Confessions of a Former Choir Boy

by Walter Pierce

I went to college to study composition but gravitated to a jazz vocal group.

I went to college to study composition but gravitated to a jazz vocal group. By David Egan

November 2012

The author, center, gets jazzy.

In the late '70s, I was in Denton, Texas, attending North Texas State University's music school as a composition major. Aspiring to be first and always a songwriter not wanting to compete with steely-eyed killer piano players, I supposed this would be the most agreeable curriculum for me. The fellow comp majors were relatively few, compared to the furiously competitive Jazz Ed. program. It was partly a cop-out, because a comp major could wallow in the realm of experimental and esoteric music, hang a kitchen sink on the wall and call it music composition and actually get away with it. The esteemed comp faculty seemed to actually prefer the experimental and atonal, only wanting a smattering of tonal pieces, or to the layman, compositions that made any musical sense at all.

Besides the wonderfully majestic faculty composers, including the reigning Moog Synthesizer and laser wizard, Dr. Merle Ellis, the youthful visionary Dr. Tom Clark and the zany veteran Martin Mailman, there was eye-opening exposure to a world of musical groundbreakers and radical innovators like Charles Ives, John Cage, Bela Bartok, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, just to top the list. There was a John Cage piece performed in a special multi-media room where the moment you walked in, everyone laughed at you. In this room, interspersed with the audience, there were two Mexican guys working on a Carmengia, a small wind ensemble rehearsing, a couple arguing, a lady hanging up her wash, strange films and slides projected on the wall and infinite other simultaneous occurrences. What a welcome diversion from the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the threat of World War III.

But while reveling in all of this, I found my way into the NTSU Jazz Singers. A massive jazz choir with killer arrangements and direction by Paris Rutherford, this was something that gradually took priority over everything. We studied the sounds of the hip Manhattan Transfer, the ultra-swinging Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the lush Singers Unlimited, the mind-blowing vocalese of Eddy Jefferson and countless others. We made bus trips, partied, competed with other jazz vocal ensembles and took special vocal jazz improvisation classes. To stand in a group of 40-plus and be a part of a huge mass of vocal jazz harmony was something I woke up thinking about, more than what random sounds I might dream up and figure out the proper nomenclature for transcribing them to staff paper. Jazz Singers wasn't such a lonely pursuit, but rather a chance to mingle with some talented peers, many of whom were coeds.

From Jazz Singers came some paid studio vocal work in Dallas and Fort Worth. There were pre-records for Six Flags shows, jingles and demos, which gave me some needed self-validation that I was turning pro. There were split-off groups, vocal jazz quartets and special shows. All the while, I kept learning how to write songs, trying to keep them soulful and real, while informing them with baby bites of jazz sensibilities, recruiting singers and players from my circles for performances and demos. During this period, I wrote a heavily gospel influenced song that would stand the test of time, to be interpreted by the great Irma Thomas on her Grammy-winning album some 25 years later. That unknown future-fact did me little good at the time, but I knew I had finally written something I loved.

Amidst all of this came an opportunity to be flown to Memphis for an audition with a huge jingle company as a staff singer. I was hired by the Tanner Company, said goodbye to my college life and any hollow hopes of earning a degree, and moved to Memphis, where I became one of seven staff singers who punched the clock and sang jingles and radio station call letters from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., every weekday. It could be fairly mundane, singing different call letters to the same musical beds, day-in, day-out. Often, the sight-reading on a fresh jingle could be quite challenging because is was on the spot - get it right the first time - very close, dense harmonies that, out of context, would sound very strange. The gratification of "doing art" was quite lacking - we were singing about office supplies and lawnmowers along with the endless radio call letters.
But there were talented people stuck there with me. Again, I could recruit singers and audio engineers, pirate the studio after hours and lay down vocals to the tracks I had started in Texas. I took some of these demos to a much-anticipated appointment at Muscle Shoals to try for a songwriting deal. I got the grand tour, stood where Aretha stood, and secured a single-song agreement. Looking back, the nice lady at Muscle Shoals Music might have taken the song just to be nice, but I returned to Memphis with a taste of victory, feeling I had gotten my foot in the door to the big time world of R&B songwriting. At the same time, I was a bit let down that I wouldn't be moving to Muscle Shoals. A pie-in-the-sky staff-writer gig was what I craved, or so I thought.

Ultimately, there turned out to be paranoia and power struggles all around me, which had nothing to do with me. The mighty Tanner Company was falling in on itself. There were big tax-evasion scandals at the very top. Radio stations were feeling short-changed and filing suit, claiming that the "exclusive" music for their call letters was the same music being used by another station, with different call letters dropped in. A year and a half had flown quickly in Memphis. I enjoyed the Mid-Town culture, the parks and cinemas and the fellowship with those who had taken me in. I had found, at least for me, that Memphis was no longer the songwriting Mecca I had imagined it to be.

My old friend Marvin Morrow had become a staff writer at CBS Songs in Nashville. Marvin and I had played in bands together back in Shreveport. He was a strong influence and a musical big brother. He was writing terrific songs and securing nice covers. When he kindly offered me the use of his floor, I threw some song demos and vocal tapes together, making several copies. I found a home for my beloved Siamese cat and gave away my king-sized bed. I even gave away my old upright clunker piano. I had saved up a couple hundred bucks and managed to steadily expand my song catalog. I was young, disengaged and Nashville bound. But Nashville would prove to be no pot of gold, no picnic, hardly even a crust of bread. Disappointment, rejection and ridicule awaited my glorious arrival. It wouldn't all be bad. Ridicule makes no scars when you know, then and there, that it's coming from some very ridiculous people.