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'Hellhound' Trails King Assassin James Earl Ray.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn. For the next two months, the man who shot him, James Earl Ray, was able to evade the FBI during a massive worldwide manhunt. Writer Hampton Sides traces the movements of both King and Ray in his new book, Hellhound on His Trail.

31:23

Other segments from the episode on April 28, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 28, 2010: Interview with Hampton Sides; Interview with Stephanie Nakasian.

Transcript

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MLK Assassin James Earl Ray Tracked In 'Hellhound'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In 1968, writer Hampton Sides was a six-year-old boy in Memphis when
Martin Luther King was assassinated there. Sides says he remembers the
anger and tension among adults at the time and images of tanks in the
streets to quell civil unrest.

Four decades later, Sides has returned to the subject of King's
assassination. He's written a gripping account of King's murder and the
hunt for his confessed assassin, James Earl Ray.

Sides carefully reconstructs the movements and activities of James Earl
Ray in the months before the assassination, intercut with the story of
King, the man Ray was stalking.

Hampton Sides is an editor-at-large for Outside magazine and the author
of the historical books "Ghost Soldiers" and "Blood and Thunder." He
spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about his book "Hellhound on
His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International
Hunt for His Assassin."

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Well, Hampton Sides, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

The book opens with James Earl Ray in a prison in Missouri, where he
escapes, climbs into a bread truck and makes it out of there. Tell us a
little bit about who he was. This was in 1967, I guess about a year
before the assassination. Who was this guy?

Mr. HAMPTON SIDES (Author, "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of
Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin"):
Well, James Earl Ray was a career criminal. He had grown up along the
Mississippi River, in a succession of impoverished towns. He came from a
very dysfunctional family of mostly felons. His father was quite poor
and changed his name, changed the family name repeatedly: Rains(ph),
Ryan, and various permutations of the name. So some of the Rays growing
up didn't know their last name until they were adults.

And, of course, Ray, as a criminal, spent most of his time coming up
with aliases. He had a whole succession of them. As the story
progresses, he becomes Eric Galt, Harvey Lowmeyer, John Willard, Ramon
Sneyd, Paul Bridgeman, all these different names. So, you know, this was
one of his – this was his stock in trade, really, coming up with these
various identities.

DAVIES: So he manages to slip out of this prison in Jefferson City,
Missouri, buried among loaves in a bread truck, gets away and makes his
way, eventually, to Mexico, Puerto Vallarta, and then after that goes to
California under the alias of Eric Galt.

And it's sort of – you know, he fits the description of a drifter, as we
see him in this period, but he also seems to have ambition. Tell us
about some of the steps he took to acquire vocational skills and other
kind of self-improvement schemes.

Mr. SIDES: Well, he's doing some very unusual things out there in Los
Angeles. He's decided at one point that he wants to become a porn
director and buys a bunch of film equipment. He also gets into
bartending. He graduates from a bartending school. He's taking a
correspondence course in locksmithing. And he's taking dancing lessons
at a dance school to learn the cha-cha and the foxtrot and various other
steps.

He's getting deep into various self-help books, including this one in
particular called "Psycho-Cybernetics." Hypnosis is one of his things.
He gets a nose job just one month before the assassination.

So, you know, what does all this all add up to? I mean, it's a very
curious combination of interests, but, you know, the thing that kind of
galvanizes him in late 1967 and early 1968 is the George Wallace for
president campaign. He becomes a volunteer. He's quite interested in
doing whatever he can to help Wallace get on the ballot in California.

And I think that that's what begins to kind of give some coherence to
all of these rather desperate and kind of eclectic interests that he has
out there in Los Angeles.

DAVIES: Now, Wallace, of course, was an ultra-conservative populist and
had a history, of course, of opposing integration. What do we know of
James Earl Ray's racial attitudes?

Mr. SIDES: Well, he was a racist. He had talked in prison about how
killing King would be a retirement plan for him. He was into the John
Birch Society. He was also quite interested in Rhodesia, which was the
breakaway state in Southern Africa, now Zimbabwe, that was run by Ian
Smith, and he inquired about how he might immigrate there.

DAVIES: And it was essentially an apartheid state, right?

Mr. SIDES: It was. It was a segregationist, rogue state that had no
extradition treaty with the U.S.

DAVIES: You said that he might have said in prison that killing Martin
Luther King would be his retirement plan? Meaning what?

Mr. SIDES: Meaning that he would connect with bounties that he had heard
about. In prison, there was a number of rumors going around of Southern
business men's associations and white citizens' councils who were
floating bounties on King's head, and he thought, well, this is a
possible business scheme for me.

He also considered himself an aficionado of the JFK assassination and
kind of studied it and analyzed it and tried to figure out what mistakes
Oswald had made and, you know, became, I guess – got this idea that he,
you know, might have been able to do it better.

DAVIES: Now, in the year that you document Ray's movements leading up to
the assassination of King, you know, I don't recall seeing much of
anything in the way of real, human relationships or friendships -
beyond, you know, I guess some regular contact he had with Mexican
prostitutes. Would this the behavior of somebody keeping to himself
because he's on the lam from the law, or did he have trouble connecting
with people?

Mr. SIDES: He had a lot of trouble connecting with people, and, in fact,
a lot of the books that he was reading, these self-help books were books
that were basically urging people, you know, giving advice about how you
can make friends and how you can find happiness and find meaning and
purpose in your life.

And, you know, you get that sense throughout his period in Los Angeles
that he is desperately trying to find some sort of purpose and
desperately trying to find some happiness: the dancing school business.
You know, the people there at the dancing school said he was the kind of
person who needed to learn how to dance. He needed to connect.

He needed some sort of human connection. Almost his whole life, he had
been a loner and had very few friends and very few people that he
trusted. And I think that that's a part of his personality that carries
through to the very end of his life.

DAVIES: At what point in James Earl Ray's wanderings does he appear to
be stalking Martin Luther King?

Mr. SIDES: It becomes much clearer that he's following King around March
17th, March 18th. He's living in Los Angeles in a cheap hotel when
Martin Luther King comes to Los Angeles to give a series of talks about
his upcoming and very controversial Poor People's Campaign.

And something he said must have set Ray off because he's only a few
miles away in his hotel, and he goes to his hotel and says he's leaving
tomorrow morning, puts in an order for a change of address form to
Atlanta, Georgia.

DAVIES: So he moves from – this is James Earl Ray, moves from California
to Atlanta, Georgia. It's a big move, right.

Mr. SIDES: It's a big move, and it's not a city that he has any known
connection to or any friends, but here he is moving to King's hometown.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Hampton Sides. His new book about James Earl
Ray and Martin Luther King is called "Hellhound on His Trail." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer and historian
Hampton Sides. His new book is called "Hellhound on His Trail: The
Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His
Assassin."

So James Earl Ray is in California, then moves to the deep South only
weeks before the assassination of Martin Luther King would occur. Let's
talk a little bit about Martin Luther King and where he was. What
generally was his frame of mind in these final weeks of his life?

Mr. SIDES: This is a very different Martin Luther King than I think most
of us are familiar with. He had been getting death threats for, really,
his whole career, but in those last few weeks and months, he was getting
more of them, and they were – the whole thing was intensifying. He had
developed enemies and lost a lot of his allies in Washington because of
his criticism of the Vietnam War, and it felt like he was in danger of
being outflanked by the black power movement.

He was not sleeping very well. He was smoking. He was eating too much
and gaining weight. His marriage with Coretta was unraveling. It was a
very dark and very intense and desperate time for him, and he had just
hatched this very controversial Poor People's Campaign, which was,
essentially, the idea was to build an enormous shantytown on the Mall in
Washington, bring the poor people of - all over the country, not just
African-Americans, but American Indians and people from Appalachia, from
all walks of life to Washington to stage this sort of protest at the
feet of Capitol Hill to protest the conditions in the ghettos and
systemic multi-generational poverty.

This was a very, very controversial and heavily criticized phase of the
movement. King had essentially decided to shift his focus from civil
rights to economic justice. And so this is kind of where he was at when
he got the phone call to come to Memphis to represent the garbage
workers who had gone on strike.

DAVIES: I was going to ask you about that. Explain just a little bit
about this sanitation workers' strike and why it brought Martin Luther
King to Memphis and what sort of challenges that posed for him and his
movement.

Mr. SIDES: Mm-hmm. His advisors thought that coming to Memphis was a
real mistake, that it was quite a kind of left turn for him to be
making, that he should be focused on this thing in Washington
exclusively. But, you know, he couldn't ignore what was happening in
Memphis.

These guys were striking for better wages and for better conditions
after a horrible accident in which two garbage workers had been ground
up in a faulty hydraulic truck mechanism.

And when he came to Memphis, he decided he would lead a march down Biele
Street, the historic avenue of the blues, and this was going to be it.
He would leave Memphis, and he would go back to Washington and start
recruiting for this bigger cause that he was pushing for.

DAVIES: But the march really went very wrong, didn't it?

Mr. SIDES: The march got taken over by black militants and high school
students who were just out for a good time, and it turned violent. And
there was looting and smashing of windows, and the cops descended on
everyone. And it was really a nightmare for Martin Luther King because
his whole career, of course, was staked on nonviolence, and here he was
appearing to be leading a violent march.

So this set up kind of the third act, which was he realized he had to
come back to Memphis yet again to lead another march that would be
peaceful, and it was that third appearance in Memphis that got him
killed.

DAVIES: Now according to the evidence that the FBI later developed, we
know that James Earl Ray had a map with places in Atlanta where Martin
Luther King might have been found. So it's clear he had an interest in
his movements. Where did he go to finally get the perch from which he
would fire the fatal shot?

Mr. SIDES: Ray ended up checking into a flophouse on South Main, which
was directly across from the Lorraine Motel. He was shown a room that
faced toward Main Street, which would be the other side of the building,
and he immediately said no, thank you. I don't want that.

And then he was shown a room on the back side that faced the Lorraine,
and he immediately took that and paid a week's rent, which makes me
think, makes most of us think that he was thinking he'd be there a
while, that he probably wasn't going to be doing an assassination from
that room, that he was simply going to use that room as a perch to
follow King's movements, thinking the lawyers are going to be working
this out for weeks - for at least days, up to a week, until they would
actually get to do this march. So I don't think he thought the
assassination would take place there.

DAVIES: As it happened, his opportunity came that very day. Now, did he
actually have a shot at King from the room that he rented?

Mr. SIDES: He did, but he would have had to have leaned out over the
window and expose himself. The angle is less than ideal. The only way he
could really get a direct shot was to go down to the communal bathroom,
which was this filthy room, you know, down the hall that had a direct
shot if he stood in the bathtub.

After the assassination, the police found that the window in the
bathroom had been jerked up about five inches. The screen had been
jimmied from its groove, and there was a palm print on the wall, and
various people in the flophouse had heard a shot coming from that
bathroom. So it became pretty clear that's where the shot came from.

DAVIES: So it appears that James Earl Ray took the rifle, which he had
purchased recently, from his room down to the bathroom, where he could
get a clear look at King, who, as it turned out, was lingering on his
balcony. You also note that he realized that he needed some binoculars
to really follow his movements. He went out and bought those.

When it came time to get a shot - it's interesting. He loaded only a
single round into the weapon.

Mr. SIDES: Right.

DAVIES: How hard or easy a shot was this for a guy who obviously was not
a trained marksman?

Mr. SIDES: You know, I've stood on the balcony, and I've stood in the
flophouse, which is now a part of the National Civil Rights Museum. It's
an easy shot. It's about 200 feet. With a seven-power scope, which is
what he had, it would appear to be about 30 feet. King's face would've
almost completely filled the optical plane of the scope.

He was not a trained or, you know, professional marksman, but he had
been in the Army and had fired that very caliber of weapon. And I don't
think, you know, in the end, you know, the shot itself was actually
fairly easy.

DAVIES: King was lingering on the balcony with some friends because they
were about to go out to dinner, and you write that he was in a jovial
and relaxed mood when he was hit by this shot, which caught him on the
jaw and did terrible damage.

The police were actually watching from a perch very nearby. Why?

Mr. SIDES: The Memphis police had been following King and his entourage
everywhere, and also a local black power group called the Invaders, who
were in negotiations with King. So they had two black policemen in this
firehouse that happened to face the Lorraine, looking at events through
a peephole.

So, you know, there were people watching this from various vantage
points. And, you know, when this shot rang out, these policemen all ran
outside from the firehouse and ran towards the Lorraine, trying to
figure out, you know, which direction did the shot come from.

DAVIES: And the firehouse was literally next door to the boarding house
that Ray was perched in?

Mr. SIDES: It's across the street. And again, it's about, like, 200,
maybe 250 feet away.

DAVIES: It does seem remarkable that with the police in a firehouse very
nearby that James Earl Ray was able to fire this shot, which was heard
by lots of people, and then slip away. How close did he come to getting
caught then?

Mr. SIDES: Within 30 seconds. He ran down the stairs, and he took a left
turn. He was running towards his car, which was a white Mustang that was
parked on the street, when he saw some policemen who were gathered
around that fire station.

And he had to do a very impulsive thing. On one level, you could say
this was a really stupid act. He ditched the weapon. Everything needed
to solve that case was in that bundle with the weapon and various other
belongings that he had there. But if he hadn't done that, he would have
been caught immediately with the weapons in his arms. So, you know, he
really, he had to do that.

He jumped in the car and took off, and there were several witnesses
there who saw the white Mustang as it took off heading north on Main
Street. So, you know, he came probably within 30 seconds of getting
caught.

DAVIES: And because there were witnesses, and because someone discovered
the weapon stashed, I guess, in the vestibule of a little shop right
away, the police were able to get out a report very quickly that they
were looking for a man in a white Mustang.

Mr. SIDES: Within two minutes, the report was going out, looking for,
you know, a white male, well-dressed - because he was wearing a suit -
in a white Mustang heading north on Main Street.

They found that bundle there, and the bundle had, you know, it had the
weapon. It had the scope. It had the ammunition. It had the binoculars
that he had just bought at York Arms, which was a local sporting goods
store. And it had a number of interesting belongings - like, for
example, a transistor radio that had Ray's prison number on it. It was a
radio that he had bought at the state penitentiary in Missouri. They
didn't know what the numbers meant yet, but it turned out to be his
prison ID number: 416J.

There was also a number of other articles, the local newspaper, which
mentioned in it that King and his entourage were staying at the
Lorraine, and a number of toiletry items that turned out to have Ray's
fingerprints on them.

DAVIES: Well, for two months, he managed to evade the FBI, which despite
Hoover's antipathy for King, was actively investigating this, throwing
all of the resources they could into it. He finds his way to Canada. He
takes the bus up to Canada because border crossings were easy there, and
then he figured out how to get a passport and airline ticket out of the
country. And some conspiracy theorists will say there's no way this
small-time criminal could have figured this out. Tell us how he did it,
and what your assessment is.

Mr. SIDES: Well, he says that he went to the local library, looked back
through some old issues of Toronto newspapers and found some birth
notices. And on the basis of those names from, you know, from people
born about the same year that he was born, he applied for a birth
certificate. And the authorities in Ottawa gave him the birth
certificate. And then, on the basis of having the birth certificate, he
applied for a passport. And they gave him a passport.

The saying in Canada was welcome to Canada. We trust you. It was
unbelievably easy to get a passport to leave the country at that time.
All you had to do, really, is say you were the person you said you were.
That was good enough. There was no – the paperwork was just unbelievably
easy, and I think Ray himself was surprised at how easy it was.

So getting the passport actually proved – it took a few weeks, but it
really was very low-tech and very inexpensive and not complicated at
all.

DAVIES: And he had a new alias now.

Mr. SIDES: Yeah, during this whole period, he's been changing aliases.
You know, he went from being Galt to – when he bought the gun, his name
was Harvey Lowmeyer. And then when he checked into that flophouse in
Memphis, his name was John Willard. He came back to Atlanta, ditched the
car, took the bus up to Toronto and became very quickly Paul Bridgeman,
and then Ramon George Sneyd. And that's the name, Sneyd, that he
traveled on to London and on to Lisbon and then back to London briefly,
where he was caught.

GROSS: Hampton Sides will continue his conversation with FRESH AIR
contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Sides' new book
is called "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King,
Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's continue the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded
with Hampton Sides, about his new book "Hellhound on His Trail: The
Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His
Assassin." The book reconstructs James Earl Ray's activities in the
months before he assassinated King, intercut with the story of King's
effort to hold together and expand the Civil Rights Movement.

When we left off, Sides was talking about James Earl Ray's final days on
the lam and his capture in London.

DAVE DAVIES: James Earl Ray, after being captured in London, was
extradited to the United States. He confessed and was sentenced to life
in prison. He later recanted his confession and spent years talking
about all this, wrote two books, gave interviews to Playboy and other
media and told stories that there was another guy, probably the gunman,
somebody named Raul. And this got some currency with members of the
Martin Luther King family. His son Dexter came, took up the cause and
believed that James Earl Ray deserved a new trial.

What do you make of what Ray said about this?

Mr. SIDES: It's very difficult to understand his whole story. You know,
he plea bargained – after the plea bargain, he said, all right, here's
the real story. Yeah, it's true, I bought the gun. I bought the scope. I
bought the ammunition. I did come to Memphis just before the
assassination and checked into that flophouse. That was me. I did go
down to York Arms to buy that set of binoculars, one – two hours before
the assassination. Yeah, that was me. I did come back to the flophouse
and I did leave the scene of the crime one minute after the
assassination in the getaway car that everyone saw there on South Main.
That was all me. And I did go to Atlanta and ditched the car and go on
this long getaway to Toronto and London and all that. But there was
just, you know, there was just this other guy named Raul who actually
pulled the trigger. That was his defense.

And, you know, it's like, well, all right. Who is Raul? Do we have a
photograph or do we have an address? Do we have a single witness who
ever saw Ray in the same room with this guy? No. We don't have a
physical description that's consistent. We don't have any information
about this guy.

And so, naturally, a lot of people began to suspect that Raul was just
another alias that he made up in a lifelong career of making up aliases.
I came to the conclusion that Raul did not exist and that he was a
figment of Ray's imagination. Maybe kind of like his imaginary friend
who, in fact, maybe did tell him to do these things. But the idea turned
on the notion that Raul was dictating his movements for the whole year
that he was on the lam.

And, you know, it presupposes that Ray was trusting enough and was that
stupid, essentially, to follow orders from a person he didn't even know.
Ray had spent his whole career being, you know, very cagey and very
cautious. Didn't trust anyone, not even his own brothers really, and
yet, supposedly, he trusted this guy Raul with his life.

But nonetheless, I think it is a testament to Ray's craftiness that he
was able to convince members of the inner circle, members of the King
family that he was innocent, that this guy Raul existed. It was kind of
the final act of craftiness on his part that he was able to convince
people close to King that he was not only innocent but, you know, this
whole fiction of Raul might've been true.

DAVIES: You don't discount the notion that he might've had if not an
accomplice, at least some financial support. I mean, there was a St.
Louis segregationist named John Sutherland who was said to have offered
a $50,000 bounty on the life of Martin Luther King. How do you assess
these notions?

Mr. SIDES: Well, I think it's quite possible that he knew about that
bounty. It's not clear that he was actually paid because he robbed a
bank in London. He tried to rob a jewelry store. I don't think he
would've exposed himself like that if he wasn't desperate for money.

But in the end, I guess I am a conspiracist in the sense that I believe
that there's ample evidence that he had some help along the way. Not
this shadowy, esoteric, super-sophisticated conspiracy but a rather
crude one - a handful of individuals, maybe some members of his family,
maybe some criminal low lives that he associated with.

But along the path there are plenty of unanswered questions about money
and about some of his movements. He spent some time in New Orleans, for
example, shortly before the assassination. What was he doing there? It's
not clear. How exactly did he gather all those aliases? Was it just the
way he said, where he went to the library and got the names out of back
issues of the newspaper or was something slightly more complicated?
There are a lot of questions like that.

DAVIES: This is a fascinating account of Ray and his movements. And what
I'm struck by at the end of the book is in some ways what a small guy he
seemed. I mean, I'm reminded of the Hannah Arendt observation of the
banality of evil. And I'm just wondering, do you feel like you
understand him? Is he like Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver," some tortured
soul or like Timothy McVeigh, a young man who's ideologically driven? Do
you feel like you get him?

Mr. SIDES: I get parts of him. You know, I think that there wasn't a
single motivation so much as, you know, kind of an amalgam of sub-
motivations that he kind of threw into a blender and stuck it on puree.
You know, like, yes, he was a person who thought of himself as a
businessman, as a hustler and it's possible that this was, you know, the
ultimate business deal. Yes, he was a racist. Yes, he had a history of
mental illness accentuated by years of amphetamine use. Throw all those
sort of sub-motivations into this blender and I think you begin to get
some sense of how he could've done this and why he could've done this.

But in the end, you're right, it's really about the banality of evil.
It's about how a very hollow person can bring down a great man. And,
unfortunately, we've got a long and sordid history of people like that
in this country. You know, from Timothy McVeigh to John Hinckley or
people who have tried to bring down great men or people who have tried
to express themselves taking aim at history. Unfortunately, we have a
long list of guys like that.

DAVIES: Well Hampton Sides, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SIDES: Thanks for having me on the show.

GROSS: Hampton Sides spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. James
Earl Ray died in prison in 1998. Sides' new book about Ray is called
"Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the
International Hunt for His Assassin." You can read a chapter on our
website freshair.npr.org.
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..SGMT:
Stephanie Nakasian: Paying Tribute To Billie Holiday

TERRY GROSS, host:

I hadn't heard the singer Stephanie Nakasian until the release of her
latest CD "Billie Remembered," a tribute to Billie Holiday. I liked it
so much we invited Nakasian on the show. The album features songs
Holiday recorded in the mid-1930s, like "These Foolish Things," "I Cried
for You," "I Wished on the Moon," and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do."
Nakasian paid tribute to singer June Christy on her album "Lullaby in
Rhythm."

Stephanie Nakasian teaches jazz, voice and vocal jazz improvisation at
the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and is the
author of an instructional book on jazz singing called "It's Not on the
Page." She's performed several times on the public radio series
"Riverwalk Jazz." On her new album "Billie Remembered," her husband Hod
O'Brien is featured on piano.

Let's start with the opening track, "No Regrets."

(Soundbite of song, "No Regrets")

Ms. STEPHANIE NAKASIAN (Jazz vocalist, Voice Teacher): (Singing) No
regrets, although our love affair has gone astray. No regrets. I know
I'll always care though you're away. So now our happy romance ended
suddenly. Still in my heart you'll be forever mine. No regrets, because
somebody new looks good to you. No regrets, sweetheart no matter what
you say or do. I know our love will linger when the other love forgets.
So I say goodbye with no regrets.

GROSS: That's Stephanie Nakasian from her new CD "Billie Remembered: The
Classic Songs of Billie Holiday." Stephanie Nakasian, welcome to FRESH
AIR.

Listening closely to Billie Holiday from the mid-1930s in preparation
for your CD, what did you really pick up from her singing? And feel free
to demonstrate that for us, to illustrate that for us.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Well, in the beginning I tried to actually do what she was
doing and she sings very much from the throat, which is not really that
safe, so if I really dig down...

(Soundbite of singing)

Did I remember...

It kind of felt like I was straining my voice, so I didn't really want
to be too harsh with it. I wanted to protect my voice and not sing
harshly, so I tried to get that soulful and immediate feeling without
contriving it and without hurting myself. So I kind of...

(Soundbite of singing)

Did I remember...

You know, try to be in the middle somewhere and get the essence of the
feeling and the passion without making it sound corny or phony.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another track from your Billie Holiday CD.
So I think I'll go with "I Wished on the Moon." Tell me what you like
about this song.

Ms. NAKASIAN: I loved this middle tempo feeling. That's how relaxed it
is and how gently moving it is. And it's a very hard tempo to get young
singers to – and instrumentalists for that matter, to get. It's easier
to do really fast and really slow and bossa nova's not too bad,
although, our phrasing is difficult in America to get the Latin feeling.
But "Wished on the Moon" is that really nice...

(Soundbite of singing)

Wished on the moon...

And you kind of have to feel this gentle pulsing behind you. I always
tell my students, kind of like that squid – the way the squid moves. It
kind of propels itself through the water gently. She has this gentle
propulsion.

GROSS: Okay. So this is my guest Stephanie Nakasian. And I should say,
you know, one of the things that makes this CD so enjoyable is the
musicians on it. I mean, you sound great and you have great musicians on
it, including your husband Hod O'Brien at the piano, Randy Sandke on
trumpet, Harry Allen on tenor saxophone, Marty Grosz on guitar.

So, this Stephanie Nakasian singing "I Wished on the Moon" from her CD
"Billie Remembered: The Classic Songs of Billie Holiday."

Ms. NAKASIAN: (Singing) I wished on the moon for something I never knew.
I wished on the moon for more than I ever knew. A sweeter rose, a softer
sky on an April day that would not dance away. I begged of a star to
throw me a beam or two. Wished on a star and asked for a dream or two. I
looked for every loveliness, it all came true. I wished on the moon for
you.

GROSS: That's Stephanie Nakasian from her new CD "Billie Remembered: The
Classic Songs of Billie Holiday." You've also done songs paying tribute
to June Christy.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Performing songs that she did, and to Lee Wiley, performing songs
that Lee Wiley did. And then you have an album called "Thrush Hour" in
which you sing in the manner of Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Sarah
Vaughn, Abbey Lincoln. Are you a mimic? I mean, can you do other
people's voices? I'm not, you know...

Ms. NAKASIAN: I'd rather not be thought as a mimic because that's not
the goal.

GROSS: No, I realize that but are you capable of doing that? Are you
capable of doing that?

Ms. NAKASIAN: Oh yeah. Sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NAKASIAN: You really want to hear it? No, not really.

GROSS: Yeah. No. No. Show me what you can do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NAKASIAN: No, I mean everything - if you do the Sarah Vaughn and you
take it to – I mean, she actually mimicked herself in her later years,
too. But, you know, if you do...

GROSS: I agree with you.

(Soundbite of vocalizing)

Ms. NAKASIAN: I mean, you could really kind of mimic it to the point
where it's almost kind of comedic. And I really respect these women and
these artists so much. The point was to really get - infuse my own voice
with the great foundation people, whether it's Louis Armstrong or
Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster or any of these ladies – great ladies of
jazz.

GROSS: What did you learn from the couple of years you spent on the road
with John Hendricks, who is must famous I think as a former member of
Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, the vocal group?

Ms. NAKASIAN: Oh, so much. He – just standing next to him, singing
"Jumping At the Woodside" my first week with him, my job was just to
go...

(Singing) ...jump, jump, jump, jump, jump. Jump, jump, jump, jump, jump.

And in the beginning, I said this is ridicules. This is one note. And
then I finally realized I'm really learning how to place the rhythm in
these nice, punctuated kind of - I call them flick, like flicking a note
without it being harsh and heavy. And just - I just stood next to him
and sang that line with him, and in doing that, I kind of got it. And so
he taught by example, and also taught me to be more like a horn.

GROSS: What does that mean?

Ms. NAKASIAN: Well, when John sings his...

(Soundbite of scatting)

Ms. NAKASIAN: There's all these like bends, as you were saying with
Billie Holiday, you know. It's not...

(Soundbite of vocalizing)

Ms. NAKASIAN: There's a...

(Soundbite of scatting)

Ms. NAKASIAN: You know, there's a lot of bends and turns the way a
saxophone or a trumpet or a trombone would do. And then so just by
singing with him, I think I became more like a horn, as if I was on the
road with a big band.

GROSS: Was it comfortable, too, to start off on stage as more of a
backup singer than being out there on your own?

Ms. NAKASIAN: Oh, it was a great apprenticeship. It's the perfect way to
do it. As a matter of fact, all the great singers started off in the
bands, so they had their little script that they were supposed to do.
And while they were on the road, you know, a hundred days a year or
more, they would be listening to the riffs of the band and they'd be
listening to the bass and they'd be listening - so they'd hear these...

(Soundbite of scatting)

Ms. NAKASIAN: They'd hear those shakes and those little fall offs and
the way the horns are, and so they became horns. And I think that that's
kind of missing these days, because we don't have as much opportunity to
be, you know, be band singers.

GROSS: The only thing I object to about the idea of a singer should be
like a horn is that a singer has a gift that instrumentalists don't
have, which is language, words, lyrics. And I think the lyrics are so
important when you sing to really kind of communicate the feeling of the
lyrics and meaning of the words.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: The sound of the words, which you do.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Yeah. I agree. Thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NAKASIAN: Thank you. I think it's a juggling game between the lyric
and the music always, and rhythm. And what the horn feeling allows you
to do is to bend a note once in a while. So, on the piano, it would be
just a note.

(Soundbite of vocalizing)

Ms. NAKASIAN: You know? And once you're allowed to bend it a little bit,
you can have all these. Of course, the bending of the notes that the
horns did was really emulating the singer, because the singer in the
blues would always bend the notes. So, you know, Louis Armstrong was
listening to opera music, and so I really think it came from the singer
first and then through the instrumentalist, and then back to the singer
again. But I agree with you. It really about what do the words bring out
in your feelings and then how can you best express those?

GROSS: My guest is Stephanie Nakasian. Her new album is called "Billie
Remembered."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is singer Stephanie Nakasian. Her new album, "Billie
Remembered," is a tribute to Billie Holiday, featuring songs Holiday
recorded in the mid-1930s. Before Nakasian had a singing career, she
worked on Wall Street at the New York Stock Exchange. She has an MBA in
finance from Northwestern.

After leaving Wall Street, you decided to take some singing lessons.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Well, I started singing first, and then I realized I
should take singing lessons. I had done - I started getting work, and I
had - there was about an eight or nine-month period when I was trying
trade futures on the Futures Exchange and I was trying to hang out until
three in the morning, and that was definitely not working.

And I had to decide between the two for awhile. So I decided to try it
for five years and really devote my life to learning about the music and
studying and learning the solos and learning the instrumentalists. And
then if after five years no one's hiring me and no one - it really isn't
happening, I'd go back to my business career, which I enjoyed and it was
fun and I was successful with. I just, you know, it was very hard to try
to split them and do both.

GROSS: So when you decided to learn more about singing and take singing
lessons, what are some of the things you learned about your voice that
you didn't know before and how to use your voice?

Ms. NAKASIAN: Well, I had a wonderful teacher. I was really skeptical
about taking voice lessons because I'd seen a lot of singers who got
very wrapped up in the technical aspect and got kind of uptight about
it, and I didn't want any of that technical inhibition. So I found a
wonderful teacher in New York, Joe Scott, who's not around anymore. But
he was so inspirational, and he taught everybody from the road shows,
rock group to soap opera stars, to opera singers to, you know, and he
was wonderful. And he basically was like a little - he was like a guru,
almost, to me.

He would just encourage me to free up my voice and keep connected with
vowels and opening the throat and relaxing, and didn't put a lot of
ideas in my head about how to do it. It was much more about staying open
and relaxed so that I could sing, and not getting in the way.

GROSS: What was the key for you in learning how to really relax your
throat and sing openly?

Ms. NAKASIAN: The visualization I used for my students - and this is
coming free of charge - is...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NAKASIAN: ...you drop your jaw, and that opens your - that's what
all choir teachers tell their students. You drop your jaw nice and
relaxed, and then you have to open the back gate, which is your yawn.
When you yawn...

(Soundbite of yawning)

Ms. NAKASIAN: ...your tongue goes down and the tongue has to go down in
order for the throat to be open. So when those gates are open, usually
the voice comes flying out. You don't really have to push it out. When
it gets tight in the jaw, when the tongue comes pulling up like it does
in some - you know, some of the R&B music is very dangerous, because
they sing...

(Singing) Hey, baby.

You know, it gets - the tongue comes up. So we try to watch that tongue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NAKASIAN: It's the strongest set of muscles in the body, so we have
to be careful with the tongue. But it should lie down. And when you
think of a yawn...

(Soundbite of yawning)

Ms. NAKASIAN: ...even if you just visualize it, the body kind of
responds. So visualization works really well.

GROSS: Of course, you don't speak while you're yawning, so it's almost
counterintuitive because nothing else happens when you yawn.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Well, we practice on ah...

(Soundbite of vocalizing)

Ms. NAKASIAN: You practice with that, so you can feel how open and free
and great that is. Then we try other vowels with the same openness. And
then you sneak those consonants in, which we need for annunciation and
for rhythm, and we try not to disturb that beautiful, open, flowing
nature of the voice. So it's a juggling act between the consonants,
which are in the front and the, you know, the open throat. But every
singer has to have that open throat, otherwise, you start grabbing, and
it's dangerous.

GROSS: Is it sometimes challenging to maintain a relaxed style of
singing and a relaxed throat when you're really nervous about the
concert you're about to give?

Ms. NAKASIAN: Of course. Life is not relaxed. When I say to my students,
oh, you must just relax and let go and don't think so hard and don't try
so hard. You know, they're like, you know, they're what's - what is
this? I have to, you know, I have to do my emails and I have do my
BlackBerry and I'm doing - no, it's not part of our way of being, so we
have to work on that. So I know I have to work on breathing and relaxing
and trusting that it's going to be okay. Now, there is an element of
tension that's very good for a performance.

I'll never forget. I had one performance where I actually was - felt
very relaxed and cool, and I didn't really do a very good job. So you
have to have a little bit of up feeling, adrenaline to get you through.
On the other hand, if it's tight, just like an athlete - I do a lot of
comparisons to athletes - you can't exercise on tight muscles. You get
injured, and that's basically what the voice is. It's a bunch of
muscles.

GROSS: Everything that we've played has been you paying tribute to
another singer. So I thought I'd play a song in which you're just not
paying tribute to anybody else. You're just being you. And this is from
a recent album. It's from last year. The album is called "If I Ruled the
World." And the song I want to play is "Too Many Tears." It's a Harry
Warren/Al Dubin song. And why don't you say a few words about being
yourself on this completely, and also about why you chose the song.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Well, I appreciate you playing that, because I don't want
to be known as a tribute singer. I think that that's just something, as
I said, it really came out of my being a teacher more than anything. But
I've done many, many CD's that I felt that the songs were unusual. I
didn't want to do, necessarily, standards, although I did do one
recording in Japan that was all standards that I - turned out to be
enjoyable to me. I thought I would not enjoy it as much, but it was
great. And I wanted to find sings that were passionate, because that's
what it's all about. And this song is bluesy and deep and has those
bending moments, and just kind of spoke to me at that point.

GROSS: Well, it's quite good.

Stephanie Nakasian, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Thank you, Terry.

(Soundbite of song, "Too Many Tears")

Ms. NAKASIAN: (Singing) Too many tears. Each night, I go to bed. I lie
awake and shed too many tears. Your memory is bringing me too many
tears. Too many years...

GROSS: Stephanie Nakasian's latest album is a tribute to Billie Holiday,
called "Billie Remembered." If you wish you could sing a Billie Holiday
song with a band as good as Nakasian's, you're in luck. She recorded a
music-minus-one version of her album, which features the original tracks
with her singing followed by just the instrumental tracks so that you
can provide the vocals.

On our Web site, you can hear her sing "No Regrets," then play the
instrumental version and sing along. That's at freshair.npr.org.
..COST:
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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