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Egos and Epiphanies:
The Self-Realization of Amy Fradon

by Gary Alexander

An epiphany is the sudden manifestation of a supernatural presence or deity. "Epiphany" is also a word Amy Fradon uses to describe a life-altering moment she experienced in a European death camp which presented her with a such a soul-deep impact of self-realization that it was all but equivalent to a physical apparition.

Fradon was at the Terezin (Terezienstadt) Concentration Camp outside of Prague, a few years ago, while on a European tour as part of Vanaver Caravan, the performance group she will be appearing with at the Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie on November 4th to perform their celebrated Woody Guthrie tribute. As a solo musician, she had left behind her long term musical collaboration with Leslie Ritter and two separate solo album projects she had shelved as "somehow incomplete" but precisely what was missing did not begin to become focused in her mind until that wrenching experience within the haunted walls of that star-shaped fortress of doom.

"We went to the crematorium at the camp and I stood in that room with the big, black ovens where they still have the ashes of people," Fradon said. "Outside were fields full of buried bodies and I just had, like an epiphany in there...I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed and there's people filing by as I'm crying. I looked up at the huge windows at the top of the building and had one of those 'miracle moments' where I knew I had no reason, no business not putting myself and my music out in the world...simply because I COULD...I wasn't being killed or imprisoned. I had freedom. So, I really needed to take that freedom and live it."

Terezin isn't the most infamous of Nazi death camps but it has a special repute which Fradon could well appreciate. Prior to Hitler, its only record as a facility for incarceration since its opening in 1780 was when it held the assassins of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in 1914. Under the Third Reich, the little fortress found use as a prison designated to protect the state from such "dangerous" elements as Czech Jews, musicians, artists, writers, actors and independent thinkers. Although the more than 97,000 who died there, including 15,000 children, are dwarfed by the fatalities of other such camps, Terezin also served as a staging area from which many others were shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau. For Fradon, as for many others, it remains an overwhelming site.

Raised on a farm in a once rural area outside of Danbury, Connecticut, Amy inherited an artistic flair from her father, Dana Fradon, a well-known cartoonist for New Yorker magazine and a mother who illustrated for the Brenda Starr comic strip and DC/Marvel Comics. She had the "prerequisite piano lessons" as a child and enjoyed singalongs of old popular songs with her dad, but found greater focus in ballet and modern dance in formative years. It wasn't until a new college roommate at NYU announced herself as a singer that Amy impulsively "joined the band."

"When she said `I'm a singer,' for some reason, I said `I am, too!'," Amy Laughs. "So, I was, from that moment on, because she said `let's go audition for the coffeehouse' and I said `okay.' I was a dance major. I had no inkling what it really meant. My boyfriend at the time was Eric Parker (a Woodstock-based drummer for The Rhinestones, Joe Cocker and other acts), so I was around music a lot but I don't think I ever thought of myself as a singer."

Leaping into the water doesn't make you a swimmer, as Amy quickly discovered.

"I didn't know how to sing a lick of harmony," she smiles with tender memory. "I had to plug my ears on stage so I wouldn't be pulled off the melody by her singing but I loved it and just became obsessed with the details."

Fradon experienced another "miracle moment" when she arrived in Woodstock for the first time with a friend and recalls; "The minute we rounded the corner on Zena Road and I saw the mountains, my heart just leapt in my chest. I knew I would be living here. It was just such a `Yes!' moment."

Of such moments destinies are forged and through her connection with Parker, Fradon found herself "plopped into the midst of the finest musicians in the area" as her course of musical discovery and development continued. She soon found herself playing local clubs in a "throw-together" band with Parker and an assortment of sessions players, known musicians keeping busy between tours or talented unknowns trying to keep ends together.

"I don't even know if we had a name," Fradon reflects. "We used to play at The Lake, the old Whitewater Depot before it was The Horseman. Robbie Dupree was in the band before he was `Robbie.' Cane Roberts, when he was still Robert Athis and before getting famous as a heavy metal guy, he used to be this sensitive, jive kind of player. Gail Boggs of The Striders. Gary Bonner from The Turtles, (who used to write songs for people like Bobby Darin in that megastar's most sensitive and introspective period). I learned on the job doing those gigs."

As Fradon educated her euphonious voice, she became acquainted with the region's musical community and began nurturing a fledgling demand for her growing skills for effective harmonies by delivering memorable performances on stage and in studio, working with a profusion of local acts. She couldn't remember the name of the first album she was enlisted to embellish but burst right into the harmony part she sang as if it had been yesterday.

"I guess word spread and people called me for session work because I was naturally a pretty quick study in the studio," Fradon observes. "I wanted so bad to be a singer, I practiced like eight hours a day and if someone in the studio pointed out something I wasn't doing right, said `Amy, your pitch is off' or something, I'd go home and obsess about it and work on it endlessly. I was determined never to go back in and have it be like that again. I was just very exacting of myself and, so, you do get good at it if you get like that...Though, I'm not sure at what cost to my poor little nervous system or tormented psyche."

Her diligence paid off as she joined the Marc Black Group for her first steady schedule of gigging and began recording jingles with Woodstock musician-producer Andy Robinson for Gimbel's and "some mattress company." She also performed frequently with the Hoppen brothers of Orleans, the Traum brothers, Maria Muldaur, Lucy Kaplansky, Rory Block, John Sebastian, Pete Seeger, Ed Sanders' Fugs, the late Rick Danko and other area illuminaries.

Leslie Ritter (left) with Amy Fradon
When Amy won a role in the Broadway musical Pump Boys and the Dinettes, she was replaced in The Phantoms, another group she appeared with regularly, by Leslie Ritter. Meeting Ritter at that time would assume later significance as the pair united for a twelve year partnership which would span seven albums as a duo and countless backup roles for other musicians.

Ritter had worked in other bands with Phantoms' drummer (and Fradon's former spouse) Dan Uttendorfer, who suggested Leslie as a replacement while Amy was off to Broadway and the subsequent National Touring Company's road productions of the successful musical in Houston, Cleveland's famous Palace Theater and as a traveling troupe across the country.

Although a veteran of a progression of school plays as a child, Fradon adhered always with greater tranquility to the musical aspects of the performance than to speaking through another's character.

"I'm way more comfortable singing than acting," she reflects. "There's something about acting that feels very frightening to me. I couldn't tell you why..."

Presumably, even something of a personal identification with the character, as in Amy's memorable performance in the title role of Ed Sanders' production of Cassandra, doesn't entirely quell her sense of unease at the pretense of assuming an outside identity. The mythic soothsayer of Ancient Greece might be viewed as a kind of New Age character who was "gifted" by Apollo with an ability for accurate prophecy which no one would take seriously and "Cassandra" was also a nickname Amy's parents bestowed upon a daughter whose youth sprouted many such foreboding predictions of coming events. It made her feel like a natural for the role but, at the bottom line, it was the music and lyric (some of which she delivered under Sanders' tutelage in the tongue of the Ancient Greeks) which carried the day for her.

More than likely at the root of this tinge of unease with the popular art of affectation is Fradon's own inherent gift of intuitive expression. The calculation in deliberate facade, in effectively portraying demeanor alien to your own, swims at different sea level than Amy's close-to-the-surface spontaneity. The prethought freedom of self expression from which the essence Fradon's talent springs is evident in her self-assured, instantaneous and utterly unselfconscious response to an interviewer's question; in her gesture of hand and the motion and poise of her gaze. An emphasis upon the ease and naturalness of reaction may swiftly be modified, enhanced or even corrected in a blink but there is no mistaking where the emphasis resides.

In dance forms, as in some styles of visual art, you do not imitate, ideally, a given movement so much as you seek to become that movement and in specific approaches to voice and rhythmic bodily motion, which move in the same streams of musical grace and accent, there is a goal of joining outside stimulus and interior response which Fradon has mastered and, indeed, often teaches to others. Her "Vocal Visionary Trainings" designed for people to "get deeply in touch with their voice" are a byproduct of her own journey of self-discovery.

Singing is a profound experience for anyone who tries it," Fradon smiles, secure in her own knowledge of the hidden dimensions of voice and the deeper realms of uncompromised purity in vocal gesture she strives to impart in her instructions to students.

Amy and Leslie had noticed in preparing Ritter to become a Phantom that they "sang pretty well together, although it took a few years before it jelled as `us'." Exploration of timing, interplay and the complimentary tonalities of their voices in the mid-1980s developed a distinct and sought after sound which provided record producers with a "ready-made" vocal section and brought an abundance of sessions work. Their own first album, Crystal Song, in 1987 rippled notice of their abilities, not with the suddenness of a meteorite falling into a pond, perhaps, certainly far beyond previous perimeters.

Artistic development and self-discovery continued to interlace through projects like Amy and Leslie's "transformational" work with Kim Rosen and Cathy Malach (which used improvisational music and visualization techniques with inter-species encounter experiences between dolphins and humans through the Pathwork Center in Phoenicia).

"Kim Rosen is a fine healer-visionary therapist/workshop facilitator and she developed this thing they called the Interspecies Connection, where she would bring groups of people- sometimes arranged thru the Omega Institute, sometimes through the Pathwork center- down to Florida to swim with the dolphins," Fradon explains, recalling an earlier period of New Age spiritual development inspired by scientific discovery (most notably by Dr. John Cunningham Lilly, whose books on human and nonhuman intelligence had created something of a sensation in the 1960s and 70s). "Based on all of the feelings and experiences that came up for people, we'd go back and do deep transformational work called the BRETHwork.

"They were incredible workshops," Fradon continues, detailing how Malach and the duo had brought their own longtime interest in therapeutic arts into the process. Leslie, Cathy Malach and myself were the musicians, healing muses, I guess you would call it. We were studying all sorts of alternative healing methods at that time, bioenergetics or sorts, but this was Kim's own approach and we became apprentices."

Before Bob Dylan sang of "The Disease of Conceit," John Lilly detailed the eerie humbling of human arrogance within the close presence of these intriguing oceanic mammals.

"Audacious in the extreme is this featherless biped walking on dry land which is my species," wrote Lilly in The Mind of the Dolphin (1967). "His little, dry spirit has a great deal of gall to try to push his way into the primal soup. In the face of the dolphin's necessities, one quickly loses one's self-esteem."

Speaking of her experiences, Fradon articulates quite similar sentiments; "I think there is a mystical connection between humans and dolphins. There's something there. When you get into the water with these creatures, all of a sudden there's this huge animal and all sorts of things come up about how the dolphin treats you, ignores you or loves you...Everyone loves whales and dolphins. It's like the way we feel about dogs only it's much more intense. When you swim with a dolphin, you're blown away..."

Using human experiences from such unusual Interspecies exchanges in later workshop settings with Rosen; Fradon, Ritter and Malach would provide improvisional sonic frameworks, akin to shamanic rhythms and tones vocally supplied to help facilitate the unleashing of unfamiliar emotional sensations and realizations. Focused breathing exercises, organically flowing sound and hands-on stimulation were used to guide inward seeking journeys during the sessions and inspired a pair of "Delphys" CDS released in the early 90s with Fradon and Ritter front and center.

Tim Moore & Amy at Tinker Street Cafe
It might seem that the "Face The Music" invasions of companies like General Electric and Panasonic to instruct corporate personnel on the therapeutic values of writing blues songs about the workplace (I kid you not- see FaceTheMusicBlues.com) which Amy participates in might represent a counterpoint to her New Age excursions but she finds the processes to be almost precisely the same. You loosen them up, let them see themselves and show them how to get it out in a creative form.

In speaking of various "new age' techniques, Fradon mentions that she deplores the awkward terminology employed- "energy work," "hands-on-healing" and the like but, if you've been out to clubs in recent years in hopes of enjoying live music, you may have noticed a pressing need to increase the self-awareness of a number of people. With too little conscious time to spend with that inner realm, there is an alarming trend of conditioned behavior in some audiences which blinds some to the difference in dynamics between a live performer and an insensate television screen or recorded rendition. But, don't get me started...

As for performances recorded for posterity by Fradon and Ritter, an impressive legacy can be found in the several further albums of exquisite blending of songwork they released before parting ways. Amy & Leslie on Alcazar in 1990, from which they also recorded a music video of Amy's tune "Roll On" just before the VH1 channel foolishly dissolved their acoustic programming. Take In Home for Shenachie Records in 1994 and others.

If the culmination of the Fradon-Ritter pairing seemed abrupt, its development was much more subtle, as Amy saw it.

Happy Traum (left) & John Herald (center) talk
shop with Amy at an outdoor concert
"We were growing into different people," sighs Fradon, noting how the pair had drifted into separating musical perspectives in the latter years. "We were faced with having to record another album for Shenachie and we could not figure out what to do. We weren't writing together anymore and we were looking in different directions. If we had tried to make a CD together, it would have been all over the map." It was just time to part ways.

Fradon had begun writing her own songs, early on, on the advice and encouragement of Bob Leinbach of the Fabulous Rhinestones, who told her; "Ame, chick singers are a dime a dozen. Write music. That's really important."

Taking Leinbach's words to heart, Fradon worked on that "Eureka," with steady determination and dash of self recognition; "I was young and I totally went `Yes! You're right!' and went to work on it, realizing it sort of suits my own personality because I like to do everything my own way."

Although Fradon teaches songwriting at Purchase College in Tallahassee, she doesn't strictly consider herself a "Songwriter," perhaps for lack of her own methodical formula. On her own, Amy became involved in projects, such as the Vanaver/Guthrie tribute (a project which released Pastures of Plenty-Songs of Woody Guthrie in February 2000, with Amy as featured vocalist on several of the numbers), and other ventures. She also continued performing and sought out individual talents to form her own band. When you consider the rigors of staying busy with the performances with the group, such as the one they will be making at Bodles Opera House in Chester, N.Y. on November 3rd and working with Bill and Livia Vanaver along with Woody's daughter Nora of the Woody Guthrie Foundation on the 25th Anniversary "Pastures of Plenty" Gala at Bardavon on November 4th, hitting a fallow stretch in the recording her own albums is a small wonder. But, also, a naturally disturbing one.

Finding a doorway through that perplexing wall while weeping in a chamber of human tragedy, in the presence of the ashes of musicians and artists whose work had been cut short by tyranny, does indeed represent a miracle moment of epiphany proportions. Amy returned from that experience to record her exquisite solo album Passion Angel and, in doing so, found an edge of resolve she feels had been missing for her entire life.

"I feel like it gave me courage in a real way for the first time in my life," she explained. "I knew the sense of it but it's not easy to be an artist. People rip you apart; they ignore you; they reject you and they idolize you. Whatever they do, somewhere in there, you've got to find You and your relationship to your life and spirit. So, anyway, I came back and started this album and I have not stopped since. It gave me great courage and I think about it everyday."

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

Posted on November 2, 2000

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