Arts in Lockdown #23: Sharon Hendrix
Sharon Hendrix is an icon. As a black American female singer working in a predominately white-male, music industry since 1978, her vocals, dance routines, stellar stage outfits, nonstop smile, professionalism and business savvy grace the world’s top performing arts venues. She’s played the London O2 Arena, Broadway Theatre, Las Vegas, and Europe, numerous TV specials and has appeared in commercials.
During lockdown, she has performed for the Santa Barbara Unity Church, most recently for the Valentine’s Day concert, and for the St. Charles Borromeo Holy Family December Telethon for the homeless. She has three hit singles topping Spotify charts, and has been doing international session work. Sharon and daughter Jade raised funds for the Thomas Fire/Mudslides [MJ March 2018].
Born in San Francisco, she was singing at age two in church. Her family moved to Ventura County when she was nine. Sharon began her professional career at 17 with the Young Americans Association Choir, and has toured with Barry Manilow, Tom Jones, Bob Dylan, Elton John, and Billy Preston, backed by world-famous orchestras such as the BBC. Her genres span pop, progressive rock, blues, jazz, classical, and fusion. Her top records include a duet with Barry Manilow, “Ain’t Nothin Like the Real Thing,” on his Manilow LP, and vocals on Bob Dylan’s Knocked Out Loaded LP. She plays classical piano, is a fitness enthusiast, and is a deeply spiritual mother of three, and a grandmother of two.
When I interviewed her, she spoke about experience, love, hope and inspiration. In what follows, she reminds us of the importance for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the arts.
Q. What is your experience with diversity, equity, and inclusion?
A. When I first started singing professionally in the ‘70s, I’d be hired to join a group of singers and dancers to perform with headliners in Vegas such as Debbie Reynolds, Sammy Davis Jr. and Mitzi Gaynor, or to be on television variety shows. The running joke among my fellow African-American peers was, ‘Isn’t it crazy that there could never be more than two of us in a group, one black female and one black male?’ Carol Dennis is one of the most dynamic and talented singers that I know, and is one of my closest friends for almost 50 years. It was always either her or me who could be on any given gig, never both of us at the same time, because that would be just one too many black girls in the show. We called ourselves “tokens,” because that is exactly what we felt like. I believe there is still tokenism in the industry and being constantly told you were not good enough by the people representing and hiring you. It’s absolutely better today than it was. But there is still racial disparity in all the entertainment arenas. It was especially difficult for women to tactfully evade the sexual harassment that was constantly around us. We had to keep our jobs and push on regardless. Now women have the power to call it out and to be acknowledged in the arts because we are brilliant and we deserve the respect.
How is it being a mom and on the road?
I’ve been a dedicated hands-on mother, even when I was on tour. I arranged to have my children with me and I taught them their school lessons during the day. They were on side stage when I performed and were respected by whomever I worked with. They learned the business from the inside and are all extremely talented and successful.
How does music influence the human condition?
Music is the language of life. Music influences change by reflecting the stories of the generation by its generation. I just finished watching The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which is a biographical drama film about how the federal government tried to keep Billie from singing “Strange Fruit,” a song that paints a vivid picture of the lynching of black people in the American South. She really was a forerunner of the civil rights movement. She stood on the front lines and shined a light on the horrors of racism in our country. A lot of the music in the ‘60s and ‘70s were songs of protest against war and inequality. I love to listen to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” where he sings about racial and economic disparities in our society and about environmental issues. Every generation has its artists who are called to bring attention to the issues facing the world.
How was your transition from live performing to working from home?
It’s actually been pretty easy. Honestly, after being on the road for over 45 years, it was nice to be home and not always having to pack a suitcase and get on a plane. Dan Voss Jr. and I filmed the video for “Hold On” in our home during the first month of the shutdown. My daughter Jade and I are getting a good amount of calls for session work, which is all done following COVID safety rules. That’s been wonderful because Jade and I LOVE doing studio sessions together. I’ve also received calls to perform as a guest soloist at Unity Church in Santa Barbara, which is very fulfilling for me.
How are you staying creative and inspired?
The lockdown truly made me stop and take a breath. There was nowhere to go and no distractions, so I was forced to take a good, hard look at myself, which at times, was a scary thing to do. I’ve always loved learning, so I started taking online classes from Penn State University, and from the Great Courses Plus and The Master Class apps.
I took classes in economics, history, art, religion, philosophy, music theory, Spanish, Italian, Astronomy, and Space Travel, which have changed me forever! I took a Master Class by ISS commander and astronaut Chris Hadfield, and I became completely hooked on the idea of one day traveling to the ISS. His description of what it’s like to see our beautiful, blue planet on one side, and the endless Universe on the other side was a sacred experience for him and was so inspiring to me. I’ve always been reluctant to think about what is out there beyond our planet, but taking these classes opened my mind to the beauty and magnificence of the Universe and its possibilities. I am completely fascinated and intrigued by the concept of one day colonizing Mars.
I think the most significant thing I did last year was to get back to the study of social and child welfare. I actually wanted to get my master’s degree in social work, not music, but God/The Universe had other plans for me. I ended up having this beautiful career in music. Yet, returning to something that was in my heart so long ago has really opened my spirit. I’m training to be a court-appointed Special Advocate for children who are in foster care as a result of abuse or neglect.
Tell me about your three lockdown singles.
“Hold On” and “Believe and Become” were written with the love of my life and my producer, Dan Voss Jr., 12 years ago. As their messages are about hope and perseverance, we wanted to re-release them for 2020 with a new electronic sound, and collaborated on that with Aaron Zepeda. “Adeleigh” is a song about drug abuse, how it affects people in all economic classes, and it is also about hope, a theme of mine.
What is your natural vocal range and key?
My vocal range is three-and-a-half octaves. As I get older, my lower range gets deeper and lower, which I love! The key always depends on what song I’m singing, but I find B-flat to be a good place for me most of the time. On Valentine’s Day, I sang at Unity Church and performed Whitney Houston’s song “The Greatest Love of All.” Knowing that singing first thing in the morning is a challenge in itself, I thought I would play it safe. I asked the musical director to learn it in the key of B-flat, what I believed to be a whole step lower. I got to the church Sunday morning to rehearse before service, and the pianist played the intro. I asked him what key he was playing in and he said B-flat, a whole step HIGHER than Whitney’s! I panicked for a minute, then I breathed into the challenge. There’s something to be said about going outside your comfort zone. The performance was successful I felt a deep satisfaction that I actually sang a whole step higher than the magnificent and incomparable Whitney Houston!
What’s next for you?
Performing in Barry Manilow’s show at the Westgate Las Vegas in June is on the books and we’re keeping our fingers crossed. Recently, Jade and I had such a blast working on the new Henry Dennis record project titled “Remember” by Henry Dennis and the Fumes of Mars [release date Fall 2021]. The songs are brilliantly written. He is an incredible singer-songwriter, as his amazing producer Norman Arnold.
What is your dream collaboration team?
It would be recording an album of songs by Laura Nyro, my favorite singer-songwriter, with both my daughters, Jade and April. They both grew up with me playing her songs all through their childhood and they know her music as intimately as I do, so I think it would be pure joy.
Do you have any vocal tips for female singers out of work right now?
I believe you have to try to sing every day, whether you’re working or not. And vocal exercises are so important for keeping your vocal cords in shape. I follow vocal coach Jeff Rolka on YouTube. He does wonderful vocal exercises for soprano and mezzo-soprano that I really love.
I encourage singers to keep their voices ready and in top shape for whatever is waiting for them down the road.Never stop perfecting your craft. Always sing from the truth deep inside you, no matter whether your voice is feeling great or tired. The honesty will always come through and that is what your audience longs for. And always, always be willing and ready to grow and learn. We can never have enough knowledge about our craft. Know that there is only one you, that there will never be another talent like yours, so share your gift joyfully.
What are your views on the world and what do you want to change?
The world is looking a bit brighter to me now. There are still some dark clouds around, but there is a glimmer of sunlight on the horizon. And there is hope. I don’t know what this year is going to bring. I am giving it to grace. I continue to study and sing, and to learn all that I can in this very still time in which we find ourselves. I pray for our country, our world and I am steeped in gratitude that we all have made it this far. I would like to see us resume our lives, go back to work, for children to go to school, for the entertainment and music industry to get back on its feet. I’m just not sure what that is going to look like. I would like to see a gentler, more accepting America. We’ve got to seriously address the division in this country. It’s so deeply embedded in our soil. But I continue to be hopeful.
Spotify/Apple/Amazon Music: Sharon Hendrix •MJ