Throughout my life, I have been blessed with jobs that required a lot of travel. Soon after I graduated from the University of Utah, I was a b-list touring musician regularly working with “classics” groups like the Drifters/Coasters/Platters (always on the same bill), the Classics IV, the Marvelettes, and even Herman’s Hermits, once, in Hong Kong, entirely coincidentally (as things tend to happen in Hong Kong, for better or worse).
Now, you have to understand that at this time—somewhere in the 90s, I guess—there were no longer any original members in groups like the Coasters/Drifters/Platters. Sometimes, there was a loosely associated cousin or something singing tenor, but usually, the tribute acts were comprised of talented musicians who could faithfully recreate not just the songs, but the dance moves and the whole vibe of the acts they were memorializing. Watching them effortlessly interact with the audience was a master class in performance.
To maximize revenues, the agency that owned the act’s names had several versions of each group working around the country. The agency also contracted bands to cover different regions of the U.S. The band I was in played all over the Southeast Coast, from Florida, up to Tennessee and over to Louisiana. Occasionally, we would have to fly elsewhere, and we were the only band that traveled internationally for these shows. Otherwise, there were bands for the Northeast, Midwest, and so on. It wasn’t unusual to play with a set of Coasters one night in Memphis, and a couple nights later, perform the exact same show with a different group of Coasters in Shreveport (these acts did a lot of work on the casino circuit).
I know it all sounds kind of cheesy, but I never considered these acts schlock. Believe me, I worked with plenty of cheeseballs, too, because, rent. But, in the case of the big headliner acts from the 50s and 60s, even the tribute artists I was working with were highly accomplished pros (in fact, some of them were much better musicians than the original artists). From them, I learned invaluable information about both the art and business of making a living as a musician.
When you work as a musician in a backup band, you spend ridiculous amounts of time with all the acts you’re accompanying. There are rehearsals before the gig—even if you’ve worked together before. Everyone has to check sound levels, arrangements, and work through the inevitable gremlins that do things like steal pages of music or short-circuit speakers. The rehearsal sometimes lasts a few hours (depending on the number of acts and grumpsters in the room).
What’s essental about rehearsal time is that you’re connecting to each other musically, either through the music itself or through the lingo of musicians. Music is its own form of spiritual esoterica, really, with its talk of signs and codas, everything notated in an ancient language of dots and lines that must be learned and practiced. As with any language, the ability to speak and read music fluently leads to meaningful connections on a very spiritual level. The language of music eclipses the follies of humanity because from Fort Myers to Hong Kong, music is music.
After speaking musically for a few hours, everyone hangs out in the green room—sometimes for a few more hours, noshing on deli trays and, to pass the time, sharing stories about their lives. Then, we’d play the gig, go back to the hotel, freshen up, and all go out to eat somewhere and tell more stories.
It is one of the highlights of my life to have had the privilege to sit in those rooms and restaurants across America, listening to the artists I was working with—most of them African American—talk about working as a musician and living as a black American, both in decades past and in the not-that-different present.
The members of the Coasters/Drifters/Platters were part of a culture that knew first-hand what it was like to be forced to sit at a different lunch counter, or use a separate bathroom, or not be allowed to see the very acts they were now portraying, just because their skin was a different color.
One of those nights it finally occurred to me that here I was, a youngish, privileged, college-educated white kid, who had never wanted for anything, creating music with these supremely talented artists and fellow human beings who, for a large part of their lives, and all of their parents and grandparents lives, had been treated as less than human. All these creative voices had been silenced as if someone pushed a giant “mute” button on an entire culture. Which, of course, is precisely what continues to happen to the voices of people of color in America.
I still thank God for the opportunity to sit, listen, learn, and create music with such amazing individuals, and for their grace, wisdom, and willingness to share their culture, the stories of their lives, and their music with me. I don’t pretend to have any idea what it’s like to live in a world where you have to look over your shoulder all the time. But all those years and shared stories have affected my worldview and my faith profoundly.
I think that because I’ve met a lot of interesting people around the world, I believe in an all-inclusive God of love that doesn’t care what religion anyone is. I’ve learned that if there is ever to be harmony on the planet, we all need to learn how to play our part while also leaving space for everyone else’s.
On stage with other performers, there is an unspoken conversation going on that keeps everyone in sync, in tune, punctuating the right beats. Making music is an intimate give and take that requires constantly paying attention not only to what you’re playing but also—and more importantly—listening to what everyone else is doing so you can fit in the groove without taking away from theirs.
Music is about every musician finding their perfect space in the song, matching the rhythm and tone of the group, yet also making it something new, moving it forward. Making music transcends language, ignores skin color, and gives everyone space to speak their truth. Every voice adds a new dimension to the composition. When those voices groove in sync, it’s nothing short of a transcendent, mystical experience.
This concept of everyone finding their space regardless of any human attribute is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Paul describes the idea beautifully in 1 Corinthians 12.12-18:
1 Corinthians 12.12-18 (CEV)
12 The body of Christ has many different parts, just as any other body does. 13 Some of us are Jews, and others are Gentiles. Some of us are slaves, and others are free. But God’s Spirit baptized each of us and made us part of the body of Christ. Now we each drink from that same Spirit.
14 Our bodies don’t have just one part. They have many parts. 15 Suppose a foot says, “I’m not a hand, and so I’m not part of the body.” Wouldn’t the foot still belong to the body? 16 Or suppose an ear says, “I’m not an eye, and so I’m not part of the body.” Wouldn’t the ear still belong to the body? 17 If our bodies were only an eye, we couldn’t hear a thing. And if they were only an ear, we couldn’t smell a thing. 18 But God has put all parts of our body together in the way that he decided is best.
“God’s Spirit baptized each of us and made us part of the body of Christ.” Paul understands that Jesus’ ultimate goal is to create a universal community in God’s love. I don’t think either Jesus or Paul ever meant for that idea to imply a single world religion. Instead, Jesus’ vision is like my experience on the road with the Coasters/Drifters/Platters. We listen to each other’s stories, share our experiences, and find our space in the music by making space for other voices.
And listen to how foolish Paul says it is to discard and disrespect anysegment of society: it’s like cutting off our own foot! Relegating people of color to second-, third-, fourth-class status; insisting there is something “wrong” with an LGBTQ brother or sister—Paul makes it clear that demeaning anyone, is like cutting off our own hands and feet.
People of faith cannot say on the one hand, “I love God and I follow Jesus (or Mohammed, or Moses, etc.)” and then on the other say, “But since you’re Hispanic, or gay, or liberal, or conservative, or whatever is not exactly like me, you don’t get to be a citizen or get healthcare or get to eat at the lunch counter next to me, or ride anywhere you like on the bus.” Chopping each other up into little pieces, which is what happens all day long on almost every news station I tune into, is patently not what Jesus wanted to create. We must start learning how to perceive every human on the planet as one of God’s perfectly placed musicians.
We don’t need to change anyone. We don’t need to save people. We just need to love everyone as equal parts of the body of God, learning how to speak to each other in a new, more musical language. Yes, like all musicians, we’ll make mistakes now and then. But when that happens, we’ll learn how to work together on the more difficult sections of our communal composition, until all our voices are harmonically aligned.
Then, once we start tuning into each other, making space for God’s great diversity, hopefully, once and for all, we’ll start playing that cosmic love song of humanity that makes God weep entirely new universes.