In our pursuit of warmth, our minds rapidly suggest food such as chili with cornbread and meat loaf with gravy covered mashed potatoes. But since the weather has made regular outdoor exercise of any kind basically impossible and many are still chasing New Year’s Resolutions banning over-eating for any reason, we search for alternative solutions. With some extended thinking, music comes to mind as we look for acceptable ways to shed the cold and bring forth the warmth.
Back in August, I just happened to be surfing channels when 10-year-old Jackie Evancho was singing a Puccini opera aria on America’s Got Talent. This refreshing, genuine sprite’s amazing voice brought goose bumps and a quickly answered and easily dismissed question, “Is this for real?” Ah, yes, the incredible voice of this angel was real. Jackie, who also plays several instruments including the piano, had only been taking voice lessons for two years after being inspired to start singing by a performance of Phantom of the Opera.
In addition to all the accolades from and doors opened by America’s Got Talent, Jackie sang the National Anthem at her hometown Pittsburgh Pirate’s game, performed on PBS television, sang at an event honoring aviation pioneer General Chuck Yeager, appeared on numerous national television shows, and is now performing all over the country. In December she sang at Carnegie Hall in New York City as that venerable institution’s youngest female vocal soloist.
Jackie’s first major label CD release, O Holy Night, sold more than one million copies in less than a month and made her 2010’s Top-Selling Debut Artist.
A Familiar Alabama Angel
Those of us who grew up with television in the 1960s easily recall The Andy Griffith Show’s goofy gas station attendant, Gomer Pyle, whose face perpetually mirrored a state of confusion. This role was played by Sylacauga’s Jim Nabors, who grew up singing in church and in the high school glee club. He graduated from the University of Alabama with a business degree and moved to California due to his asthma.
In California Nabors worked by day as an apprentice film cutter for NBC and performed at night for several years at The Horn, a showcase theater in Santa Monica. He laughingly admits he “never, ever thought in a million years I would end up in show business.” Nabors also noted, “… my act made absolutely no sense whatsoever” as it moved from a country bumpkin monologue to operatic arias. Fortunately, Andy Griffith saw the sense in Nabors’ performance after seeing it and called him two weeks later to come read the part of Gomer for his extremely successful television series.
Nabors then moved on to his own show, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., which he describes as one of the highlights of his life. On one of those episodes, the television world was introduced to the gentle bumpkin’s angelic baritone voice when he sang “The Impossible Dream” in full-dress Marine uniform while his nemesis, Sargent Carter, stood in the stage wings proudly beaming. Nabors’ career grew quickly as he had his own television variety show, performed in movies, plays and numerous other television shows, gave concerts with symphony orchestras, and recorded more than 30 albums, several ultimately turning gold.
In a different type of concert, he sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” before the start of the Indianapolis 500 for nearly thirty years.
Now 80 and a liver transplant survivor, Nabors lives in Hawaii, his home since 1976. Holding a special place in the hearts of many Hawaiians, he owned a macadamia nut plantation on Maui and still maintains farming rights and a second home on it.
In 2001 Nabors was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Five years later he returned to Tuscaloosa to be inducted into the Alabama Stage and Screen Hall of Fame. During the ceremony, the episode from his television comedy where he sang “The Impossible Dream” was shown. Nabors, always willing to poke fun at himself, told the audience it was the first time he had seen that recording of the song. “I never really watched myself on TV. Now I know why.”
Tennessee Ernie Ford
A Member of the Family
Even before the kindhearted, bumbling Gomer and his beautiful voice stole hearts, another bumpkin baritone became immensely popular in the 1950s.
Bristol, Tenn., native Ernest Jennings Ford started his career as a radio announcer while he was a voice student. After service during World War II, he moved to California where he worked as a disc jockey and became “Tennessee Ernie.”
This comedic country bumpkin had a barrage of twangy Southern voices and an awesome, full-bodied baritone singing voice that could draw you in and make you feel safe and happy.
Tennessee Ernie Ford’s music career took off in 1955 after he recorded “16 Tons,” a tribute to Kentucky coal miners who spent 10 weeks at the number one spot on country charts and eight weeks at number one on the pop charts. Many consider “16 Tons” his signature song, even though he sold more than 40 million gospel, hymn, and spiritual records worldwide.
Over his half-century career, Tennessee Ernie recorded more than 100 albums and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. In 1984, President Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our country’s highest civilian award.
From 1956 to 1965 Tennessee Ernie brought his charm, friendliness, and genuineness into our homes with his own prime time television show. With that show, he actually became a part of many American families, including my own. We simply did not miss Tennessee Ernie’s show and always looked forward to his heartfelt closing spiritual song as well as his final words, “Bless your pea-pickin’ little hearts.” After battling liver disease, he died leaving an unsurpassed legacy in October 1991, 36 years to the day after the release of “16 Tons.”
The Secret Sisters
No Longer an Alabama Secret
Singer-songwriters Laura and Lydia Rogers grew up in Killen, Ala., learning to sing a cappella in the Church of Christ tradition. With a strong family background in music, the Secret Sisters, ages 24 and 22, have a vocal purity resounding with clean harmony. Their debut album, released in October 2010, includes two of their own songs, “Tennessee Me,” and “Waste the Day.” It was recorded as it would have been in the 1950s with no digital equipment or computers. When they perform live, the Secret Sisters’ routine is simple, two voices and one acoustic guitar swapped back and forth during sets. One music critic described them as “unearthed treasure from the vintage era of country music.”
Starting their singing lives in their hometown church, the Secret Sisters now tour the world from Birmingham, Ala., to Birmingham, England, with many stops along the way including Washington, D.C., New York City, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, Paris, Holland, and Belgium. Awed but not overwhelmed by their accelerated success, this charming duo has also performed at the Sundance Film Festival, filmed a PBS special, and opened for Levon Helm and Ray LaMontagne.
Much like Jim Nabors and Tennessee Ernie Ford, the Secret Sisters’ music is easy, smooth, and comforting.
Our singing angels — Jackie, Jim, Tennessee Ernie and the Secret Sisters — are like our friends young, old, forever there, and newly found. In the midst of a harsh winter, these angels offer uncomplicated solutions for throwing off the persistent cold and re-discovering the uplifting warmth.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890.