All her life she’s had red hair and a voice “bigger than God.” Though she started out studying opera, Amy Coleman now uses her resonant instrument to galvanize the room with gospel; shout out rock, backed by her namesake band; whisper her own gritty songs. “Flamin’ Amy” has survived as a singer/bandleader/vocal coach in New York City for 30 years. Her life has been as quirky—as hang-on-by-your-fingernails precarious—as you’d expect. Here, to inaugurate WVFC’s series “Days of Their Lives”—profiles of accomplished women with unusual jobs—is a peek into the everyday world of a chanteuse. —Ed.
It all began with my mercurial mother and Billie Holiday. Courtesy of the beat-up record player in our living room, my mother listened perpetually to Holiday’s lush, textured vocals. On the wings of the great singer’s voice Mom seemed transported to a peaceful place where the roar of her crumbling marriage and four rambunctious redheaded children was momentarily muted. In my child’s mind I believed that if Holiday’s voice could mellow my mother’s roller-coaster moods, maybe mine could too.
So began my odyssey into the life of a chanteuse. I envisioned grand adventures; exotic places; creating transcendence with my singing, as Billie had for my mother. I wanted the whole package—the applause, the glamour, the adventures, and, oh yes, the artistic fulfillment . . .
At 15 I finally began voice lessons—with maestro Julio Berocal, in the grand old Ansonia Hotel. From the very start I had a huge voice, but I’d often get hoarse, and I couldn’t reach high notes. Slowly and patiently the maestro guided me through my stubborn vocal break until my voice could move fluidly from low notes to high.
After much consideration, the maestro decided that my voice had the potential to handle both the contralto and the mezzo soprano repertoire. If I worked really hard, he proclaimed, I could potentially be a professional opera singer. But my heart was in rock and roll and the blues, and I never pursued opera after I stopped taking lessons from the maestro. Still, the technique he gave me has gotten me through wailing many a Janis Joplin tune in many a boisterous blues bar.
Amy now—covering John Lennon’s “Mother.”
Living one’s dream ain’t always so glamorous. I’ve played every rundown blues dive from here to Buffalo, traveling in a broken-down van that had to be towed to more gigs then it got to on its own accord. I’ve performed for drunks who’ve shouted lurid obscenities requesting me to show certain of my body parts. I’ve slept in flea-bitten motels and had nasty breakups with bandmates.
The worst split was with Sweet Potata, an all-woman band I helped spearhead in the mid 1990s. We were talented women with the musical chops to rival any guys strutting their stuff in the male-dominated blues world. At first it was fabulous.
Amy leading Sweet Potata, back in the day.
Unfortunately, my high ideals for the band ended in a competitive mire, all of us vying for the leadership position, jealousy spreading like wildfire. And so, in 1998—after four years together, traveling throughout the East Coast and Austria—we split up.
Still, in many ways I’ve had the life I envisioned.
I’ve sung the blues all over Europe, and performed for archbishops and other church dignitaries in glorious Italian cathedrals. (See “A Good Day in the Life of a Chanteuse,” posted today.)
I’ve shared the stage with Peter Frampton, Phoebe Snow, Billy Joel, Kathleen Turner, Richie Havens.
And I’ve had fun. I’ve had the wild, unconventional life I was looking for. Who knew I’d be invited to tour Europe with the Hot Peaches, a satirical political transvestite troupe, all of us traveling everywhere in feathers and red satin heels? (I do have a low voice, and I can camp it up with the best them. I even let the late, fabulous International Chrysis—an incredibly beautiful downtown drag queen who’d once been lovers with Salvador Dali—shave my eyebrows and paint on Joan Crawford–style brows instead.)
Through my triumphs, trials, and tribulations I’ve taken on all kinds of jobs to keep eating—ice-cream vendor, busboy, telemarketer—all the while writing songs, rehearsing with bandmates, auditioning, doing theater, touring.
Folks from all walks of life have been my voice and performance students. Guiding them toward releasing the songs in their souls—well, that’s gratifying beyond words. There is, for instance, the gusto-charged Flamin’ Amys—great gals of a certain age who, for years, have been meeting once a month to belt (or croon) their favorite songs: gospel, doo-wop, ballads, Beatles, Broadway. It’s an enormous rush, leading this eclectic group of women who persistently get together to sing just for the love of it.
Has this whirlwind existence been worth it? Yes—but not just for the occasional triumph and the yearned-for dose of glamour.
It’s the unplanned, off-the-beaten-track experiences that have given this road the greatest meaning.
- I’ve shared the healing power of music. Two years ago I began working with a distinguished doctor, Vinny, a burly gentleman in his 90s who’d had an illustrious career as a cancer researcher. Recently felled by a stroke, he was deeply depressed. I’d go to his apartment on the Upper East Side once a week, and we’d sit around singing songs by Gilbert & Sullivan, his favorite composers. After our first session, his wife remarked that these days, only singing could get him to smile. At the end of each hour Vinny would—seemingly hesitantly—mention “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” He’d pretend he could no longer remember the song; then, after I did the coaxing he expected, he’d serenade me rousingly, with grand hand gestures, a thick Irish accent, and a glint in his eye. Music was the only thing that brought him joy—and it did so, every week.
- Another awesome experience was working at a special-needs school in Staten Island. After traveling by bus, subway, and ferry, I’d arrive in a mass-transit stupor. But I’d get revitalized as soon as I laid eyes on the kids. These children had all been diagnosed with severe learning disabilities ranging from autism to bipolarism. At first they were either rowdy (throwing tantrums and chairs) or dazed and falling asleep. I’d start my classes with voice and acting exercises, teaching them how to breathe from the belly like professionals. Then as I led them in improvisatory skits, I’d ask them to create scenarios taken from their own life experiences. After some weeks the kids willingly began engaging in the activities, many of them revealing extraordinary imaginations. They even began sharing feelings that up until then, I guessed, they’d kept hidden to themselves.
- And then—the most unexpected gig of all—five years ago, my husband, David Mandelbaum, and I co-founded the New Yiddish Rep, a theater company dedicated to producing plays in Yiddish. This was a stretch for me. I don’t even speak Yiddish; I come from assimilated Jewish parents. My husband, though—hell-bent on keeping the language and culture of our forefathers alive—has converted me to the cause.
Since the company formed, we’ve truly been wandering Jews. We have no financial resources to acquire a permanent home for our theater. Yet time and again, when we least expect it, someone miraculously donates space to us. The Orthodox shul in the East Village. Four floors in the Workman’s Circle’s building. Then, just after the building was sold, another generous offer came along. A friend of a friend loaned us huge storefront in Chelsea. We produced concerts, workshops, and classes.
As of this writing we have not yet found another New York City base. But we did find a farm in Liberty, New York. My husband and I were asked to run a sort of halfway house on its premises for young, schizophrenic Hasidic men. To tell the truth, I was a bit scared of the whole deal. But getting to know and work with these gentlemen has proved to be an extraordinarily rewarding experience. And I’ve found I love being in the country. I’ve started a vegetable garden, and commune regularly with a cacophony of animals residing on the premises: turkeys, ducks, chickens, a donkey, goats, and a sweet-natured pit bull named Dusty.
Who would have thought it—an assimilated Jewish girl from Brooklyn whose only ambition was to live the glittery life of a singer, finding joy amongst animals, vegetables, and mentally ill Hasidim?
Well, it’s certainly been an adventure.