Don’t Stand By Me, Tony Danza

Last month my 10th-graders were given an assignment to write about an experience they still carry with them.  One of my students challenged me to do the assignment, so here it is:

Some people possess a mesmerizing ability to sing.  I am not one of them.  When Rosele came onstage at last year’s talent show, her voice exploded across the auditorium and kept the audience hypnotized.  When Erin sang her duet with the lieutenant in South Pacific, I felt myself pulling for them and hoping they would get their happily-ever-after.  When Tiara’s lungs carry her voice through a chapel service, I feel like the barrier between God’s throne and me is but a bride’s veil.  But when I take a deep breath and belt out the loveliest tones I can muster, it sends people running and screaming.  While some sing like the proverbial canary, I sing like a chicken with its head cut—well, half cut off.  I learned this the hard way.

When I was in my twenties, my dad worked as a television producer in Washington, D.C.  Twice a year the company he worked for staged live TV performances on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol.  These shows happened every Memorial Day and Fourth of July.  At each concert the National Symphony Orchestra would perform, along with an assortment of actors and musicians.  Sometimes these celebrities were in their prime, such as when they had George Clooney and James Earl Jones.  Other times the names were either up-and-comers like Faith Hill, and yet other times they were people that I didn’t even know were still alive, like Ray Charles or Ossie Davis (and others who really are no longer alive).

One year when I was about 25, they had a bunch of musicians that were oldie rockers.  These were the guys and gals that helped shape rock-n-roll back in its primitive days.  I can no longer remember who all was there, but I know it included the doo wop group Sha Na Na and Lesley Gore, who sang, “It’s My Party”(“and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to—you would cry too if it happened to you!”).  Oh yeah, and there was Tony Danza.

All the “talent,” as they called the performers, stayed at the Washington Court Hotel.  After the concert and reception at the Capitol, I went back to the hotel with the “talent.”  We went to the bar, where they had a piano, and stood around the piano loudly singing the oldies.  As loud as we could, we gleefully sang out “Hound Dog,” “Stand By Me,” “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To,” “Rock Around the Clock,” and “Earth Angel.”  Whenever the singing started to slow down, someone would call out another request and we would regain our momentum as everyone loudly chimed in.

And then it happened.  As one song slowed down and no one suggested any other oldies, the piano player turned to me, standing next to him at the keys, and told me to name a song.  The first oldie that popped into my head “In the Still of the Night.”  At the time it was my jam.  I still love the song.  The problem was that in this situation, apparently I was the only one who loved the song enough to actually know the words.

It started out well.  Everyone loudly sang, “In the still of the night/ I held you, held you tight/ ‘Cause I love/ Love you so/ Promise I’ll never/ Let you go/ In the still of the night.”  It was great right up until we got to the first verse.  As I burst out with, “I remember/ That night in May,” I noticed that my voice was the only one I heard.  Everyone was looking at me, literally at a loss for words because they didn’t know the next part.  My voice fizzled out with, “The stars were bright above.”  But then the piano player looked at me with great urgency and shouted, “Sing.  SING!”

What could I do?  So with all the volume I could muster, I sang, “I’ll hope and I’ll pray/ To keep your precious….”  I scanned the room and saw everyone wincing.  They scrunched up their shoulders, just a twitch away from clapping their hands to their ears to end the misery.  My voice screeched and scraped as my vocal cords invented new notes.  And then it got worse.

In “The Still of the Night,” when the verse gets to the phrase “precious love,” the word “love” is not just one note.  It goes up and down and down and up and winds around, floating and spiraling around the musical scale like a baby bird’s feather flitting on a lazy spring breeze.  It’s beautiful—at least it’s beautiful when the Five Satins sing it.  When I sang it—if I can use the word “sang” with tremendous liberality—it was more like a baby bird squawking as a hawk bites it in half, and then that hawk develops a tuberculosis cough, and crashes into a bus, which then crashes into a honking flock of geese and causes an 18-car pileup that sets off every car alarm and horn.  Tony Danza scowled and his jaw dropped as he gave me the same look he gave Alyssa Milano on Who’s the Boss when he said, “Tuh-man-tuh!”  Lesley Gore cried.  Sha Na Na broke up.  The glass elevator shattered, the food in the restaurant curdled, and hotel guests ran screaming through the lobby and out the revolving door.  Party over.

That’s when I realized just how badly I sing.  I’m such a bad singer that I do the word “bad” an injustice by attaching it to my singing.  So now I’m the guy who lip syncs in church and at parties when everyone sings the “Happy Birthday” song.  This experience is one I still carry with me, and every time I feel inspired to lift my voice and burst into a sweet melody, I remember this mortifying experience and settle for a closed mouth and a gentle tear in my eye.  Don’t laugh—you would cry too if it happened to you.

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Published in: on February 24, 2018 at 4:33 pm  Leave a Comment