The young 8th grade student rose from his seat and walked to the front of the classroom. Towering at least one foot taller than all of his classmates, he found himself in the most awkward situation.
He really didn’t understand exactly why his teacher felt that extra credit in Mathematics could be obtained by public singing, but he was willing to take the stage. His choice: White Christmas.
To his great surprise, his class gave him a standing ovation. He had never experienced being a soloist before. Louis Nabors was destined for a musical journey the likes of which he could have never possibly conceived.
As a college freshman on trombone scholarship, Louis’ singing voice once again upstaged the other plans of his life when people began to take note of his performance in an elective choir class. By that time, the 6’9” basso profondo had become acutely aware of his God-given instrument and others couldn’t help but take notice also. The music faculty at Southern University and A&M College marveled at his undiscovered talent.
Louis went on to become a revered vocal instructor throughout the world, and I had the privilege of coming to his studio at the age of 19. To his students he was simply known as Mr. Nabors.
A formidable man in stature with a resonant speaking voice, his commanding presence bordered on intimidating. Should one come to class unrehearsed, he was determined not to be the only one who would suffer through a lesson.
He coined expressions such as, “You have a Mercedes-Benz voice, but a moped brain.” I called them insults with a purpose. He rarely handed out compliments. They certainly weren’t free. He challenged young students to work hard for greatness, letting them know that no one is going to bestow it—it must be earned. It wasn’t until I was in my 40’s that I realized he was speaking of much more than vocal performance.
I have been Mr. Nabors’ student on and off for over 20 years. It was ironic that someone with the deepest kind of human voice could craft and mold a soprano voice like mine, but he did. His upper octave representations of a prima donna always cracked me up, but I didn’t laugh. Oh no. That would have been trouble. I just batted my eyes as he had done and hit those notes just as he told me to…or at least tried to accomplish his objectives.
We conversed as adults unlike the conversations we had back when I was in college. Every voice lesson had at least a few minutes of politics and religion between measures and always ended up with a big hug and a see you next time.
In July of 2013, the historic halls of Italy’s Amalfi Coast Music & Arts Festival witnessed the last performance of Louis Nabors. Having suddenly been inflicted with an illness on July 18, the 69- year old thundering bass would be silenced forever, leaving behind an imprint on his greatest masterpiece–scores of students.
It was only fitting that his long time friend Barbara Hill-Moore, Distinguished Professor of Voice at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts, would be at his bedside on his journey from this life.
She had been his Bess and he had been her Porgy for over 30 years. When she took the podium to speak at Mr. Nabors’ funeral, I saw a living breathing Aida. Mocha skin, beautiful hair, and a kind voice, her testimony of their deep platonic friendship drew tears then hushed them when she recalled how the Europeans called Mr. Nabors The Gigante as he walked through the streets. The laughter was needed.
When a final duet of love began with Bess, You Is My Woman Now it was a great moment, but I was tickled thinking of how Mr. Nabors wasn’t fond of being cast into stereotypical black roles that left him singing Ol’ Man River. He always wanted to be identified with more “serious singing” as he would say and, rightly so, for he spoke a more proper English than most, always pronouncing ALL the consonants in words like artist.
Mr. Nabors leaves behind a legacy that anyone would be proud to have achieved. My final conversation with him occurred when he overheard me in a practice room as I worked through a beautiful aria he had recently assigned, Chi il bel sogno di Doretta from the Puccini opera La Rondine. As I hung out on a few high notes, I saw The Gigante’s chest in the high window of the closed door. Breathless, I stopped. The door opened. Real divas never sweat, but my guts jumped up and hid behind my uvula.
Mrs. Chambless. I thought I heard that voice. I just want you to know that I have sung all over this world from Germany to Italy and throughout the United States, but I have yet to hear a voice prettier than yours.
Then the door closed and The Gigante walked away. Stunned, I pretended to resume practicing, but really didn’t, for fear he would catch me basking in his approval.
So on a recent Saturday, hundreds of his students and mourners from the greater music community honored The Gigante with a tribute worthy of the man. His coffin, Italian wood and custom-built to accommodate a giant, was hand-carved with an image of The Vatican and Pope Francis, though his funeral was classical and black Gospel all the way!
I watched the royal blue hearse carry The Gigante from the spot where I first met him when I was only 19, just yards from his music studio. I thought to myself…Goodbye, old friend. From Gershwin to Puccini, whenever I sing, you will always be the voice inside my head. You did the best you could with a “stressed out white yuppie” like me.
Read Brandi’s column each month in The Cross Timbers Gazette newspaper. Follow Brandi on Twitter @BrandiChambless