by Donna McElroy
First of all, organization was never one of Zella’s greatest features
She never stopped to think; she was a hurry-scurry creature
Referring to her lack of order as a sense of style
She used to say, “I never file, I always stack and pile!”
Well, guess you know what happened when she plugged in the fan
Stuff went flying everywhere, creating the mess that stuff can
The choice was clear; it stared at her directly in the face
She either had to clean this up of bear her own disgrace
For years she’d looked at cards and letters collecting dust,
A-waiting, for Zella to just get it done and quit procrastinating
“Today”, she’d say, “I’ll take this pile and put it over here!
Been sittin in this corner now for goin on two years…
Oh, there’s that number I needed back when we planned our trip!
And here’s my scarf all wadded up! And here’s my black half-slip!!
I must call Mika later and tell her that I found
That card she sent to me that time when I was feeling down.”
Zella couldn’t remember if she’d called Mika back;
“We haven’t talked in forever! I really have lost track!”
Now, Zella lived so long in such dishevelment and chaos,
We’d all become accustomed to whenever she’d delay us
We’d sit out in the taxi and watch the meter run
And be the last at everything, arriving ALL undone!
So we sat her down, and asked her
what was going through her mind
She said, “I don’t know what you mean!
You know it’s just my sign!”
We said, “What sign? HELP WANTED?
‘Cause, Girl, you are a mess!
We think you should be filing more
And piling a little less!
Look here, you can’t keep sliding in by the seat of your pants,
And we won’t play the victims of this stylish circumstance!”
Zee knew this was no ordinary meeting of her pack
This was that famous straw that broke the dromedary’s back
“Shape up, Ship out, sink or swim!”
She knew they meant no malice
You really could get started in this funky junky palace
They told her to prioritize, to plan, to persevere
They told her lots of painful things she didn’t want to hear
Sybil told he, “Pace yourself-don’t try to do it all,
Just take it one room at a time, and try not to drop the ball!”
Now Zella’s head was swimming with the passion of their pleading
So she made up her mind to change, and blessed their interceding
She took a legal pad, a fine-point pen, turned of the TV
And sank into her deepest chair. She was concerned, believe me
The more she tried to see beyond the scope of her demise
The more depressed she got, and after several weary sighs,
She squared her back and said,
“Things may not look so great right now,
But seeing is believing… I’ll make a change somehow
You’ll see! You come back in a month; I’ll have you all for dinner
Some shrimp, champagne and crumpets,
You’ll see, I’ll be a winner!”
She heard again what Sybil’d said, “Remember what I told you-
One project at a time-you’ve got a lot of change to go through!
So Zella took the plans for her soiree to a pro
Which left her time to straighten up her old domestic foe
And thinking of the most enjoyable thoughts that she could think of
The task began, and pretty soon she’d come right to the brink of
The strangest new sensation she’d never felt before
She’d swept and dusted, mopped up everything from door to door
A puzzling new feeling, so different, not a bad one
Except that in poor Zella’s cluttered life she’d never had one
If I could keep this place a little neater all the time,
I wouldn’t have to spend my hours digging through such grime!
When all the unimportant stuff was cleared and left for hauling
A wiped off mirror faced; she said, “Girl, you missed your calling!
In no time you have finished something that for years you dreaded,
And now you see with a new clear path
Exactly where you’re headed!”
So Zella learned her lesson, and as she disbursed the ale
To all her friends she made a toast
Which turned them all quite pale
“It seems”, she said, eyes gleaming,
“My whirlwind days are through,
And I owe the well-kempt woman I’ve become to friends like you!
To think, I mighta gone on for years with piles a-heaping
And never known, with all your help, the joy of good housekeeping!
© 1984 Donna McElroy. All rights reserved.
Our new songbook comes out in print on July 14! From the Foreword: “Back in the early ’90’s, when my musical direction felt like a riddle to me, I met Lori Mechem and her wonderful husband and musical partner, Roger Spencer. We began swapping ideas and writing together and soon grew to know and love each other. Since those early days, we’ve felt the need to chronicle our diary of songwriting – and, finally, here it is. I hope you truly enjoy our stories of the need for – and delight in – love!” –Donna McElroy
Early in our careers in Nashville, Vicki Hampton and I were fortunate to sing a lot of backup sessions with Lea Jane Berinati, a numbers chart-writing, AFTRA-contracting DYNAMO! She would come in maybe an hour before the rest of us and write “charts” on notebook paper, assigning parts to us in the number system. She would always want to be on the bottom part, and Vicki and I would fight over which of us would take the top part. Some of the conflict was because, not having warmed up, the range of the notes would initially intimidate us. Most of the time we both just liked to sing that inner harmony, the middle note, that would hold the other parts fast and require the top singer to be on point and the bottom singer to keep great intonation, which Lea Jane definitely did.
There were others singers like the Cherry Sisters, whom I would sometimes sub for if one of them were double-booked. These women were the cream of the Nashville background-singing crop. Also, I cannot forget Yvonne Hodges, who always took the top part and was on point about absolutely everything! She was punctual, charming, and fast to learn and memorize. She was also a fellow Fiskite, a classically trained soprano, and an inspiration; Yvonne showed me that I could use my classical training to sing in any genre I chose! These are a few of the great singers who got me to start seriously considering my own professional singing and musicianship.
Vicki and I were part of many singing groups in church and in school all our lives. Those early years of lots of musical experiences helped to develop lots of versatility, and gave us the ability to sing any part with any combination of singers! The prospect of continuing with this really fun activity as a job for life was not much more than big dreams of fame, fortune, and success in the minds of two young Kentucky girls. Little did we know, the dreams would become reality, and one day we’d be seasoned professional vocalists in the entertainment industry, touring, session singing, teaching, arranging, writing, being sought for our talent – yes, divas!
In my days teaching at Berklee, being part of the famous YOTEAM, I irritated great arrangers. In the midst of the orchestra/big band rehearsal, I would hear a note played by an instrument in the mix of the performance of some chart and say to the player, “You should have an Ab on that chord, not A!” In the denseness of the chart, I would hear that one note.
Interestingly though, I would always have to ask what “Key” we were in. (Which is a whole ‘nother essay, and we ain’t got time!) If I knew what key the chart was in, I could go directly to that chord/note in my mind, identify it, and tell the player what to replace it with. It was a not-so-slight irritation to my co-workers, both student and faculty, but they grew to realize that I was right whenever I heard something “off” and decided I had better be heeded. It was through this ear training skill that I inadvertently also learned how to spell out chords.
I found that it was not enough just to know the note to correct. The note doesn’t sit there by itself. It has a role, or membership, or position in the harmonic structure of the song, therefore it has to be correctly spelled out in the harmonic arrangement of the chart. Sometimes I would say to the horn player, “that note is a G not G#.” Then my colleague Ken would spell the chord out for the player to reiterate the quality of the chord and, therefore, the importance of that note’s membership in it. Through listening to Ken and Tom and Richard and Winston and Alonzo and all the other faculty and student arrangers speak in the language of the harmonist, the mind of the arranger, I was able over the years to merge two concepts: the horizontality of the melody and the verticality of the chords written to compliment, even explain or enhance, the nature of the melody.
I have always hated graphs and charts, so when I see teachers at the blackboard “analyzing” the harmonic structures of exercises or assigning certain harmonic progressions to meet a theoretical format, my mind goes to another planet and has a margarita. Then a new amazing artist comes along – still today, and just like Bird or Waller – to toss out that theoretical bung and give us a new innovative concept of how to voice or express or utilize the same twelve half steps!
Sometimes people think I have perfect pitch, and I get a kick out of that. What I have, however, is a kind of relative pitch. I may or may not be able to tell exactly what a tone is, but once I know what it is, I can tell you anything else about it, i.e., its membership in the chord being played, or the interval between it and the note before and after it, and its number or solfege name, assuming there is a tonic reference implied in the piece.
So how I think about a song and its performances, whether live or recorded, has evolved to be a multi-dimensional holographic picture of it as a cosmic deposit in the universe of sound. Hey! That’s kinda Herbie Hancock-y! I gotta remember that! A multi-dimensional holographic picture. A cosmic deposit in the universe of sound. That’s kinda cool!
In 1981 I drove off a cliff. For the next several weeks I was in recovery in a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. (Which I will not credit due to the treatment I received. Though I am grateful to be alive, it is not by the grace of any of these hospital employees, and if I were a vindictive soul, I would sue the hospital and the doctors and nurses who were not happy that a Black woman was in their midst, injured-angry-delirious from brain trauma and not easy to be kind to. But I digress . . .)
During that time I was lost and had no real concept of who I was until I was told I was a singer. Then when I heard myself sing – and I remember this moment – I was flooded with emotions and memories from my childhood that helped start the healing process in my brain. Even before I was born, I had listened in the womb to my mother’s beautiful voice and my family’s inimitable musical proclivity. It was my memory of being a musician and singer that propelled my recovery.
The effects of music on different regions of the brain was documented in a film I recently viewed with the students at the Global Jazz Institute sponsored by Berklee College and led/presented by Danilo Perez. The film featured Gabby Giffords, the U.S. Congresswoman shot in the head by that guy who was an angry cuss. (He won’t get his name in this article either.) In one segment of the film, a nurse tries to assist Gabby in saying the word “light,” but Gabby is unable to form the words in her throat. Then the nurse starts singing an old spiritual, “This Lil Light o’ Mine.” Gabby sings the song with the nurse with clarity of diction and no problem remembering how to form the words or sing the notes! I sat there in the mercifully lowered light of that room and wept, remembering how I got my life back singing simple songs that I had learned as a child and piecing my conscious mind back together. That film also added to the theory I have had all my life that the sound and the knowledge of it come first, then the method of expressing what that sound is.
I thank God in my recent years that I had no problem remembering those early days up to my adolescence. The smudge starts and my memories are obscured approximately one year before the accident. I’ve been sort of resigned to be grateful for the recollections I have been able to gather. To start to rebuild one’s life in the middle of it, having lived many years with countless little memories that comprise a life’s story, let’s just say, is not anything I would wish on my worst enemy.
Lately, I’m remembering “Super Fly,” “Where is the Love,” “In the Ghetto,” “In the Bottle,” “Across 110th St” . . . song after song of an era! One that I know I spent singing with great artists and shaped my dreams! I do not actually remember hearing them and embracing them in my mind and heart, but it’s strange how their effect is still evident on the soul even if not in the consciously stored memory. I guess that is what I call the evidence of tones in my heart and sounds in my spirit.
If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
Sadly, if your dream as a singer is to change the world or help anybody else to change, your hardest chore will be to be heard over the clanging cymbals.
Sincerity is the loudest, sweetest bell; a sweet spirit is all you need to be encouraging.
As you walk your path to artistic karma, think of your work ethic and whether you would like to reminisce or regret.
Consider all aspects of the words success, luck, destiny, preparation, skill, experience…
And write lists!
-Songs I’d like to learn
-Songs I have charts to
-Songs I need to transpose
-Foreign language selections
-Cities I’d like to travel to
-Political figures I’d like to endorse with my singing
-Products I’d like to endorse
-Hotels and casinos I’d like to perform at
-Artists I’d like to do a duet with
(If they asked me, I could write a book…)
My Final Words
Now, as I end my Vocal Coach Residency, can I just say something here about how much I love to sing?
If you haven’t picked up on that fact yet, let me state my dream has always been to sing and share my stories with people all over the world.
I never cared what race or class or religion or culture or financial, educational, or medical state people were in when I shared with them.
In fact, the first things I want to know about my listeners is who they are; then I go into my background, my resume, my memory, even sometimes the memories of my ancestors, and find basic truths for us all.
Sometimes your interested presence and expression of caring is music to people’s ears!
Sing with love, sincerity, compassion…and preparation.