Arts Listings

Nicholas Bearde to Record Live CD at Yoshi’s Tuesday

By Ken Bullock
Friday October 12, 2007

Singer and actor Nicholas Bearde, longtime Rockridge resident, one of Bobby McFerrin’s original (and ongoing) Voicestra vocalists and a favorite at Bay Area clubs and parties, will record his third CD live, performing at Yoshi’s Jazzhouse in Jack London Square Tuesday evening. 

Bearde, who teaches a class entitled “The Soulful Side of Jazz” at Berkeley’s JazzSchool, has specialized for the past quarter century in just that: the continuity between jazz vocals and soul music, singing standards and original songs. But the origins of his warm, distinctive vocal and performing style go back to a lifetime of singing, listening and thinking about music and how it affects its listeners. 

Some of it goes back to Nashville, where he was born and raised, when his mother “and her buddies would hang out all night, five or six of them, drinking, dancing, listening to ‘Ebbtide,’ to Lou Rawls, Arthur Prysock, Nat Cole, Cab Calloway ... I’d hear it through doors—‘Honey, hush!’—and it was only later I understood what they meant, talking about how Cab Calloway’s hair would look on a pillow!” 

Bearde remembers being taken on a second-grade field trip to the symphony hall, hearing a full orchestra play “The William Tell Overture,” and “swooning; I was 7, and it carried me to a place I couldn’t believe—and I only knew it before as The Lone Ranger theme! Kids aren’t exposed to that so often now.”  

He remembers “instantly becoming a tenor in the school choir--I’d been in choir at church from the beginning of time—after a woman at a piano had me sing a song and told me a time to come back. Nobody asked me! And the music had me in tears. I couldn’t reveal that feeling in those days to my classmates.” 

Out of his love of classical music and from a Jamaican friend who introduced him to music by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bob Dylan, “a respect grew for everything else. We didn’t quite believe in foreigners in Nashville; never met any. We knew there were Chinese and Mexicans in the world, but nobody else. And there I am, a young soulster with a doo-wop trio, offered a contract which never worked out—suddenly, there’s jazz and folk music. And I heard Lou Rawls’ live album, ‘St. James Infirmary and Other Songs’, he was really the first male vocalist with whom I realized what’s possible, how a man’s supposed to sing. A Lou Rawls tribute’s part of my show at Yoshi’s. Ironically, I remember my mother listening to him sing ‘Willow, weep for me’ with her friends, but didn’t really get it until I heard his live album. I must’ve gotten those habits from her!” 

Bearde credits enlisting at 18 in the Air Force for “opening up my world. When you’re brought up in extreme poverty, you’re told not to expect much more.”  

While serving two years of his four-year hitch in Japan, he sang with a 10-piece soul group, “my first professional gig.” Dis-charged, he visited the Bay Area, then went to LA, “expecting more of the same. As soon as I had the opportunity, I ran back up here. I’ve been around the world, and I still love this place best out of everywhere I’ve ever been.” 

But Bearde didn’t start out singing when he settled in the Bay Area. “When I got here,” he said, “I was so intimidated by who was on the scene—Sly Stone, Tower of Power, Santana; it was the ’70s. I laid back a long time, checking people out, but not doing it, till the very early ’80s.”  

Working in commercial photography, his career came to an end “when I blew a big job. I’d been torn between photography and music, and realized I blew it because I hadn’t really wanted to do it. I needed to be in a band, in front of people, challenging myself—and thought, ‘whatever happens, happens.’” 

He sang in a Top 40 band for a few years, “then in ’83 I got a call that somebody had cancelled at Pasand, the club on Union Street in San Francisco. My name had been given, and I stepped in and from there, became a regular, really stepping into the jazz world, the beginning of all this that’s happening for me right now.” 

In 1986 Bearde “hooked up with Bobby McFerrin, who had his idea for a radical group of all voices. Molly Holme helped put it together, and called me.”  

The beginning of Voicestra was “about 15 singers improvising at Different Fur Studio in San Francisco for five or six hours.”  

After a few years of performing “mainly around the Bay, “Voicestra rehearsed for a full year in 1990, then toured.” In 1995, “the budget ran out. The singers wanted to continue, but Bobby couldn’t afford it.” So SoVoSo was born, “Voicestra minus about three or four singers” until 1998, when “Voicestra came back into being, and has toured a couple months of the year, usually in Europe, ever since.” 

Meanwhile, Bearde was working solo more and more, trying to establish his name. “Voicestra is a whole other world. It and my solo career are two separate items.” His solo style is mellow, filling a groove, yet forceful, rising to crescendos of excitement, backed by his personable onstage style. 

His CDs, Crossing the Line (1998) and All About Love (2004), both featuring a handful of original numbers besides standards ranging from Coltrane’s “Naima” to “Moonlight In Vermont” to Burt Bacharach, were both in the British Top Ten, and “have notoriety in the states, but it’s hard to get radio play without a budget—the lubricant! Artists always just want to do their art, but today it’s the last thing they want you to do. Publicity, marketing—that’s what they think you’re supposed to be doing. In my position, I’m always torn between making a living and wanting to make a statement, making something bigger and better than I am now.” 

He’s aiming for that with his “Live At Yoshi’s” album, a self-financed venture on his own label, Right Groove Records. “I’m tired of trying to fit into this category, that category. I’m proud of my first two albums; I did what I wanted to, sang the repertoire I had to, for me. But to some degree, they were still shaped to the market. This new one is where I want to be; where I am, who I am at this time.”