By: Ken Boone
Today I’m writing something I kept inside for decades. I finally I shared it with Celia, who encouraged me to put it in my blog. Looking back, I started writing this in my head over 45 years ago.
When I was five, my newly-single mom joined a large “Thou-Shalt-Not” church with a tradition of excellent music and, seemingly unreachable, high standards for everything else. I quickly learned in church exactly what I was supposed to believe and exactly how I was supposed to behave, but I never felt like I belonged. As the son of a new believer, I received an unspoken message: My place was at the back of the line. Period.
Meanwhile, in Asheville, NC, there was a smaller church of the same denomination. The church was named for my future wife Celia’s grandfather, and her family was prominent in the denomination, at least in the southeast part of the U.S. Celia was becoming an accomplished and in-demand pianist, and yet, like me, she never felt like she belonged either.
In my world, many of us had dreams of making it big in the music business and I was one of them. Because I was considered an eloquent public speaker, the church people told my mother I had a “calling” to the ministry. In Celia’s neck of the woods, a career in medicine was the prime occupation. A business career was where you landed if Plan A didn’t work out. Both of us really wanted a career in music, but the heads in the “Thou Shalt Not” church always wagged an emphatic “No!”
Celia’s and my collective dreams of stardom were treated as delusional. Making it in the music business is damn hard, and being very talented and highly skilled isn’t necessarily enough. My brother was generally considered a “can’t miss” as someone who was going to have a successful career in music. He was supposed to be a classical pianist. Instead, he has forged a 40-year career as a jazz bassist.
Celia learned to play all the hymns in the denomination’s entire 600+ song hymnal when she was 11-years-old. If that doesn’t impress you, add to it the fact that she could sight-read, play by ear, as well as read in one key while playing in another! As good as she was at the church musician thing, her first paying gig was playing standards in a hotel lounge. That’s because our religion doesn’t pay musicians. All the money goes to evangelism.
The rest of us musical hacks tried a number of different hustles to break through. I started my journey by being a charter member of a boy’s choir that ultimately became world-renowned. Then I moved on to the gospel equivalent of a barber shop quartet with piano accompaniment. I then settled into the space that I still occupy – a contemporary/inspirational songwriter who is a producer, engineer, and erstwhile band leader. It’s been a difficult journey and I made a ton of mistakes along the way. I also wrote some damn good music.
Why am I telling you all of this? It’s to let you know that, other than hurting the people I’ve hurt along the way, the only thing I would change is me trying to break down every closed door in my path. And I’d like to share with you probably the single most consequential encounter I had on my way to where I’m at now.
In my teens, there were a number of singing groups that sprung up in the New York Metropolitan area. You couldn’t walk past a barber shop, record store, or store front church without seeing a poster for an upcoming gospel extravaganza. We all dreamed of one day having our group’s name and image emblazed on one of those posters. Hell, we’d settle for our name to appear on an 8 x 10 flier.
One group, through the tireless efforts of their gifted manager, broke through. They opened for a lot of national acts, as well as headlined on the regional level. They recorded a number of albums that garnered radio airplay. Their stage craft was outstanding. They were well-received, all the way down to audible swooning from some of the prettiest girls in town. In my opinion, they made it!
I was never considered a candidate for membership in that group. Although I could carry a tune and was a phenomenal vocal arranger, I wasn’t in possession of a great singing voice. In response to that closed door, I started a competing group that had a much lower profile. While my group was jealous of their success, there was no open hostility and we publicly supported them.
While I wished them well, I never jumped on the bandwagon. That’s because I knew I had one huge advantage over them – I could write my own songs. Whether they were any good was of no consequence. They were mine and I owed no one a dime in mechanical royalties.
Through hard work and a lot of trial and error, my profile grew to where I was being approached to write and produce on an extremely small scale. While I was making very little money from this, my ego was being paid handsomely.
Eventually, I was approached by a member of the more famous group to either write for, or produce some tracks for their upcoming album. I told him that I would listen to any offers they had. Time passed and the next thing I knew, I was approached by one of the group’s lead singers. Something told me that conversation wasn’t going to go well. And boy was I correct.
After the cursory pleasantries, he proceeded to ask me if I was up to the challenge. Basically he wanted to know if I was good enough to handle “their” music. That was odd, because the one knock on that group was that they were pretty much a straight cover band. I mean, they performed note for note like the original artists. It’s a wonder they were never hit with a “cease and desist” letter!
While I fought every instinct to snap back at him and just listened, he thought it was a good idea to make the dominant gesture of picking some imaginary lint off the lapel of my jacket. To this day, that still bothers me. He ended the conversation by telling me that the group would discuss me at their next band meeting. Translation – don’t call us, we’ll call you.
Truth be known, I never wanted the gig. I grew up with these guys, so I knew how little they knew about music. I knew that my pedigree was going to carry the day. I knew that I would end up here. Not necessarily doing exactly this, but having a career in the music business. And what’s most important – I knew that I could write my own music. There is a saying in the business: “he who writes the songs, writes the rules”.
Enough said. See you next week.
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About the Author
As owner of the Descant Music & Media Group, Ken is a creator and producer of several podcast shows. He is also a music producer, as well as a writer and an accountant for small businesses and nonprofits.