Homeless CD Sets Singers' Lives on Track

MUSIC

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Daniel McCleod sings "I'll Be Home for Christmas," he doesn't take the song's lyrics for granted.

Mr. McCleod's family lost their Miami home in hurricane Andrew. But he still had his guitar. So, when he heard about auditions for homeless singers, he tried out. A few months later he was in California, recording the title track for "Voice of the Homeless II" (a CD due in stores tomorrow).

Thanks in large part to this project, through which the artists earn royalties and the often bigger benefit of self-esteem, McCleod really is home this Christmas season.

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Rex Neilson funded and produced the first album two years ago.

It isn't easy to break through the "attitude that homeless people can't possibly be good singers," Mr. Neilson says, "but inevitably, people who hear the music are impressed."

The day after CBS aired a story on the project, Richard Palmese, then president of MCA Records, called Neilson and offered help.

MCA gave the first album the distribution it desperately needed. Then work began on what Neilson describes as "an unconventional Christmas record with conventional songs." Original arrangements feature voices that, whether soft and sweet or robust and playful, resonate with genuine joy.

Even in a telephone interview, that joy comes through from Mr. McCleod, a former professional musician who says he's been singing since he was "knee-high to a grasshopper."

For 18 months, McCleod and his wife and four children lived in a small shed infested with rats and roaches. In addition to singing for the Christmas album, he's done carpentry work and earned his high school equivalency diploma. The family is now in government-subsidized housing.

"Somebody in my [extended] family told me he was ashamed because I was singing on a homeless album," McCleod recalls. But he's proud of it. "Anybody can get homeless," he says. "Maybe the Father had this blessing for me, to really do something about it."

MCA also arranged for Patti LaBelle, one of the record company's longtime artists, to do a cut on the album. Her recording session for "Angel Man" - an original piece not specific to Christmas - "blew everybody away," Neilson says, explaining: "We flew the homeless folks ... to San Diego [to sing the backup vocals]. They were walking on air."

Open auditions for Voice of the Homeless II took place in Washington, Denver, Miami, and southern California (where Neilson's MAG Records is based). For Neilson, the profits start here. "I see a homeless person walk into an audition absolutely scared to death," he says, "and I treat them as if they were the president of the United States.... If they walked in at 5 ft. 5, they walk out 6 ft. 5."

For those who earn a spot on the record, the auditions are often the first step back to stability. At least 23 of the 27 artists on the first album now have homes.

Lewis Thomas is one of them. When he heard about the original auditions in San Diego, he had lost his family through divorce, had been kicked out of the Navy, and was addicted to drugs. Neilson liked his music, but he would not allow drug and alcohol use.

"I touched his chest and I said, 'Lewis, how tough are you?'" Neilson says. "He thought I meant fighting tough, and I said, 'No man, how tough are you in here, in your heart?' " He offered to help if Mr. Thomas wanted to get sober. Two weeks later Neilson received a poignant phone call. It was Thomas, exclaiming "Rex, I did it! I'm in recovery." He's been drug-free for more than three years and he owns a successful recording studio.

"Whenever I found myself being tempted ... to go back to the other lifestyle ... I decided, naw, I got too much to lose, there're a lot of people that's depending on me," Thomas says. So he went forward, volunteering at the local shelter and making time for performances to promote the record and educate the public. He is one of seven singers who returned to record the Christmas album.

After performances and question-answer sessions at schools, children and teenagers often write letters of appreciation. Some say they didn't know homeless people actually were articulate and intelligent, much less talented. But many have been homeless themselves and, out of the earshot of friends, confide in the singers. They're embarrassed, Neilson explains, because the public has such contempt for homelessness.

Neilson occasionally gets discouraged. One winter he met a couple with a new baby who were looking for an alternative to the Salvation Army shelter, where 400 people were expected to share one bathroom. He knows of two auditioners who died on the street. And he's seen adults teach children by example that homeless people deserve harassment.

Neilson's studio is abuzz with plans for a third album. A movie company wants to make a film on the project. Neilson also hopes corporate sponsors will come forward to help with funding and marketing.

But even if it feels like three steps forward and two back, it's worth it to keep helping people like Crystal Goff, another two-album veteran.

Her husband beat her when she was seven weeks pregnant. Too embarrassed to talk to her family, she ended up first on the street and then in a battered women's shelter.

After being chosen for Voice of the Homeless, she began believing in her talent. Her first landlord trusted her because of her involvement with the album, and now her son, Jazz, has a yard to play in.

Ms. Goff has seen that her situation was far from unique. For abused women, homelessness is a courageous choice, she says. "I feel so good when I can tell people how I became homeless and yet, I'm not down in the dumps, I'm lookin' up."

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