Three unmistakable voices

I have no musical skills.

I never learned to play an instrument even though my parents gave me opportunities.

And when it comes to singing, I can’t, not even in the shower.

But, I love listening to music. And, I have a deep respect for people who can master an instrument and carry a tune.

Growing up, I remember two Christmas gifts that transformed my ears—a transistor radio and a small boxed shaped record player.

That radio complete with a small earphone was amazing. Even though, it only had the capacity to pick up AM stations—at night, that radio took me to big cities like Boston, New York, and Cleveland. 

I could listen to New York Yankee baseball broadcasts. Mickey Mantle was my favorite player.

But, it was the music that captured me. The Beatles had stormed America. The invasion, the revolution was on. That tiny transistor took me deeper into it.

For the record player, the first record I bought was a 45, a single. 

I purchased it at Clarks. Clarks was an early big box store. It was located on old U.S. highway 70 in Greensboro an easy walk with a relative from my grandmother’s house.

That first single was by the Beach Boys. It was their Christmas hit “The Little St. Nick.” On the flip side was an a cappella rendering of “The Lord’s Prayer.” With that one record purchase, I was hooked for life on the sound of their voices.

Writer Dave Barry coined this phrase—“brain sludge.” That term basically describes useless information that is stored in the brains of men. When it comes to the Beach Boys, I have lots of “brain sludge.”

I’ll share some Beach Boys sludge with you now. Who is Jeffrey Foskett?

Since 1981, Mr. Foskett has been a part of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson’s touring bands. He is a gifted guitarist, but also, he is blessed with a beautiful, high soaring voice. 

If you placed Mr. Foskett’s voice beside a young Brian Wilson’s voice it is tough to tell the difference. In live performances with the touring Beach Boys and when Mr. Wilson returned to performing live with his own band, Mr. Foskett sang those stratospheric background vocals. 

Mr. Foskett has recorded his own solo albums, produced records, and worked with an assortment of famous recording artists during his career. 

But, early in 2018, Mr. Foskett suffered a significant set back. He was diagnosed with Anaplastic thyroid cancer. The surgeries and treatments that he worked through stole one of his vocal cords. 

Despite this significant set back, Mr. Foskett released an album titled Voices in November of 2019. He realizes that the recording might be his last. 

But in an interview with Billboard magazine, Mr. Foskett stated:

“God gave me such a beautiful voice, and I really did use it to honor him and to sing my best at every single performance. It’s killed me to walk off some of those (recent) performances knowing I just didn’t sound very good. So when I listen back to these songs I cut before my voice really went downhill, it’s like, ‘Wow, I wish I could do that again.’”

Whether Mr. Foskett’s remaining vocal cords will sustain him further is uncertain. But long time followers of Brian Wilson will always appreciate the genuine support and love he gave to Brian. Mr. Foskett was an integral part of rejuvenating Brian’s career in concerts and in the studio.

Levon Helm might not be a household name to you either. But maybe, you recall from the late 60s a group named The Band. Mr. Helm was the drummer and a singer in that group. His voice is unmistakable. 

Somewhere in your memory banks, you might remember these songs from The Band: “The Weight” from the soundtrack of Easy Rider, “Up On Cripple Creek,” “Rag Mama Rag,” and “Ophelia.” 

When Bob Dylan switched from folk to rock, The Band was his backing band. 

The Band was comprised of four Canadian musicians and one American from Arkansas, Mr. Helm.

Mr. Helm’s accent was perfect for some of the songs cast by The Band. Additionally, his accent put him into movies. He appeared in Coal Miner’s Daughter where Mr. Helm portrayed Loretta Lynn’s father, and in The Right Stuff where he portrayed Chuck Yeager’s friend, Major Jack Ridley. 

Unfortunately, Mr. Helm was a lifelong smoker—50 years. 

In 1996, his voice after a performance at the Helena Blues Festival became very hoarse. Despite his efforts, Mr. Helm could not shake this condition. Turns out, Mr. Helm was going to be battling throat cancer.

Fortunately for Mr. Helm, some family friends directed him to the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute in New York City. Two doctors, specialists with this type of cancer, devised a plan of treatment. 

Levon Helm must have had an angel hanging around him. 

He eventually regained the use of his voice. That allowed him to relaunch his career. From 2007-2011, Mr. Helm earn three Grammy awards for the albums Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt, and Ramble at the Ryman.

Then unexpectedly, the cancer returned. His family announced this on April 17, 2012. Sadly, two days later, Levon Helm was gone.

Linda Ronstadt was a record company’s dream come true—stunning in appearance and blessed with a pure and powerful voice. I’ll admit to gazing into her photo on the album cover Don’t Cry Now for more than a minute.

I am no music critic, but if you take a look at Miss Ronstadt’s career, specifically, the diversity of her catalog of recordings, I don’t think there is anyone like her. Folk, rock, opera, big band standards, country, pop, Latin, and her collaborations with other recording artist had no boundaries.

Perhaps, my favorite Linda Ronstadt album is Dedicated To The One I Love. I don’t believe the critics loved this recording. It is a collection of familiar songs performed as lullabies. Probably perfect for background music in a nursery, but soothing for an old man like me as well.

Sadly, Linda Ronstadt, experienced a significant change in her voice too. In 2011, Miss Ronstadt announced her retirement citing a degenerative condition—progressive supra nuclear palsy. 

Her beautiful voice was silenced.

Mr. Foskett, Mr. Helm, and Miss Ronstadt are three unique musicians and performers each with an unmistakable voice, a distinct sound solely attributed to them, but with the capacity to resonate with people around the world.

We all have voices too. Each is unique as well. 

And while we might not believe it, each of our voices has the ability to resonate with people in ways we might not expect either.

Somewhere out there in our lives, someone needs our voices.

We may want to deny this, but using our voices to help others in need is part of our collective journey in life. 

We don’t need to have the gifted voices of Mr. Foskett, Mr. Helm, or Miss Ronstadt to be the voice for someone in need.

As a long washed up English teacher, I always made a point with my American literature students to read and ponder American writer, William Faulkner’s speech, when he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1949. Here is a short excerpt from the final paragraph:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

Not at any point in the days ahead of me can I let my voice be silent. 

Someone out there needs my compassion, sacrifice, and endurance.

My voice needs to be inexhaustible for this person.

But, here is the real question.

 Will I find my courage to use my voice to speak for that person in need?  

Assorted websites were researched in the writing of this essay— among them Wikipedia, Billboard,  and the book This Wheel’s On Fire by Helm and Davis.

*Footnote for Mr. Foskett and Mr. Helm:

Nice work cancer, I’m not surprised at your inconsiderate plundering. You know cancer, one of these days your track record as a spineless disruptor will end.

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