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Born in segregated New Orleans, Verrett came of age under the strict watch of devout, Seventh-Day Adventist parents. Her father, astounded by her talent, determined she would follow in the footsteps of legendary recitalists Marian Anderson and Dorothy Maynor. Nineteen years later, Shirley out-performed more than fifty other aspiring singers to win the coveted Marian Anderson award.
Her career soared, seemingly effortlessly. Delving behind the scenes, Verrett takes us into her intimate world. We are eager observers year by year as she hones her craft, the critics rave, and popular demand mounts. With each groundbreaking performance, she adds to her laurels. Despite racial prejudice, moral dilemmas, professional rivalries, devastating illness, and controversy, Verrett survives, triumphs on her own terms, and goes on to make history.
Always forthright, Verrett shares her ups and downs freely with us, along with indelible images of other major twentieth-century singers–from her inspiration Maria Callas to contemporaries such as Montserrat CaballÉ, Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Jon Vickers, and many others. The result is a virtual master class in the art of opera performance, as well as the art of living fearlessly.
Cherished as a wife, mother, humanitarian, teacher, and warm friend, Verrett moved easily between the stage and an abundant life of authentic spiritual depth. Here is the proof–the autobiography of a radiant little girl who grew up with wit, fiery will, and unmistakable grace to become, in the words of PlÁcido Domingo, "a treasure in the world of opera."
At the age of 5, Shirley Verrett's mother taught her the song "Jesus Loves Me." Her father, who conducted the choir in a Seventh-Day Adventist church in New Orleans, asked her, "Do you know you have a very lovely voice, little girl?" "I think," she writes, "it was at the exact moment I became a singer." But she did not resume singing until she was 24 years old, married and bored selling real estate in California. She then made up her mind that "I'M really a singer, and I'm ready to sing." In her fascinating and down-to-earth autobiography, "I Never Walked Along" (written with Christopher Brooks, who teaches African-American studies at Virginia Commonwealth University), Verrett, now 72 years old, reminisces, often with funny anecdotes, of her life before and during her career, which began when she won a place on the Arthur Godfrey talent show, followed by study at the Juilliard School. Her first onstage appearance was in Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Start," followed by four decades of singing in opera houses of the world, from the Metropolitan and San Francisco to La Scala, Covent Garden and the Paris Opera. Verrett focuses on singers she admires, for example Maria Callas: "She understood every word, every nuance of idea and emotion. She sang with conviction, as if she had written the opera herself." (The New York Times Book Review—Books in Brief, Sunday, September 7, 2003)
The first sound I remember is the sound of my mother singing. Hers was a rich, full lyric soprano voice that seemed to soar when she sang certain notes, but could be soothingly mellow in the lower register. I suppose at some point I started to imitate her because the quality of my adult voice bears a similarity to hers. Mother called some of the songs she sang all day "long meters." Others were church hymns. I am sure my affinity for singing spirituals is related to these expressions of her spirit. It was the basis of a profound bond between us.
When I was about five, Mother realized I could hold a tune. I imagine she paused, pleased and thinking that there was something special about what I was doing. So she taught me my first song, "Jesus Loves Me." I sang it in our Seventh-Day Adventist church one Sabbath. I felt I sang it well. Dad really paid attention to what I was doing. I saw in his eyes that he was focusing on me with a seriousness beyond the usual. He leaned forward and put his hand to his chin, nodding his head and smiling slightly. Dad loved music. He conducted our church choir. He also had a smooth baritone voice, though not as rich as Mother's soprano.
"Do you know you have a very lovely voice, little girl?" he said after the service. Suddenly, I felt a foot taller. Ithink it was at that exact moment that I became a singer.
Mother loved music, but spirituality and family were her deepest passions. She passed these feelings on to me, though not quite in the way she anticipated.
Mother's Catholic ancestors arrived in New Orleans in the late eighteenth century from Haiti, in the first wave of refugees from the 1791 Haitian Revolution. One of them, my great-great-grandfather Paul E. Morel, nicknamed "Deauville," fought in the American Civil War, initially for the Confederacy in 1862 as part of a volunteer group of blacks. Later that year, General Benjamin Butler persuaded the group to switch sides and fight for the Union. They were known as the Native Guards. According to family history, every Sunday Grandpa Morel dressed in his Union uniform and shouldered his gun. He received a government pension until he died in 1915.
Grandpa Morel's daughter Eugénie Morel, known as "Mamal," married a man whose surname was Joseph. Mamal's first child, Grandma Rita, was born and baptized in 1883. Mamal had another child, born in 1893, who died in infancy, and a daughter, Emily, born in 1895 after the death of her husband. Great-aunt Emily, whom we called "Malie," was very light skinned, while my grandmother Rita Joseph was dark brown. Like the rest of her family, Grandma Rita spoke French or patois, with English as her second language. Mamal made sure she had a strict New Orleans Catholic upbringing.
But Grandma Rita broke with Mamal's religious tradition when she decided to marry Walter Harris from Covington, Louisiana. He was a very light-skinned man, most probably a mulatto, what New Orleaneans then called passant blanc. In other words, he was able to pass for white. More important to Mamal and Grandma Rita, however, was the fact that he was a Methodist, and the Catholic Church did not officially recognize a marriage outside the faith.
Grandma Rita and Grandpa Harris eventually had seven children, Noella, Elvira (Mother, born August 1, 1906), Gladys, Vivian, Hilda, Walter Jr., and Hazel. They spoke English instead of French as a first language, the first generation of Mother's family to do so.
Although the Catholic Church did not officially recognize her marriage, Grandma Rita raised all her children as Catholics just as she had been raised by Mamal. But in the early 1920s, after being rigorously recruited during what was called a "tent effort" of the Seventh-Day Adventist faith, Grandma Rita left the Catholic church. In time, I learned the story of her conversion to the religion that shaped my life.
When the Adventists came to New Orleans, Grandma Rita was moved by their marathon preaching sessions under huge tents. There she learned about the second coming of Christ. The preachers declared that Christ would appear in clouds coming from heaven, that God's law was still set out in the Ten Commandments, and that the true Sabbath was Saturday. Adventists held that although they were in the world, they were not of the world. This, of course, presented many restrictions. Adventists rejected divorce and lawsuits in general. They disapproved of opera, theater, and movies. Jazz, blues, or any hybrid of these traditions was taboo, as were card playing, gambling, and dancing.
To be an Adventist, Grandma Rita knew she would have to dress modestly. She could no longer wear clothes that accentuated her hips or breasts. Nor could she wear lipstick, jewelry, or elaborate hairstyles, because they called attention to her beauty. Dietary observances prohibited "unclean" foods like pork and shellfish. If one could not be a strict vegetarian, meats like beef, lamb, chicken, and fish (but not shellfish) were allowed. Of course, alcoholic beverages were forbidden, as was tobacco. After sunset on Friday evenings, she could no longer attend certain kinds of musical performances. Instead, she would have to prepare for the Sabbath.
Yet this was the faith she embraced. Several of those practices have changed now, but under the tent Grandma Rita converted from one strict religion to a stricter one and brought her children with her, though not all at once.
My mother, in her late teens then and nearing marrying age, was allowed to make her own decisions about religion. Apparently, she liked what she heard from the Adventists because she joined the church after marriage, along with her sister Noella. Mother's sense of spirituality ran deep. Not only had she been raised as a Catholic, but, because of her Haitian background, she also knew something about the voodoo practices in New Orleans and strongly disapproved of anyone who practiced those negative arts.
Mother met Dad at a house party in 1925.
In later years, Dad liked to say that he already knew her name was Elvira, because he had had a dream about her. He had also seen her a few times before but hadn't spoken to her, perhaps because he was only seventeen, two years younger than she was. At the party, he apparently seized his opportunity to meet her formally.
Young as he was, Leon Solomon Verrett was already a person of substance and action. He came from a line of builders and carpenters with a long history in Louisiana. According to Dad, the name Verrett originally belonged to a large family of carpenters and builders who had emigrated from France in the early nineteenth century and lived and worked on a plantation in Louisiana, close to where Dad was born years later.
Dad's father was named Joseph Verrett. He was born in the mid-1870s outside New Orleans. Around the turn of the century, Joseph married a woman named Mary Lee, who was definitely an African. "Lee" was obviously a plantation name. Joseph and Mary Lee Verrett settled in New Orleans and had eight children. Their oldest son, Harrison, was born in 1906. Dad was born in 1908. Then came Walter, Gus, Alphonse, Joseph Jr., Rosemary, and Selena. I knew them all very well.
Granddad Joseph Verrett was a master builder and carpenter. He could hang wallpaper, build beautiful furniture-you name it and he could do it. If a project had anything to do with construction or carpentry, my grandfather did it. He also loved words. He used to read the dictionary and correct people if they mispronounced anything. The man was a walking dictionary.
Granddad was also apparently a soft touch and sometimes did not get paid on time for the jobs he completed. When that happened, Dad went to demand the money.
Grandmother Mary Lee Verrett, who had learned to look up to this son, was well aware of this scenario and began saying to her husband, "If you can't get the money, let Leon do it. He'll get it done." This created some hard feelings between father and son, but not enough to disturb the business. Dad helped train his younger brothers as carpenters, painters, paperhangers, or all-around maintenance men. By the time Dad met Mother, he was already on his way to becoming a well-respected carpenter and painter, with increasing contact with the white world.
Since Dad and Mother were then both still in their late teens, they courted for more than three years. After they married, on January 30, 1929, they joined the Seventh-Day Adventists. Their firstborn, my brother David, arrived on November 13, 1929. I was born on May 31, 1931, at the Toureau Infirmary in New Orleans. Mother and Grandma Rita said I looked like a little Turk, with straight hair sticking out of my ears. Leon Jr. was born when I was two. Elvira came along in 1935; two years after that came Milton. Within eight years there were five of us.
Following in the path of Grandma Rita, Aunt Noella, and most black women of the New Orleans of her day, Mother had worked as a domestic in her youth. Proudly now, she managed her own home and family. Before we left home for any occasion, David, Leon, and I lined up for her inspection. My hair had to be neatly braided or combed and my teeth brushed. There could be no ashy knees, hands, or elbows. Mother was equally particular about her own appearance, setting out her dress and shoes the evening before, to make sure everything matched. All of her life, she was conscious of what she wore and how she looked. Mother and Dad were both big on dressing appropriately. Dad often said, "Clothes do not make the man, but they can open the door."
As far as I know, Mother's only regret was never finishing high school. She often said that if circumstances had been different, she would like to have received her high school diploma and gone to college. At Dad's insistence, she remained a homemaker, but she wanted us to have all the opportunities she had missed. Her dictum was "Learn all that you can, because you never know when you'll need it." As our first teacher, she taught us to spell, recite poetic verse, and do simple addition and subtraction before we started school.
We also learned that outside our family, the world was not to be trusted. For our protection, Mother decided that we were never to eat in anyone else's home. Fearing New Orleans's old occult tradition, she never let anyone other than a close relative cook in her house, because they might put something in her cooking pots. When we children visited other people, we would generally go after dinner. And if we hadn't eaten, we were to politely say, "No, thank you very much, but we won't have any." We were not even allowed to drink water away from home. In case someone pressed us, Mother taught us to say we had to eat at home.
By 1935, Mother and Dad had moved to 2135 New Orleans Street, between Miro and Galvez. My best friend in the neighborhood was Iris Charles. We did almost everything together, playing jacks, hopscotch, and with our dolls. Iris was also one of the few children Mother allowed to come into our home because she was so well behaved and polite.
It was an integrated neighborhood, not unusual for New Orleans in the 1930s, filled with working-class blacks and whites, many of them blue-collar laborers. Outside our neighborhood, however, the racial lines were more clearly drawn. Even if we rode on the same bus as a white neighbor who had just borrowed some sugar from us, the white neighbor still sat toward the front of the bus while we stayed toward the back.
I got to see another side of the skin color issue through the eyes of a best friend and playmate from church. Jacqueline Mathieu and I were the same age and remained good friends up until her death just a few years ago. Her family had also left the Catholic Church to become Adventists. We didn't live in the same neighborhood, so we saw each other mostly on weekends or at church activities.
Both of Jackie's parents were very light-skinned. Her father was passant blanc. Several members of Mr. Mathieu's family passed as white. It was hard even for us to tell. Jackie, on the other hand, was darker than either of her parents or her brothers and sisters, who were also very light. Jackie's hair texture was closer to mine. Her other brothers and sisters had what was called "good hair," which was softer in texture and closer to white people's. This reality chafed Jackie throughout childhood and into adult life. When she visited her father's people, they treated her like a second-class citizen-unlike her brothers and sisters, who enjoyed a much warmer welcome from Mr. Mathieu's family. It got to the point where Jackie refused to see them. To compensate for his family's disgraceful behavior, Mr. Mathieu spoiled Jackie. He not only gave her material possessions, he allowed her to speak to him in an unheard-of manner. Even in front of me she called him names like "stupid" or told him, "Shut up!"
If I had ever tried that with Dad, he would have strapped me on my legs before I got out the "sh" of "shut up."
I was always a bit of a renegade. I barely escaped from one particular misadventure with my favorite uncle, Dad's brother Harrison. Ironically, music was involved. Uncle Harrison had left the building trade and become a full-time jazz musician. He had once played the banjo and piano with Papa Celestin's band in New Orleans. Sometimes when he came to our house to baby-sit, he played boogie-woogie tunes on the piano. Uncle Harrison encouraged me to dance and I complied. I would shake, shake, shake, shake, shake my little hips to the music. Sometimes I even put my hands on my hips and shook like a grown person.
I knew it was against my religion. Mother and Dad did not approve of such music, much less dancing, even though Dad had once been a good dancer and had won a few community contests in his youth. So neither Uncle Harrison nor I ever said anything to Mother and Dad about our boogie-woogie dance sessions.
One day when I was alone, practicing my hands-on-the-hips shake, Mother came up behind me. She didn't punish me. She just stared at me, which was more than enough to make me stop. I wondered if she knew I had learned the dance from Uncle Harrison. She never said a word about it to me, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if she mentioned it to Dad. They were always very close.
One of my earliest memories is of Dad singing love songs to Mother. The most memorable was a delightful, simple little tune, "Just a Cottage Small by the Waterfall." Mother always smiled in silence while he sang to her. I heard that song so much, I memorized some of the words. Dad also played the saxophone. When I listened to him practice, something about those notes made me feel I could float away on the sound.
Music captivated me. After I sang "Jesus Loves Me" in church, Dad became my voice teacher. We started with simple church songs.
Excerpted from I Never Walked Alone by Shirley Verrett Christopher Brooks Excerpted by permission.
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Foreword by Plàcido Domingo.
My Mother's Voice.
My Father's Dream.
Mrs. James Carter.
City of Dreams.
From Convent Garden to La Scala to the Met.
And Baby Makes Three.
"Troy Meets Shirl".
An Actor's Life.
Somewhere In Between.
Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres
My Greatest Fan.
An End and a Beginning.
Posted March 18, 2014