Remember the music and remember your Passport. Top of the touring singer’s checklist.
Remember that I love to read your comments so feel free to comment in the box below this post.
On Saturday evening, my boyfriend drove me to a quant, Sussex village pub. It was not actually a date as I was singing at a gig accompanied by an old friend of mine, Steve Thompson. It was coincidentally run by the same landlord as my first ever gig with Steve, which we did together on Valentine’s night a good few years ago. Normally, I would have loaded up the car and driven myself. Before I left, I would have run through my gig check-list. Microphone, PA, power supply, leads, music stand, music pad (charts and lyrics), map, business cards, CDs for sale (that’s a new one!) lipstick and powder. Yesterday, I had it all in the hallway, in front of my washing, which was drying on a rack (ah the glamour). Said boyfriend was a teensy bit late and then decided he needed a shave so that he wouldn’t let me down in public, making us a teensy bit later. I calmly (outwardly) carried on getting the damn plastic off my CDs ready to stick the ‘not for resale labels’ on the jewel case.
This was ready for the big review/radio mail-out which I was intending to do on Monday. When the welcome words “ready” were uttered from the hallway, I rushed out to help carry all my stuff downstairs. Not used to a gallant roadie, I saw that he had gathered up the speaker and cable bags. I laughed, grabbed the remaining music stand and we loaded up the car. We drove for about an hour to get to the village and the aforementioned gallant roadie carried the speakers and bags in. (I could get used to this!) I kissed the lovely guitarist Mr. Thompson who is normally my talented bass player (perks of the job) and we joked and laughed as we set up. I reached for the bag containing my Music Pad (where I keep all my charts and lyrics) and to my horror, I realised that it wasn’t there. ‘Don’t panic Cairncross – it must be in the car’ I reassured myself and ran outside to check……..
We were due to play for an hour and then two later sets of 40 minutes. Two hours and ten minutes of music and I had no charts for my guitarist and no lyrics for myself as a safety net.
I was almost sick on the spot – how dreadfully unprofessional!
“Do you have any charts?” I desperately asked Steve. “No”, he replied, “you always bring them.” If I made my roadie drive home to get them then he could get back for 9.30 – we finished at 10.30…..“Don’t be daft” reassured Steve, “we can do this!”
Now I had no doubt that HE could indeed do it – he has an amazing knowledge of chords and songs built up from many years in the business. I, on the other hand don’t actually do unprepared jazz gigs very often. I have spent hours on Sibelius writing out charts in my key so that what I hear is mostly what I expect. This is to make it as easy as possible to sing well and also to have a good stab at scatting. (improvising over the chords with vocal syllables, imitating an instrument).
To add to the trauma, a good friend and colleague from the Monteverdi Choir and her opera singer husband had come over specially to have dinner. They also wanted to hear our Duo with a view to booking us for their own village pub event. She has an extensive knowledge of the American Songbook and has been known to correct my lyrics in the past. They were already ensconced at the table directly in front of where I was set up to sing.
This was it – With this spectacularly unprofessional memory lapse, I was finally to be discovered as a musical fraud. Something all my colleagues, no matter how successful, all admit to dreading and dreaming about. After all these years in the business – TODAY was the terrible day.
Actually now I think back, this wasn’t actually the first time I’d forgotten something vital. There was another notable, unprofessional memory lapse when I was in the a cappella group The Swingle Singers. We were due to travel to Holland for a concert on the newly opened Eurostar to Brussels. As it was just an overnight trip, I had packed my small wheeled suitcase and popped my passport in the zipped pocket on the front. Later that evening, my then boyfriend arrived home and announced that we needed to take a bigger case as we had to take some CDs for sale at the concert. I transferred the contents and the next morning we arrived early at Waterloo to check in. (This was before the Eurostar moved to the splendid St. Pancras International station).
I went to check in and suddenly remembered that I had left my passport in the other case. I decided to go back on the underground to get it and get a later Eurostar and everybody convinced me that I didn’t need to do that. This was of course the casual days pre 9/11 and security was much easier then. The bass told me that he’d been on a trip the week before and the trumpet player had forgotten his passport and there was no problem at all. No checks in Brussels – you just got off the train and went through the gate.
SO….we got on the train (no checks at the UK end) and everybody teased me during the journey that I wouldn’t be allowed in.
Unfortunately that day there WERE border control guards and we sheepishly explained that I had forgotten my passport and were just there for a night to do a concert. Our Dutch agent was there waiting and he came over and explained. He showed them the contract with my name on and I showed them my credit cards. We even had five, different Swingle Singers CDs with my photo and name directly underneath. All to no avail. We had unfortunately come up against the most intransigent border guard in Europe.
It didn’t help that the UK had recently implemented an opt-out to the Maastricht Treaty stopping unchecked entry into the UK and meaning we had to show our passport to travel across Europe. This guard seemed to delight in making an example of me on behalf of his spurned European brotherhood. I was led away to the border control office where I was to be held before being sent back to the UK. Somebody lent me a mobile phone (early days for those too!) and the rest of the group went off to set up and rehearse. Our agent reassured me he would sort everything out and told me not to get on that train home. I waited….and waited. After a couple of hours I suddenly had a brainwave. There was a photocopy of my passport in our office. I could call our administrator and she could go into the office and fax it to the border control office.
They said yes – if she could do that then I could go into the country. I called our agent and waited excitedly, staring at the fax machine. Half an hour later it whirred into life and the guards crowded round. The main guard turned round with a stern look on his face and showed me the fax. The photocopy had been taken in colour and during the faxing process, my face had become almost black. I couldn’t be recognized from this image so they couldn’t let me in. A frantic call to our agent reassured me to hang on – help was definitely on it’s way. The Dutch Embassy had been informed and they would sort everything out.
What I haven’t told you, was this was also the day that the group had hired a company to make a promotional video. We’d decide to invest some thousands of pounds to try to sell our live show to theatres in Holland and Belgium. Without me, the eight part vocal arrangements would be a little lacking, not to mention the sparkling choreography! If I couldn’t get into the country, it would be a disaster. Two hours later and no news from the Embassy and the guards decided enough was enough. I was dispatched to the next train to London with a guard sporting a machine gun (a little excessive I thought). Right up to the moment when the doors closed, I wouldn’t sit down in case a last minute reprise from the Dutch Embassy would magically arrive via the borrowed mobile phone.
Sadly, it never came and when we were on our way the train guard came round to ask for passports and I burst into uncontrollable sobs. “Oh dear – it must be you that forgot your passport” he commiserated.
It was the only concert in ten years as a Swingle Singer that I ever missed – not even one for a sore throat! I’ve never seen that video with the rest of the group valiantly filling in my solo bits and papering the gaps in the harmony – I’d really like to!
So here I was, sitting in a country pub in Sussex looking at the hours ahead of me, wondering what on earth would happen. Fortunately, mobile phone technology has moved on rapidly and only a month ago I had put two .pdf images of my repertoire list with all my correct keys onto my phone – just in case I was ever asked to ‘sit in’ at a gig, I thought it would be helpful to know the keys that I prefer to sing songs in. Good jazz-singers who perform gigs like this all the time, usually know their keys off by heart, or should. I wrote about choosing songs and finding the right key for you in a previous article. I know quite a few but certainly not over two hours worth.
“We can do this” assured Steve. So that’s what we did – I looked at the list, picked one I thought I could remember the words to and told him the key – he got a blank look on his face for a couple of minutes while he mentally scanned the chart and off we went. The worst moment was after the second song, where I’d got in a pickle with the order of the verses and could only see the hours of humiliation stretching before me. Simon and Garfunkle were both sitting on my shoulder singing “Hello Darkness My Old Friend” and I was utterly convinced I couldn’t do it. I shook myself, got a grip and picked The Very Thought of You. It’s a song I’d sung in the Glen Miller Memorial Orchestra hundreds of times and one that I definitely knew the lyrics of so we were soon back on track. After a couple of sets Steve and I had our meal and talked about the whole culture of modern day jazz musicians. With the advent of the iPhone most jazzers have the Real Book app at their fingertips.
This is the electronic version of the famous album of chords as recorded by the greats. You can pick a song and transpose it at the touch of a button. Steve reminisced how as a youngster he would do gigs with older musicians who would call out tunes in any key and you just had to play them – a fantastic, if terrifying, training ground for players. It meant that you soon gained knowledge of the core repertoire and a deep understanding of the harmonic language of Jazz. Nowadays, you so often see musicians huddled around a phone – this surely must inhibit the greatest skill that a musician should cherish and strive for – LISTENING to the rest of the band. Steve did have his iPhone but only looked at it a couple of times, just to remind himself of few corners for my more eclectic song choices with their spurious keys.
The audience were unaware of my agony and during one Beatles song, we vamped for a while as I tried to remember the second verse – we asked the people near to us and none of them could remember it under pressure – suddenly, it popped into my head and we were off again. One gentleman (clearly unaware of the vicinity of said boyfriend) pressed his bearded cheek to mine and whispered, slightly lasciviously into my ear ‘You’re too good for this joint!’ as he left.
I’m sure that I lost a few years from my life during that evening, but as we packed up at the end, I was curiously elated. I actually knew more than I thought and without the stricture of my familiar charts, Steve and I came up with some really lovely things – listening and working together. Thank goodness he was there to help me through. When being congratulated (and apologized to) by my mightily impressed boyfriend, Steve told him that most singers don’t turn up with charts, they just give him their keys. He quipped that the sadly recently departed, Joe Lee Wilson used to shout out a tune and then say “Any damn key!”
Back at home, the music bag was innocently waiting for me, nestled under the washing rack. Having re-read this, there also seems to be a cautionary tale about the distracting influence of boyfriends in the singing workplace……
Here’s the wonderful Joe Lee Wilson (1935-2011) doing what he did best:
As always, if you enjoyed this blog and would like to know when I write a new article, don’t forget to add your email address to the VIP list page on the pink navigation bar. You also get an exclusive unreleased track as a reward! Don’t forget to click on the link in the email which you receive to confirm your interest. Your email address is completely confidential.