It’s been said that to be truly great at something you need to invest ten thousand hours in doing it. After that magic number something changes & you become a master. Hopefully there are the incremental improvements that give you hope to keep putting in the time & working at your chosen craft.
In the 80’s I decided I wanted to be an authentic blues singer. With that aim in mind I began a process that easily has involved ten thousand hours, 100 thousand miles, thousands of dollars, not to mention my personal identity.
I’ve always been highly motivated if not disciplined and I’ve never been able to resist a challenge. It came the night my boyfriend came home from his gig & announced that the band was breaking up because the lead singer had quit.
“I’ll be the singer.” I said
And he laughed at me. “You?" He said "You sing like Robert Goulet. You have no soul, you dress like a clown & nobody will ever take you seriously because when you sing you shake your hips & make too many facial expressions.”
“What?” I said, nonplussed, “I sing like who?”
“Robert Goulet. You sing too pretty to be a blues singer. Your voice is too high, no grit.”
“Well, who is a great blues singer?” I asked.
He said “Look at my record collection.” He’d already given up on me. I was just getting started.
“I am not only going to be a great blues singer, I’m going to be the best dam blues singer of my generation!” I declared, with God as my witness, as my boyfriend had already tuned me out.
So I went to his record collection. It had great LPs by Jimmie Reed, Otis Redding, Muddy Waters, Slim Harpo, Little Walter, Wilson Pickett, BB, pretty much all male voices. Jimmy Vaughn was once asked who he’d listened to for his chops, he replied “…all the Littles, all the Juniors & all the Kings”. That was me. I made tapes & walked around with headphones on 24/7 absorbing this music like a sponge and practicing until I could sing all the tunes in their original keys, lick for lick.
Some of my favorite singing came from Little Junior Parker and Al Green. I loved the juicy suggestiveness of Muddy Waters, the conviction of my first hero, Tina Turner, the begging of Tyrone Davis. I learned about rhythm from James Brown. My favorite was a wonderful singer from Memphis: Big Maybelle. Her hip shakin’ music blended blues & Jazz, perfect tone, humor, wit & playfulness with flawless phrasing.
I absorbed those qualities, and the best of every player I studied, learning whole songbooks of the artists I admired. I listened to guitarists & horn players to get their licks too. As I put in all those hours stomping the stage & running up & down the road, all those folks I’d studied blended in my heart & mind. Now, after so many years it sounds like me.