June 24th 2016, I had the honor of leading a choir for Carl Palmer on the Emerson Lake and Palmer song “Jerusalem” during a concert showcasing the legacy of the iconic progressive rock band and honoring the life and career of the late, great Keith Emerson. My first thought was the same as yours probably was: “How the hell did this Cuban-American kid from the Miami burbs (Kendall) end up with that gig?” If you know anything about my career, you know that, spending most of my time in Miami (minus a brief stint in NY), I have worked mostly with Latino artists and/or “crossover” Latin pop acts. The only time I strayed from those genres was this one time, years ago, when I landed in L.A. with Gloria Estefan’s band to do The Tonight Show, and arrived to word from the late, legendary Phil Ramone that we (the singers) would be joining the house band for the Grammy tribute to Paul Simon. That was pretty friggin’ cool, but I won’t stray. I’ll get to that in another blog post, perhaps, on a “throwback Thursday.”
Now, let’s get to how I ended up at one of my favorite theaters (probably ever), Olympia Theater in Miami, which was also the theater that hosted my high school graduation, performing alongside such greats as Steve Hackett from Genesis and the evening’s host, the badass Carl Palmer, an iconic prog rock drummer who has had number ones with 3 different bands. If you aren’t familiar, do yourself a favor and Google him. So, when my dear friend David Frangioni (you should Google him, too!) first spoke to me about the event, it was quick and in passing. He’s a busy, busy man, so it was something like, “June 24th, Carl Palmer, choir, you, me, amazing show, gonna be great!!” That’s not a direct quote, it’s just how my brain processed and stored that moment. Weeks later, I got a formal email with details, and as I dug a little deeper, I realized how truly important this was going to be and what a great responsibility it was, aaaand… I had a slight moment of panic. Being the perfectionist that I am, I thought, “Well, how many singers will there be?!” “Can I direct a choir?!” “What if Carl hates my vocal arrangement?!” All in typical Liza fashion, and all at once, like a million little doubting Liza devils on both my shoulders, like something out of a scene from a 90s sitcom. Pardon my third-person reference. It was necessary to paint the picture. Of course, when David got a whiff of my anxiety, he calmed me down. “Ah, c’mon, Quintessential! (that’s his nickname for me) You’ll be fine.” And, as usual when he pushes me out of my comfort zone, he was right. Not only was I “fine,” but Carl dug my arrangement, and it turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my career and life.
I was to be working with singers from an educational program co-founded by David called IDA (Inspire and Develop Artists), and, since I had a slot available, was also thrilled to be able to include a young singer from an organization founded by another good friend, Chad Bernstein, called Guitars Over Guns (GOGO). As I got in contact with all the singers, it excited me to be able to play a part in involving them in such a unique and legendary night of live music. Not only was it going to be the first time the ELP song “Jerusalem” would be performed with a choir, but also the first time it would be performed with modern dancers and documented as a PBS special and DVD. As I got notice of the remaining open slot rather last minute, Britney, the young singer from GOGO, was forced to learn the song almost overnight. She not only took on the task of learning something way outside of her comfort zone quickly and enthusiastically, but she was also a consummate professional at the young age of 15. Another young man of 15, stood out to me as well, as I chatted him up in the dressing room. He was there with his dad and we got to talking about his involvement in sports, broadcasting, and playing the piano. “When do you sleep?” I said jokingly. His dad said, “Well, it’s better that he’s busy. Being busy keeps kids off the streets. Did you see his hand?” he asked. Brent held up his left hand, which had been injured in a lawn mower accident as a small child, revealing he was partially and completely missing some fingers. “And you still play the piano!” I said. “That’s incredible! What an inspiration.” His response was, “I love it. I just love to play the piano.” It was at that moment that I realized how impactful having and pursuing these passions can be on young people and how this room full of people of different ages, shapes, sizes, cultures, and upbringings could get along so beautifully, so quickly. We were all bonded by a great, great love of music; and, not just listening to it…but, rather, living it, as a lifestyle. The excitement was unanimous as they all began to actually meet the gracious greats, Steve Hackett and Carl Palmer, in the hallway outside their dressing room. We instantly realized that we were in the presence of real rock royalty.
[backstage with Steve, left, Carl, to his right, the IDA choir, David and myself] Although he was cool with “Carl,” I grappled with calling him Mr. Palmer or not because I wanted to be very professional, yet, he was so likable and approachable that I felt like I’d known him for years. I really felt so lucky to be able to watch him in action, too. He ate his breakfast at the venue in order to be able to watch the load-in, he spoke to everyone individually and by name, and he knew exactly what he wanted for every single detail of his show. He took his time with us at rehearsal and soundcheck, making sure everyone was comfortable on stage, that the singers were cutting through in the house, and that everyone could be seen equally on the riser. Most would think that at his level of success those things wouldn’t have a place in his busy, overworked mind, but they did. Every detail was important, and that makes the difference between a musician and an icon. Of course, there’s also the experience of watching his incredibly loyal fans swoon over his majestic drum kit and his epic, what-seemed-like-10-minute drum solo which forced them all to their feet. I’ll never forget what it felt like hearing him and the entire band live, from both on stage during “Jerusalem,” and off, as I sat in the house during the second half like a new-found fan. The closer was an incredible drum duo with himself and guest drummer David Frangioni, who rocked the house. I loved watching David’s passion come alive on stage as he, an already very successful drummer, engineer, business man, and technologist, played alongside his childhood drum hero. The energy exchanged between everyone in the building that night was electric. When it was all over, we all high-fived and hugged, and I congratulated the singers on a job well done. They all told me how much fun they had had and one young singer came over and hugged me and said, “Thank you for making my dream come true.” I melted. I went home that night feeling accomplished, energized, inspired, and connected to the people I shared space with that night. I am grateful to them for the love and to David and Carl for the faith and the opportunity. I now understand why Carl is considered one of the greatest drummers in the game. It’s obviously training, skill, hard work, humility, high standards, and love…lots of love for the art of drumming and the magic of rock and roll. That’s what we all felt and what he will leave behind when the music stops… and that is the Palmer effect.