick me in a class senior year and the only open one was morning choir. I secretly coveted that placement. It was the best thing that happened to me in high school. I was too shy to make it happen myself. I never wanted to admit my love for singing.
Singing live is a great teacher. I learned to adjust the volume of my voice - which is perma-softspoken. I learned to sing rhythmically because people almost always danced while I sang. I always sang melody in choir, and I played the flute in elementary school, so finding the melody wasn't difficult, but singing (mostly) in pitch could be trying. Often there was feedback and sometimes the musicians competed with each other to see who could play the loudest. Ridiculous volumes sometimes surged through each musician's amplifier and my microphone was stitched to the main tower. I couldn't hear cues sometimes, let alone hear myself. Of course, the musicians competed with each other to see who could play faster, too, and sometimes I had to keep ridiculous timing.
Life is funny. These seemingly random choices rode on the back of an innocuous statement I made in front of my dad when I was 4 years old. I don't remember telling my dad in the car while we listened to Greek tapes I wanted to become a Greek singer. But, he recounted the story to me at a dinner celebrating my mom's birthday, three years after I started singing in the band.
The highlight of that career - a night I could have happily died after - happened on a balmy August night in a Greek tavern, on the tail-end of my Nameday. Native Greeks, notorious for reserving their dancing, arose to dance after I started singing traditional island songs. My voice conjured the bounce in their smooth dance steps.
I don't think I can be as self-deprecating as I would like including this audio selfie, but sometimes I would warm up/rehearse in the hotel room before a gig and record myself with my phone. And for good measure, below is a performance-prep selfie.