A Pitch For Singers

North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough (50) is guarded by Eastern Kentucky's Mike Rose, left, Darnell Dialls, second from left, and Michael Brock (15) during an NCAA East Regional first-round basketball game at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C., Thursday, March 15, 2007. At right is North Carolina's Brandan Wright (34). Hansbrough had 21 points and 10 rebounds in the Tar Heels 86-65 win.
AP Photo/David J. Phillip

In the 1960s and '70s the musical group The Association had a stream of hits: "Windy," "Along Came Mary," "Cherish" and "Never My Love." Maurice Miller joined the group in 1970 and sang with it for seven years. For a time, he was also Lena Horne's musical director.

He also appeared in movies. In Swing Shift, you can find him tapping out a beat with drum sticks on a bus seat. In Great Balls of Fire, he's dancing.

But Miller no longer sings and no longer dances. A series of strokes over the past eight years have taken a toll. He walks slower and his speech is slurred. At 68, he says he was facing eviction and a life on the street.

"Well, there's no insurance that will cover all that stuff, you know," he says. "I can't work anymore. And I'd always taken care of myself. Because I played with the top.

Enter the Society of Singers, a little-known group that Miller says saved him from the street, as Eugenia Zukerman reports.

Last February Miller moved into an apartment building in Sherman Oaks outside of Los Angeles. The society helps pay his rent and many of his other bills.

What has the society of singers has done for him? "I would say they gave me something that allowed me to hold onto some dignity - a lot of dignity," Miller says.

In Hollywood success is celebrated with awards and stars on the sidewalk, like Frank Sinatra. But what happens to talented singers when their success fades?

"No singer who has been..a professional should ever have to beg for help," says Ginny Mancini.

She is the widow of Oscar-winning composer Henry Mancini. She was also a singer herself, performing with Mel Torme as a member of the Mel-Tones in the 1940s.

"At one point 15 years ago, it came to my attention that many of those singers with whom I worked with were having really tough times, with catastrophic health problems, without anything to sustain them," Mancini says. "And they were having trouble making ends meet. I couldn't turn my back."

So in 1984 she helped establish the Society of Singers. Anyone who has made a living for five years as a singer is eligible for help.

For a decade now the society has held an annual gala to present the Ella Awards named for Ella Fitzgerald. This year's winner was Tony Bennett. The proceeds are used to help singers who have been less successful, like Patty Howard. For seven years this single mother supported herself as a back-up singer for Whitney Houston. She says her life began to unravel when she lost her savings paying for the funerals of her father and sister.

"So the lowest point of that," Howard says, "we're looking at three years later is getting a phone call from another singer and finding out that I no longer had a job. The music director hired another singer."

"I had just lost - lost my fight," she says. "And you know, I just didn't have a lot of hope."
Medical problems followed, and she lost her apartment. The society of singers paid her bills and moved her into the same building where Maurice Miller lives, a building that cost the society $1.5 million.

"This organization has inspired me to go on and do something with my life, to give something back," Howard declares.

In the last decade or so about $1 million has been given out to 600 singers. Frankly, in Hollywood that's not a lot of money.

"There's a tendency to celebrate somebody's early success and then to accelerate their departure," Pat Boone says, laughing.

Boone recently began a record company to give older singers work; he's on the board of the society of singers. He thinks some of the biggest and newest singers in the business could be more generous.

"It's hard for them to imagine that, that other singers couldn't have saved their money, managed investments, taken care of their futures," Boone says. "And I will be surprised if some of the very people who turn a deaf ear to the plight of singers in need now...might one day be in need themselves."

A number of performers who have been helped with medical and other bills have appeared at benefits to raise money for other singers.

"Basically I was in a left-hand turn lane and got hit head on. And my seat belt pushed so hard into my stomach that it lacerated my liver and broke my collar bone," Shannon Moore says.

Moore is at the beginning of her career, not the end, although the accident almost killed her.

During the six months of her recovery, the society helped pay her bills. A little helping hand in a town with a reputation for a lot of style but little heart.

"To know that there are people out there that really care, and will be there if something bad happens, is just a...great relief," Moore says.