On April 22, 2019, Director of Educational Programming Jason Holmes sat down with guest artist Melinda Doolittle to discuss music, her career, and of course, BCC!
We are so excited to sing with you on stage again (BCC sang with Melinda Doolittle in 2012 and 2013). How did you first hear about Boston Children’s Chorus?
I feel like I’ve always known about Boston Children’s Chorus. I love the city of Boston, and I’ve worked with organizations like the Boston Pops. Back in 2012, Dr. Anthony Trecek-King asked me to perform at the 9th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tribute Concert, and I said yes right away.
The singers of BCC are wonderful. I was enamored by their rehearsal process and absolute professionalism. A lot of times you do shows with kids and you know that whatever happens happens. With BCC, I saw how on point these kids are, and I just thought, “I have to step my game up!” It was a joy for me and a reminder of my love for music and why I do it, so I enjoy any time I sing with the choir.
We’re so happy to have you back. Since we work with children, can you tell us a little bit about singing in your childhood?
Singing in my childhood was not great. I loved singing, because there’s so much we can’t express with just words. Growing up, I sang to express myself. I decided to audition for a choir.
At my audition, one of the evaluators hit a note on a piano, and I had to sing it back for them – and he asked me if I knew that I was nowhere near the note. He explained that it was called tonedeafness. They loved my charisma and energy, so they let me join the choirs and I could do all the hand motions, smile, and everything, but they asked me to lipsync. Just don’t let sound come out. I was lipsynching in this choir for years and never sang out. Finally, I told my mother what had been going on, and that I wanted to sing out loud.
We didn’t have money for lessons, so after school, I would lock myself in my room and practice, practice, practice, and pray.
Later, my youth group was having a talent show, and I signed up. The voice that came out on stage was completely different than what I had before, so I truly believe that practicing is so important. I don’t remember singing. I remember getting on stage, closing my eyes, and opening my eyes when it was over, and people were standing and clapping. From that moment on my ears just opened up.
How did you decide to audition for American Idol, and what was that experience like?
I had a friend talk me into auditioning for American Idol, and I’m so glad he did. I would have never done that on my own.
I sang “For Once in My Life” by stevie wonder. They said they loved it and asked me to sing something else. My second song was “My Funny Valentine.” Then they asked me for one more song, and I panicked. The only song that came to mind was Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good.” It was the worst audition song, so tip for anyone auditioning – do not sing songs with big musical breaks.
Based on your experience, what advice do you have for singers hoping to compete in a musical competition like American Idol?
My biggest piece of advice is to recognize that they are always making a TV show, they are always casting a TV show. One thing to remember is that you can’t take a “no” personally, but you can take a “yes” personally. You can go in with your best ammunition and find something that showcases the best part of your voice. You have a short amount of time, so always start at the good part, and look into their eyes, because this is television.
What does "Lift Every Voice" mean to you?
The first thing that comes to mind is the Black National Anthem. That really resonates with me. Thinking of the words, the music that got us through so much, and that continues to get so many cultures through so much. That phrase helps us realize the power of music and how it brings entire communities together.
Our theme this season is Through Her Eyes, and this upcoming concert celebrates women who used their art to advance social causes. Artists like Nina Simone and Billy Holiday. Who are some of your heroes, women who use their art to fight injustice?
Aretha Franklin is a big one. Her new documentary Amazing Grace just came out. It’s so good and it’s a reminder of how much she did to fight injustice. You usually think of songs like “Respect” and “Natural Woman” and not of her fighting injustice.
Gladys Knight is my favorite artist. She toured and the doors and backdoors she had to go through in order to pave the way for women like me… I feel like so many women worked hard to pave the way for us. Gladys has been a great mentor in helping me learn about the business, understanding how the business works, how it worked for her, and the mantle that we have to carry on.
What was one lesson that Gladys taught you?
She was adamant about making sure you handled your business first. It’s easy to get caught up in just singing and making music and forget about how important business really is. It’s especially important for women, because of people assume we don’t know what we’re talking about. I know how to read a contract, negotiate, advocate for what was agreed upon, being strong enough to not just commit to something but going after what you committed to and expecting that of others. She also taught me that it’s okay to make faces when you sing. Something she used to say is, “If you look pretty, you’re not doing it right."
What are you looking forward to singing at Lift Every Voice: Her Song?
I’m looking forward to singing Audra Day’s “Rise Up” with the singers. I hope I make it through without crying, it means so much to me already. To hear the voices of the future behind me singing those powerful works, I really hope I can get through the entire song without crying.
That song is exciting because all 13 choirs PLUS 2 pop-up choirs PLUS invited choirs, are all singing that song.
It’s going to be fantastic. I’m also singing a Frank Sinatra tune called “That’s Life.” I’ve changed some of the lyrics, from “being a king” to “being a queen.” It has this strength to it that is really exciting for me. It’s one of my favorite songs. I cannot wait to have some of the singers join me on that, so I’m really looking forward to everything.
Tell us a little about your tour right now.
My show is called “The Great American Soulbook.” It’s classic soul music for the most part, taking a little from the Great American Songbook. Songs like “That’s Life” and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and then giving them a soul twist. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had on stage to date. It will take audiences back to that time, and just celebrate music and what it’s done for us. Some of those lyrics still apply today and have such power behind them, the hope for the future.
Thank you so much for chatting with me today. Last question: if you had one message to give to your fans, our singers, and the Boston community, what would it be?
Really search for what we have in common. There’s so much diviseness night now, but the more I get to talk to people who look differently than me, think differently, believe differently, whatever it is, I’m finding things I have in common. There’s something so powerful about grabbing onto what we have in common, the love we have in common, and I think music is the best way to do that. It’s what’s so powerful about BCC is, even just looking at the children of so many different backgrounds, together, making beautiful music, is such a testament to what we need today. I’m honored to be a part of it.
Melinda will take the stage with Boston Children’s Chorus on Saturday, May 18, 7:00pm for Lift Every Voice: Her Song at the Boch Center Wang Theatre. Tickets are available at the Boch Center Box Office, online at bochcenter.org/BostonChildrensChorus, by phone at 800-982-ARTS, or at Ticketmaster.com.