Debra Byrd: Singer & Vocal Coach

Debra Byrd is known in some circles for her work as the vocal coach on American Idol. In other circles, she is known for her duets with Barry Manilow. Still among Bob Dylan fans, she is known for her duets with Bob Dylan.

So who is Debra Byrd? Well, in her own words:

At heart, I believe I’m creative, a creative being, a blessed being. I’m just a person who loves life and who loves to work with singers. 

Ladies and gentlemen, by special request it is our pleasure to welcome our guest, Debra Byrd.

Thank you very much, Paul Leslie. You have put a huge smile on my face. It is an honor to be interviewed by you.

What was it like growing up?

I come from a nurturing and loving family, and my grandfather made everyone sing, period. Everyone that was just – it didn’t matter, cousins, distant cousins. He was filled with life, a musician, an arranger, a wonderful singer. Consequently, everyone had to sing and I didn’t know that people came from families who couldn’t sing. I just knew that everyone around me, I grew up knowing that everyone around me could sing to some degree, to some capacity. And really wonderful, nurturing people – absolute music and love. And my grandmother was an extraordinary woman. Just wonderful people. My grandfather was a talented arranger and a voice, a big booming voice that had cut like a laser to cut through any kind of group setting. And I grew up, you know, it’s like – you know, what was it? You know, those families that you see on TV. Not The Partridge, older than that. Oh, it’s leaving me and it’s driving me crazy. But it was a family sing-along, And going to church, a faith-based family. Strong connection. Strong God connection. And, uh, I had – I feel honored and I was very supported in my growing-up years so that’s the kind of family I grew up in.

And what kind of music did you listen to growing up? Did you have favorite singers and favorite bands?

Well, my family listened to opera and gospel and Ray Charles and Etta James (laughs).  I mean, that’s a very eclectic mix of music. And my mom – I remember when my mom took me to the opera and she made me go to the library and take the libretto and learn what it was. And that was as a kid, so yeah, I listened to all kinds of music at home.

What did your experiences on Broadway teach you?

My experiences on Broadway taught me how to take care of my physical body as a performer. That was huge because to pop out those eight shows a week, there’s an extraordinary discipline that comes along with it, and that means learning how to make sure that you’re in peak condition, peak performance condition, for eight shows a week. And that’s a grueling schedule, even when you’re young, as a teenager. That’s quite a grueling schedule. I learned how to really pay attention to what affected my body and I think that’s what got me on the road to learning about vocal health because I had an amazing voice teacher in Cleveland, Ohio named Gladys Tift. From her teaching me how to sing, and she taught me– I was trying to go to the Met. I was trying to be an opera singer and I sing in five languages. And I got a chance to use all of that energy when I was singing on Broadway. But the audition of Broadway taught me how to take care of my physical body, #1, and #2, what they taught me – the art of auditioning. And it is anart. And people become very scared of auditioning. They don’t know how to audition because there aren’t a lot of people – there’s not a lot of information on how to do it unless you’re inside it. And that’s why my DVD called Welcome to Star School is about auditioning – how to get a job. And no matter what the medium is, whether it’s the Broadway medium, television medium, getting a record deal – how to present yourself. That’s what being on Broadway taught me is that you definitely have to pay attention to how you get the job. And it taught me stamina (laughs). That’s the other thing. That’s the third thing. It taught me stamina and the responsibility of putting in eight shows a week.

You also studied opera. What skill did that give you?

I love it. I’ve got a huge smile on my face. Studying opera gave me an accuracy as a vocalist. It gave me vocal dexterity. It taught me how to place my voice with different tonal qualities. And it taught me fearlessness, a fearlessness that comes with confidence and knowing that I can meet whatever task is put before me in any genre of music. And that’s what opera gave me. Isn’t that something?

Indeed it is. And you have this DVD. You mentioned earlier that you’re fascinated by voices. What is it about voices in particular?

I think what fascinates me is listening to tonal qualities. Even hearing the sound of a baby, a baby’s laugh, I can’t help but smile. That’s one of the things. And the other thing is how people use their voices. How people – some people speak and they don’t even breathe. There’s a, I’m noticing a generation of people now on television and they speak (speaks in low monotone) and they don’t breathe until their voice gets into this space and they run out of air and they keep talking and they think it’s OK to keep talking. And they’ve got this – I keep wanting to say ‘Take a breath! Please, take a breath!’(Laughter) it’s quite fascinating to me when I listen to a voice. And especially when I’m hearing singers. I always get this thing, ‘Oh, I can fix that.’ Or ‘that’s fixable.’ Or ‘Boy, if I told them two sentences that would go away or that could be made better.’ I’m kind of attuned to voices that way. And I learned that from making records. Broadway – now, I can compartmentalize everything. Broadway taught me one thing. Opera taught me one thing. Making records taught me another thing of how to play, how to play with tonal qualities in your own voice and listen back and go “oh!’ – you didn’t even know that that was there. Just quickly – when Barry Manilow hired me when I was a teenager, he asked me to do a sound-alike and I didn’t even know I could do a sound-alike. So I have to, honestly, give him credit for hearing in my voice something that I didn’t hear. And that’s what made me explore other tonal qualities. He had me do a sound-alike like Gladys Knight. I didn’t even know I had that. And, consequently, I tuned into the nuances of Gladys Knight’s voice. Then I was able to go ‘Oh, yeah. That is in my voice.’ He also had me do a sound-alike for Diana Ross and he heard those aspects, and I paid attention, and I was able to do that. So that got me on the road to doing voice-overs and creating other characters and really paying attention. So I have to give Barry Manilow credit for that.

You’ve made several recordings with Barry Manilow. In my humble opinion, I just love the duet of Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree that appeared on the Singing with the Big Bands album.

(Laughs) Thank you! I’m glad you liked it. And I was very surprised because I was sitting on an airplane and I was on the – oh, United Airlines – you know how they have the artists on there? And there I was! I said ‘Gee, I’ve hit the big time!’ It was quite fascinating and thrilling for me. So, good and thank you. I appreciate you acknowledging that song and the work.

How did you meet Mr. Manilow, and can you remember doing that particular session?

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was on– I had just moved to New York and I was auditioning constantly. Constantly answering ‘cattle calls’. At the time there was Backstage magazine. It came out every Thursday and I religiously went to the newsstand to pick up my, um, Backstage magazine every Thursday. Now you can go to Backstage.com. But I answered an ad in the newspaper that said ‘Manilow needs girl’. And I walked into the audition and I remember I was #174 on the page, and I signed in. The ad said ‘Must sing well, singer who moves well and sings rock and roll’. So that’s what the ad said and I answered it and in answering that ad I had just done a song with a producer that I realized that Gloria Gaynor later recorded. I did the song with a producer and I used it as the audition and I was asked to stay back. The first time, I was asked to hang back so that he could put two other singers with me. And it wasn’t Barry Manilow. It was someone else who was rehearsing me, who was auditioning me. And there was, of course, the audition table. And I waited around and I was called back in. I was put with two other ladies and this tall guy stood next to me and he said ‘Do you read music?’ I said ‘Yes.’ He said ‘What part do you sing?’ I said “I sing anything.’ And he said ‘Sing the top part.’ And he assigned the other two ladies their part, the harmony. And I sight-read it and I sang it. And he said ‘OK’. He kept me, brought two other people and I had to sing the middle part. Then I had to sing the bottom parts. And he said ‘You do OK.’ And I said ‘Oh, thank you very much.’ I didn’t know who this guy was but, in hindsight, I know it was Barry Manilow. And he kept me and I had to keep singing some more songs and then he said ‘Ok’ and he said ‘Thank you very much.’ And I turned to him and I said ‘Did you write this stuff?’ He said ‘Yeah.’ I said ‘You write good shit’ (laughs). ‘Thank you very much.’ Famous last words, right? (laughs). A few days later, I received a phone call. I thought it was another audition and I was told to be at 250 West 57th Street in New York at 2 o’clock. And I showed up, and I thought it was another audition and I didn’t know it, but I got a job. And I said ‘Why am I here? I don’t know why I’m here. Who am I singing for?’ And I was told ‘You’re not singing for anybody. You have a job.’ I said ‘With whom?’ And he said ‘Nobody told you?’ And I said ‘No. No one told me’ It was Barry’s manager at the time and he said ‘You are going on tour. You’re here because you’re going on tour with Barry Manilow for four weeks.’ I said ‘I didn’t know that.’ So that’s how all that fun started. (Laughs) That’s the short version of it. I’m very grateful and very blessed to say that I am still a part of Barry Manilow’s musical family. And his career has endured, and I have learned so very much. Our exchange has been huge. And on my website, at debrabyrd.com, he has written a wonderful paragraph about me, so I am very honored that he has graced my website with a lovely paragraph of things that I gave him.

You’ve also recorded with the legendary Bob Dylan. What was he like to work with?

It was such a joy working with Bob Dylan. And my description of him? My description of Bob Dylan is that he’s just one of God’s different creatures. He’s so extraordinary. The way he looks at the world and the way he can put pen to paper is so visual. And the way his heart speaks, it’s really extraordinary. And that’s why he is, you know, the poet of our generation. You know he’s been called that or something near to that. It’s really quite extraordinary and I was quite honored to work with Bob Dylan, to tour with him and to – he used me as his music librarian at one point. I’m on movies of his and it was an extraordinary experience working with Dylan and doing duets with him.

What other artists have you dueted with, and who has been the most enjoyable?

You know, I was really, really wracking my brain – what other artists have I dueted with? I sing with the contestants on (American) Idol, who have been on Idol a lot. I can arbitrarily say I’ve dueted at rehearsal with them – with Carrie Underwood on Alone and with Kelly Clarkson on another song and Fantasia on another song and, you know, Adam Lambert with some pieces here and there. But I’ve also – I could also arbitrarily say that I have dueted when the celebrities come on the show. And I’m so thrilled to help one of the contestants work with a celebrity, whether it’s Baby Face or whether it’s Michael McDonald, or whether it’s Joe Cocker, or whether it’s the lead singer from Judas Priest. I mean, it’s so thrilling to be in the energy and to sing along with. So, I can say that “behind the scenes” (laughs) I have dueted with people, but I haven’t recorded with other than Barry Manilow and Bob Dylan.

How did you get into vocal coaching?

You know, it’s the oddest thing. When I was performing on Broadway, Paul, I got a reputation, as a session singer and doing shows on Broadway, from people having vocal fatigue, and I got this reputation where people go ‘Oh, my voice is tired.’ And if I was in a show with them, I would go ‘You know what? If you did A, B, C, D and E then that would correct that.’ And they’d go ‘Oh, OK.’ And I said ‘I want feedback. Go do it and let me know how it works out.’ And I would always get positive feedback. That’s because I had a great voice teacher. And I would be that way in the recording studio and I got this reputation. And people would come to me “Byrd, can I hang out with you for 20 minutes? I have a vocal problem.’ And I would go ‘Sure. Let me see what I can fix’ And they would give me feedback and they would say ‘That thing you did, the thing you had me do, whatever that was, you fixed my problem.’ That’s how it started and I attribute that all to my great voice teacher – because I’ve only had one – and that’s Gladys Tift in Cleveland, Ohio. That’s how it really got started and it was by reputation. It’s quite extraordinary.

Who are the best singers?

Well, see, that’s – you and I could be on this interview forever if I gave you a ‘best singers’ list because there are so many, so many wonderful singers. But – and every time I do this, I always feel like I’m leaving someone out – but this is going back to tonal quality and sensibility and phrasing. Pavarotti always makes my heart skip. He just does. But so does Steven Tyler and so does Rosemary Clooney (laughs), you know? And I have to add on to that Gladys Knight, Minnie Riperton, James Brown, Kim Burrell, Michael McDonald, Kelly Clarkson. Aretha Franklin spawned a generation of women who sing like Aretha. Stevie Wonder has spawned a generation of men who sing like Stevie Wonder. Lena Horne said in an interview she wished she could sing like Aretha Franklin. I mean, the list is incredible, incredibly long. I mean, Freddie Mercury. There’s so many. Roger Daltry. I could go on and on and on. They’re fascinating – entertainers with incredible instruments, and that’s why we love them. That’s why they’re iconic. That’s why people revere them for years and years. Sinatra. Tony Bennett. Can we talk about Tony Bennett at his age now? (Laughter) I could go on and on and on. It’s fascinating and I don’t want to leave out people but I know I’m leaving people out. But what I’ve mentioned are a wide range of people. Yolanda Adams, Donny McClurkin, Sting. You better change the subject because I’ll keep going on and on and on. I get diarrhea of the mouth when I talk about singers (laughs).

What is the best thing about being Debra Byrd?

(Laughs) Wow! What is the best thing about being Debra Byrd? I think the best thing about being Debra Byrd, from a singer’s aspect, is the fact that I am trusted. People entrust their vocal abilities to me and they trust my information. I think that’s the best thing. I’m very humbled and honored by it, and I feel the love and the honor and the respect. And there’s a joy I receive from just people trusting me. And I think another best thing about me is because I encourage so many people and that I see the seed that I have planted and I see the fruit that comes from the seed that I have planted. I think that’s – my heart is happy that I can be of service in that way. And I guess I would call that being blessed beyond my imagination. I think that’s what I’d have to say. That the best part about being Debra Byrd is being blessed beyond my own imagination.

Well, my last question. You have a lot of fans out there. Wherever someone is in the world, what would you like to say to them?

Oh, boy. Now see, that’s another thing I could go – I do seminars. I do seminars around the United States, and I am an Artist in Residence at Berkley College of Music, and universities have me come and speak totheir students. And I love doing it. So I give lessons by Skype. I have students in France. I have – I just helped a young lady on a Chinese competition show, singing in Chinese. I mean, just thrilling things. Working with singers is so thrilling to me. On a spiritual note and on a life note, I would want to say to your listeners to be true to yourself. Be true to yourself. Be respectful of others. Always say thank you. Have an open heart. Don’t let the world grind you down. Always have a Plan B. And lastly, keep you hand in God’s hand. That’s what I would like to say to the world.

Very beautifully said.

Thank you. Thank you very, very much.

Thank you. It has been a pleasure. It’s always nice to speak with people who are so passionate and also, may I add, to speak to people who have as pleasant a speaking voice as they do a singing voice.

Thank you. Thank you very, very much. I’m all about everything vocal. And you’re right, you used the right word. It is a passion of mine. I have a great passion for it. I guess that’s my grace. That’s the grace I put on my life is that I’m so passionate about it and everyone I work with, no matter what age or what style. So I thank you. ‘Friend’ me on Facebook. I’m there and my Twitter account is byrdstarschool.

Thank you so much. It’s been a great pleasure to talk to you.
It’s a pleasure doing an interview with you, Paul Leslie. Thank you!

TRANSCRIBED BY GAYLE BRAZDA

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