This past weekend, I saw an amazing singer deliver a jaw-dropping performance at B.B. King’s, a New York City-based R&B club. Her name is Alice Tan Ridley, she’s 60 years old and she recently hit the big time after spending 20 years singing gutsy renditions of covers underground on subway platforms to support her kids.
In 2010, when she was 58, Ridley mustered all her courage and auditioned for the NBC reality show America’s Got Talent. She was accepted and though she didn’t win she became a finalist and showcased her stunning vocal ability week after week before an audience of millions. Rave reviews poured in, as did offers to perform. She now sings in venues all over the world.
On Sunday night, she brought the house down with epic, soul-stirring songs made famous by the likes of Etta James, Leonard Cohen, James Brown and Adele. There’s no question that Ridley has an unparalleled voice, but she also brings poetic lyrics to life. She made me feel every word of a heartfelt story when she sang.
As Ridley gave us her all, I couldn’t help but think about her own remarkable story. It serves as a testament to something many of us know deep down but perhaps haven’t acted on — that it’s never too late to more fully own your gifts or cultivate a new skill, whether it’s a long-held passion that has the potential to earn income or something as yet untried that you think can add extra joy to your life.
I needed the living, breathing reminder of this truth that Ridley provided. Lately, I’ve been working on making health and finance-related improvements, but I have some serious catching up to do in the personal expression and fulfillment department. And shame on me — because I really do know better.
Reaching for New Heights
Back in the summer of 2000, I spent a few days at a spa in Utah. While there, I signed up for a hike to a magical place called the Wave, located in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness on the Colorado Plateau.
It’s a breathtaking but delicate locale, which the Bureau of Land Management protects from human-inflicted damage by issuing only 20 hiking permits per day via a lottery system.
Although the description of the Wave and the surroundings in the spa’s handout was compelling, only two of us signed up that day — maybe because the outing involved waking up really early and spending many hours in the searing desert heat.
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This meant that we got a lot of personal attention from the three guides who accompanied us — a fact I deeply appreciated, since the six-mile hike, 350-foot elevation gain and 100-degree temperature proved far more challenging than I could have ever imagined and I required constant egging on.
I give credit to one guide in particular for getting me through it. Though far older and diminutive than I, she was both physically and mentally fit for the task. Delivering encouragement with a kind but insistent ferocity, she reminded me of Granny, the character played by Irene Ryan in The Beverly Hillbillies. "Just put one foot in front of the other,” she'd instruct me in a high-pitched, somewhat quaking voice. “Grab my hand.”
I pushed myself farther physically than I had in years and the gains went beyond any momentary sense of accomplishment. I had never seen anything quite so beautiful and otherworldly as those undulating troughs etched by centuries of wind and floods.
By the time we reached the pinnacle, I was utterly spent so I sat down on the edge of a stone pillar to catch my breath. As I looked out over the peaks, I was seized by two powerful desires: to spend the night in this spot and to sing. Sleeping there, of course, was not possible. But I mentioned the singing notion to Granny, who said: “Do it, Donna! Come on, do it!”
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Talking Me Off of the Cliff
The thing is, I couldn’t. I had always loved singing, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it in front of people I didn’t know well. At my guide’s insistence I did manage to hum an old folk song and pulled those sounds out from a place deep within my chest. As the notes echoed through the canyon, tears rolled down Granny’s face. The fact that I had gotten snagged by fear and inhibition, but could still move her in this way made me resolve to figure out a way to overcome my block. Why on earth, I asked myself, would I not try to do more of something I know makes me happy?
I looked into voice lessons when I returned and ended up signing on with a classically trained singer and teacher who had recently moved from London to my neck of the woods. She gave me both critical instruction and courage and I joined a choral group she led comprising singers of all ages. With that support and a lot of practice, I began singing in public and quickly realized how learning to harmonize with a group could be applied to other areas of my life.
Singing with others provided a new source of fun — and friendship and camaraderie.
Above all, though, it meant that I got to own a larger part of myself.
On the Edge Again
Over time, however, I found myself shifting my focus to other priorities. I stopped singing in public and a chunk of the satisfaction it had provided evaporated. But on Sunday night, while listening to Ridley and reflecting on her remarkable journey, I again found myself on the edge of a precipice with an invitation to sing. Only this time, I was sitting on a chair in a dark club and a large African-American woman with a thunderous voice was speaking rather than a tiny, Granny-like hiker.
Ridley asked for some “Pips” to join her on stage — people who’d be willing to sing backup with her as she belted out one of Gladys Knight and the Pips’ signature songs, "Midnight Train to Georgia." I froze momentarily, but then took my place behind the star and rocked and crooned along with a few other brave souls as she sang. The critical moment: When Ridley turned around, held the mic in front of my mouth and paused for me to solo the backup refrain.
Well, I did it — and, you know what? It was a lot of fun and my wall of inhibitions came tumbling down! The next day, I started scoping out a voice class that can plug me right back into regular singing and the benefits of group performance.
About midway through her show, Alice Tan Ridley spoke to the audience about something vital she had learned from her extraordinary personal journey. “Sing, laugh and spread good news,” she said. These are the ways “to chase the negative away. Remember, you gotta work on making yourself happy cause no one else can.”
She couldn’t be more right.