a memoir by
PAM MUNTER | Psychologist + Singer
I have had a long love-hate relationship with singing and performing, often fallow for decades. Singing always seemed to intersect with my life. Or was it the other way around?
In the late 1970s, my then brother-in-law had access to a recording studio in the middle of Hollywood. Not just any studio – one named after noted composer, Johnny Mercer, complete with his bronze bust in the lobby. One night, on vacation in Palm Springs, my soon-to-be ex, his brother, and I were sitting in a hotel hot tub having ingested way too many tropical drinks.
“You know, sometime before I die I would like to make a record.” I had never admitted that to anyone before, keeping it safely tucked away in my fantasies for decades.
“I can set that up. No problem,” my brother-in-law said as he downed the last of his fifth Tequila Sunrise. To him, who was in the studio almost daily creating jingles for his commercial ad agency, this was no big deal. For me, it was nearly cardiac inducing. Not realizing the impact, he and my husband continued to talk.
“So where should we go for dinner tomorrow night? I heard about a great Chinese place in Palm Desert,” the soon-to-be-ex asked.
“Hey, wait.” I leaned forward, plowing through the water jets. “What? You can…I can…cut a record? Really?”
Reassured it could be done, I was both exhilarated and petrified, but I began to plan it almost immediately.
But what should I record? I felt some pressure to do contemporary songs, rather than anything from the Great American Songbook. After a lot of ruminating, I selected Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and a show tune I had heard on a cruise, “Nobody Does It Like Me.” The King tune seemed an appropriately supportive sentiment for a clinical psychologist, and the latter had a humble/brag flair for lyrics that I admired.
If there’s a wrong way to say it
A wrong way to play it
Nobody Does It Like Me
We met with an arranger a few months later, decided on a musical path, and set the keys. On a weekend in LA, my brother-in-law collected all the musicians – including string players, no less – and we cut the two songs. I listened with heightened adrenalin flow as each instrumental group recorded its part, imagining how they would sound when mixed together. Between takes, I’d stroll into the lobby and gaze at Mercer’s statue. When I stepped in front of the mic and clapped on the earphones to record my vocals, the soaring feeling was impossible to describe. I felt as if life couldn’t get much better.
Well, there was the dying marriage in the mix, but it didn’t interrupt my excitement at having done this. He wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about the project, however. Never one able to tolerate unfinished business, I could see a pile of it stacking up.
As things worsened at home on several fronts, I contacted an out-of-state clinical psychologist for a meeting—world-famous existential humanist, James F.T. Bugental. I had dated his son in high school, while we were both on the school newspaper, and we had written and produced a musical revue together. That relationship had long since evaporated, but I had run into his father’s books in the early stages of my interest in psychology. His philosophy of meeting the client where he is, the idea of psychotherapy as a search for meaning – it was like an I.V. right into my gut. I had read all his books. So when it came time for emotional excavation, I knew he was the one with whom I wanted to converse when it came to confronting my disconnection with myself.
Jim had set aside an entire weekend for us to consult at his home in San Rafael, an upscale suburb near San Francisco, and a plane trip from my home in Portland. We had agreed to meet in dense, multiple, three-hour segments over the course of two days.
He was tall and dark, with a Mephistophelian beard. He had written that people were sometimes disappointed meeting him after reading his books. I could understand that. He was more Freudian than I expected him to be, preferring that I lie on a couch and free associate. I had hoped for more direct interaction, the kind in which I engaged as a clinician myself, and so I often sat up so I could talk to him eye-to-eye. The room was darkened, located in the windowless basement of his home, giving it an unworldly feel. The walls were filled with remnants of his travels – African masks, Tahitian paintings. Very exotic. I resisted comparing the faraway locales to my own internal safari right there in that room.
I had brought a tape of the two songs that I had recorded in Hollywood. As I listened along with him, I could hear all the flaws, and wished I could have done it better. The arranger had modulated the key higher several times at the end, and it had been a struggle for me. But I forgave myself as I had never attempted anything close to this before. Just having done it was immensely satisfying.
Certainly, the marriage was high on the agenda for our work this weekend, but, after making that recording, I knew I needed to address the real passion I had unearthed. I had never felt more alive than I had in that recording studio, headphones attached to my ears, transfixed by an orgasmically intense sound. The most stunning revelation of that weekend with Jim was how much it had mattered.
“Why did you bring me that tape?”
“I’m not sure. I’m afraid making it has been a catalyst for ending the relationship. It’s tied up, somehow.”
“How do you think those things go together?”
“The intensity I felt in that studio was the most soul-stirring I’ve felt in a long time.” I felt tears fill my eyes. “Maybe forever. I want that feeling in the marriage, that deep investment. If it was there at the start, it’s been gone a long time.”
Was it fair to compare one passion with another? Perhaps not, but the contrast was inescapable and I mucked around in it all weekend, edging closer to what I knew I had to do.
Shortly after returning home, I began to discuss with the soon-to-be ex that I wanted this to be over. I helped him find a place to live, gave him all the furniture, paid all his bills and then we were done – at least with the marital piece. We still had a son together who, later, at the age of 14 would cut off all contact with his father. But for the next few years, he had Aaron on weekends, while I took care of him during the school week.
At this point, I was teaching psychology courses full time at Portland State University, and also had a full-time private practice. I had hired an office manager who moonlighted as a singer in jazz clubs around the area. I went to see Sheila perform several times. She was very good. One night, I confessed that I had wanted to do what she was doing, but that life had made that option impractical. She started dragging me to local jazz clubs, making arrangements with the band to let me sit in.
It’s a sometimes demoralizing process, a privilege only sometimes bestowed by the performing jazz group. The wannabe singer must wait until the invitation is issued, which may not come at all. But after showing up over many late nights, I became known in several of the better jazz clubs, and developed a following. People would stop by late at night, hoping to see me sing. I wanted club owners to see the potential profitability and hire me for a real gig. It never really got off the ground, and I found the rejection devastating.
Looking back, I understand the reasons. At that time, nearing 40, I was more than a decade older than the professional singers. Loving to sing wasn’t the same as doing it well. Nor did I know how to begin to make it happen. After several years, I walked away with great sorrow and deep feelings of failure. It was a long time before I could even listen to music again. I thought that part of my life was gone.
Almost 15 years elapsed. I had closed down the practice, departed from Portland State University, and was ready to disinter those long, buried dreams. I had launched myself into acting, and when that started to go well, I reconsidered getting back into singing. My goal was not to perform, but to master the art. I didn’t have any technique, didn’t have a clue how to sing properly, and I wanted to learn – if only to check it off my list. I thought it would help my acting.
There were a few voice teachers listed by the Oregon Music Teachers Association, most specializing in opera. That would be the long way around for me. While I’d wanted to learn how to sing, opera wasn’t the repertoire with which I had any familiarity or comfort. There was more than training involved here. Truthfully, I wanted to feel those good feelings again.
I called Liz Chadwick, and we made an appointment to discuss lessons. She had asked me to bring music, so I selected three, thick fakebooks containing music by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart.
Her house was up a rise, just a block or so from the heavily forested Lewis and Clark College campus, in an upscale West Portland neighborhood. I felt my mouth go dry as I walked up the long driveway to the front door. I fervently hoped she wouldn’t ask me to sing any Wagnerian arias.
Liz opened the door slowly and stood on the threshold, unsmiling. She was shorter than I had imagined, and looked to be in her 40s. But it was her nearly transparent azure blue eyes that caught my attention.
“Hi. I’m Pam Munter. You’re Liz?”
“Yes.” She shook my outstretched hand. She continued to silently stand her ground, looking at me with suspicion. I tried a bigger smile.
“I’ve looked forward to meeting you,” I added.
With that, she invited me in. The contemporary house was nicely and sparingly furnished, with a grand piano nestled near the bay window facing the street. Had she watched me walking up the driveway?
I handed her the music books.
“These are songs with which I’m most familiar.”
“The Great American Songbook, huh?” For the first time, a warm smile crossed her face. She took them, moved to the piano and sat down. I placed myself in its crook.
“What would you like to sing?”
A flush came over my face. Surprisingly, I hadn’t thought of this possibility. Jump right in, huh?
“How about ‘Lady is a Tramp’?”
“In what key?”
Inside, I breathed a sigh. This I knew. I had often sung this tune when sitting in with strangers, as everyone seemed to know the standard chord progressions.
“In G, please.”
She seemed to fumble a little, reading over the lead sheet before deciding on a four-bar introduction. I launched in at the appropriate time and finished the tune without incident.
She looked up at me. Those eyes. “What is it you want to learn?”
I laughed. “Everything. I want to learn how to sing correctly. I used to perform – about a decade or so ago – but I don’t really want to return to that.”
Apparently, that was the right answer. For the next few months, we met weekly for an hour lesson. More than the lesson was happening, though. Liz liked to talk – about herself, current events, famous people, shopping trips, television shows and occasionally about singing. Over the course of our meetings, she told me she had studied at the Mannes School of Music in Manhattan and had performed frequently in cabaret shows, whatever that was. She was married, no children. Though piano study had been required at school, she admitted she wasn’t very good as an accompanist. She only seemed to assign easy-to-play ballads – “Long Ago and Far Away,” “I’m A Fool to Want You” and “If He Walked Into My Life” – all very emotionally evocative songs, full of longing and regret. I wasn’t sure if she expected me to perform them or just sing them. It wasn’t the same thing. I could merely sing the words in tune or I could perform the song with emotional interpretation.
There was something flirtatious – almost seductive – about Liz, which I kept trying to ignore. It was distracting, like static on the line when you’re trying to listen to something else. It was all nonverbal, hard to pin down but it made me a bit unsettled. That confusing overlay was in the back on my mind as I sang the often provocative lyrics, carefully avoiding eye contact. She was attractive to be sure, with her blonde hair carefully coiffed, makeup always perfectly done. Her now bubbly personality easily insinuated itself into our lessons. But I decided early the reason I was there, and if anything was going on for her, it wasn’t happening for me.
As I moved around the piano one afternoon, I saw a small sign she had printed and placed to her left, just out of sight of her student. It said, “Shut up and sing.” There was still a puzzling reluctance on my part to open my mouth and let it out. So when Liz postponed my singing with chit-chat, a part of me was relieved. She had warmed up considerably from that first meeting, talked easily and often about her own life and seemed interested in mine.
During one of our lessons, she mentioned that she had been working on a cabaret show, and would be doing a dry run at a friend’s condo in the warehouse district in downtown Portland. Did I want to come? Well, of course. I had not really heard her full-out sing, though she had mentioned she was a soprano. I was curious. I wanted to see what this genre called cabaret was all about.
The night of the show, I took the elevator up to the stylish condo and found two dozen people there, milling around. Liz stood in the center of the room, schmoozing with the crowd, soaking up the attention. Within minutes, the host announced the show was about to begin. I took my seat and fixed my eyes on the makeshift stage.
Within the first few notes of “Sing For Your Supper,” I could hear the training, the finesse and the professionalism. It was a pleasure to hear her wind her soaring voice around the Rodgers and Hart songs with which I was so familiar. Her hour-long show included patter (conversation with the audience) and maybe 15 songs. She wove in a few personal anecdotes as well, a quintessential ingredient in cabaret, I later discovered.
After the first few numbers, a strange, disquieting sensation came over me, as if someone had reached inside and lit the pilot light again, the one that had gone out so many years before. It made me vaguely uneasy, as if I knew there would be trouble ahead. As I listened and watched, I thought what fun it would be to create a show myself where I could select a theme and the songs to support it. Then I realized it could mean that I would get up on a stage and do it for an audience. In the middle of her “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” I heard a loud, intrusive voice inside my head, saying, “No, no, no. You’re just carried away with the theatricality. It’ll pass.”
At the next lesson, we discussed her show. She said she wanted to find a venue in which to perform for the general public, such as a hotel ballroom.
“Would you be interested in helping me do that?” I was flattered to be considered a trustworthy confidante and thought it an excellent diversion from the subversive thoughts I was harboring about performing again, myself.
“Of course. I’ll make some calls in the morning.”
“If it works out, I’d like to mount a series that would include other performers, too.”
Oh, no. I didn’t want any openings for these intrusive fantasies. She had no idea what she had set off here.
“Good idea. Do you have anyone in mind?”
She mentioned a couple of local singers. There would be no reason to include me in that list. No reason at all, I said to myself.
At some point, out of curiosity and maybe a bit more, I decided to go to New York, the home of the best of cabaret, so I could learn more. Liz had offered an excellent example of the genre, but were there other options?
Yes, there were, it turned out, but some of them worse than awful. One guy, in a sparsely attended show, shifted from his maleness to a female impersonation by reaching into the front of his pants and forcefully pushing his genitals to the back. Another performer tried to engage her audience by teaching them how to speak with a Brooklyn accent. I went to a glitzy show at the famous Rainbow and Stars room atop Rockefeller Center to hear a one-hit wonder, unmemorable, and even a bit boring. No candidates for the series yet, but I was learning what attracted New York audiences.
The last stop was the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, home of the famous literary Roundtable. As a student of theatrical history, it was a thrill to be in the room, though I hadn’t heard of the singer who would be doing her show that night. Susannah McCorkle, however, turned out to be the closest thing to perfection I had seen that week. She had studied with Antonio Carlos Jobim in Brazil, and did a show of mostly bossa nova tunes, some in Portuguese. She had a croaky, unaffected voice, as if she were singing in my living room. I loved it and her. Watching her, however, turned up that pilot light more than a little.
When I returned to Portland, I decided to write a show. At the next lesson, I confessed to Liz what I was about to do. Was it my imagination or did I see a look of impatience cross her face?
“I thought you said you didn’t want to perform again.”
I didn’t know if I was ready to commit. It seemed way too big a step.
“I don’t know if I do. But I think it would be fun and challenging to write a show.”
She nodded but seemed distrustful, scrunching up her brow. Surely, she wouldn’t see me as competition, would she?
“So how do I start?”
“Well, who has influenced your singing style the most?”
I thought it more than a little grandiose to refer to my singing style. I didn’t know I had one.
“I guess it would be Doris Day, Garland, Gorme. Certainly Sinatra.”
“Then write a show about him.”
Using the shows I had seen as models, I began constructing a show of my own. It didn’t take long to produce what I thought might work. Since most people knew Sinatra’s history, I emphasized his darker side – the missteps, disappointments and failures, selecting tunes he made famous while he struggled in his personal life. I handed the script to Liz for her suggestions but she didn’t make many. Still, I kept bringing her new versions, as I tried to figure out how to make this work.
In the interim, we found a downtown hotel that would host her show for three nights. She asked that I introduce her each night. It would be another learning experience, watching the changes and alterations in the same show over time. She had an easy manner with the audience that was engaging, employing that same seductiveness I had seen during my lessons.
We continued to discuss the possibility of the cabaret series. I hoped to bring Susannah McCorkle here for one of the slots. If she took one, Liz another, and a friend of Liz’s a third, there was still a fourth night open.
At the beginning of our lesson one Tuesday afternoon, Liz said, “Hang around for a few minutes after the lesson. I want to ask you something.” She smiled warmly, as if she had a surprise for me. All through the lesson, I wondered what awaited. Was I about to be invited to make my cabaret debut as a performer in that fourth slot? Maybe her lack of concrete suggestions meant she thought I had written a good show. I could hardly concentrate on the song I was singing. When our time was up, she led me to the two facing white sofas across the room and sat down.
“Sit,” she invited.
“I want to ask you something. It’s a favor, really.”
What a nice way to put it, I thought.
“Sure. What’s that?”
“I’m performing at a party next week. I wonder if I could borrow your electronic piano.”
There was a silence while this sank in. Then I laughed. My first image was a flashback to that poignant scene in “Sunset Blvd.” Norma Desmond, the aging silent screen diva, is being driven onto the Paramount lot, thinking her former director Cecil B. DeMille wants her for a new picture, a comeback. It turns out, however, he just wants to rent her vintage car for a film he’s shooting.
In my best Norma Desmond face-saving smile, I said, “Sure. It’s heavy, though. You’ll need a couple of strong people to move it.”
At that moment, I knew Liz was unlikely to be a collaborative partner in my own comeback, if that’s what this would be. I continued to work on the Sinatra show, modifying the patter, rethinking songs to create the arc.
And then, one Sunday morning, about 7:30, the phone rang. It was Liz.
“Steven died last night.”
“What?” Steven was her handsome and seemingly healthy husband.
“We had just had salmon for dinner. He walked down the hallway and dropped. I knew he was dead.”
“Oh, no. What a shock. I’m so sorry. Do you want me to come over?” It was awful, of course, but I was still flattered that apparently she thought I could be counted upon at this time.
“Maybe later but yes. I’d like someone strong around with some common sense.”
An unusual comment, I thought. But I did go over later, only to find about thirty people already there. It sounds cruel, but watching Liz holding court in the middle of the room made me think of her other performances. She was working the room, even while managing her grief.
Over the next months, I found a piano player, and started to work on the musical portion of the show. Larry Natwick was more bebop than Broadway, but an encouraging and proficient partner. Before long, I thought I might be ready to do this in front of people. Larry found the rest of a jazz trio, both excellent and heavily credentialed musicians. The bass player, Andre St. James, worked with Sonny Rollins and Bobby Hutcherson and the drummer, Donny Osborne, was with Mel Torme for over twenty years. We were all on the same musical page.
I rented the Old Church in SW Portland for one night, a huge, resonant building I hoped I could at least partly fill, then began the marketing. I even hired a videographer, as I wanted to be able to critique the performance. As I would discover, cabaret is a do-it-yourself project. It wouldn’t be until years later that I could hire someone to take care of all these business details.
The night of the show, I stood on the stage as the musicians and sound crew were setting up. As I looked out at the empty seats, I wondered if I could pull this off. I knew the show cold, both songs and patter, and had several rehearsals with the band. But performing again? Who was this person inside who kept pushing for this? What was it about? Not fame, not really. It felt like a test of my resilience, an ability to exercise these creative muscles again – only this time with more expertise. I had taken the time to learn how to sing, to study the form. Now if I could just get through the next couple of hours or so….
I had asked an actor friend to introduce me, and as I walked out on the stage to begin a comfortable and insouciant, “The Lady is a Tramp,” I saw a surprisingly good turnout, the room nearly full, with an audience that would prove to be enthusiastically responsive. It felt good to be up there, riding atop the wave of the music. To my relief, there were no obvious vocal clinkers, either. I had remembered the patter, even threw in a couple of unscripted asides. After closing with my encore, “Young at Heart,” I could hear the audience begin a roar, working themselves up into a standing ovation. Wow.
It is traditional for the cabaret performer to meet the audience afterwards, so I proceeded to the back of the enormous church. I felt relieved – to be done, to have done it at all, and to hear others say they enjoyed the show. As people filed out, I saw there was one couple left. It was Liz and her new boyfriend. I hadn’t known she was there.
“Pam, this is Gil.”
“Hi, Gil. Appreciate your being here.”
There was an awkward silence. What would she say? She had never seen me perform. We both knew what she should say.
“We enjoyed it. The audience certainly loved you.”
“Thanks.” Good enough. I could read the body language well enough, too. It must have been hard for her to be there. There had never been a real breach between us, but somehow my drive to perform – and having done it – created an unspoken gulf. We hadn’t spoken since Steven’s death, a few months earlier.
I watched the video, then sent it out to venues across the country. To my surprise, within weeks I was hired in three different cities to do the show. I had also been signed by an agent and was appearing on radio and TV in commercials, and doing a few independent films. Over the next couple of years, I recorded two CDs, the second at Capitol Records in Hollywood. My life had taken a completely unexpected turn.
Liz and I had lunch one last time, at the trendy Stanford’s in Lake Oswego, a few miles from her house. As we eased ourselves into the red leather booth, I thanked her for her help in teaching me how to sing, and shared some of my recent success with her. During our lunch, I got two calls on my cell – one from my publicist in New York to discuss marketing, another from a club owner in New York, setting up another gig.
“I’m sorry about the interruptions. They’re on New York time and if I waited until after our lunch, they’d be gone for the day. I had hoped the business could have been done before we met.”
“I understand,” she said as she reached for her coffee. I could see without much difficulty that her envy and resentment were spilling over, and that what remained of the friendship had dissolved with my success. It was the last time I saw her.
As I think of her now, I feel a deep gratitude for her teaching and for introducing me to the pain and pleasure of cabaret performing. There was so much we didn’t say to each other. There was a complicated person inside both of us, but when we could meet on the same level, it was productive and even fun.
Without her help and her teaching, my life would have been a lot less rich. More than this, she gave me my creative life back, opening avenues I never thought I’d traverse. She brought me back to life, giving me the oxygen I needed to resuscitate my moribund creativity, even though it was likely among the last things she had intended to happen.
Enjoy more of Pam’s work on her website, pammunter.com.