A lot can happen in four years. Lives can evolve from secretive and sad to open and free. People can move from chains to change. Dreams can be followed, lessons learned, friends lost, dignity gained. Strongly entrenched beliefs can be blown to smithereens, personal barriers can be broken through again and again and again. In four years. In only four years.
Those eloquent word are René Marie’s and they need no editorial comment, except perhaps to say that a "lot can happen" is putting it mildly.
Go back to 1996, and outside of her family and friends almost no one had heard of her. Contrast that with today when she is widely known as one of the most astonishingly gifted jazz singers to grace the international stage.
Of course, in these days of media hype and million-dollar promotional campaigns, it is not uncommon for a singer to appear out of nowhere and take a place at the top of polls and sell CDs by the truckload. But René Marie’s is not that kind of tale; indeed, her story is as different as can be.
She was born René Marie Stevens in Warrenton, Virginia, on 7 November 1955. Her parents, Lester Barbour and Daisy Stone Stevens, were teachers, initially teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. Both parents came from big families. "My father had seventeen siblings, my mother had six - all girls. My maternal grandfather was an itinerant preacher and my mother and her sisters sang when he traveled. One of my aunts played piano, another became a jazz vocalist in New York somewhere, but due to her mental illness, we lost contact with her. Her daughter, however, is a professional vocalist on the west coast. My father sang in the glee club in college and loved to sing around the house, although no one else in my immediate family is a musician."
That immediate family consisted of five brothers, Claude, Lester, Jr., Eric, Sam and John, and one sister, Lynn. René also sang around the house, enjoying music on radio and records by artists as diverse as Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul & Mary, Paul Robeson, Odetta, Hank Williams, Sr., Mitch Miller and his Gang, and, later, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Cleo Laine, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Genya Ravan, the Pointer Sisters, and Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
When René was still a small child, her family moved to Roanoke, Virginia. She had begun taking her interest in music a stage further, learning to play piano and read music. Going one step further, as a young teenager she sang with an R&B band. "It was just some local guys in the neighborhood. We called ourselves the Majestics. I met my future husband in this band. He played piano. We married when I was eighteen and we both became Jehovah’s Witnesses. We quit doing music publicly as a result of that. I stopped singing for twenty-three years."
Everything was ready and so was I
That last remark of René’s sounds abrupt, and so it should, because it matches the abruptness of her departure from the world of music. The resumption of her story, twenty-three years later, is almost as abrupt. It is tempting to assume that nothing happened during those intervening years but of course that is not so. Indeed, much did happen, most importantly, she had two sons, Michael Croan, born in 1975 and Desmond Croan, born in 1978. And she also went to work part-time in jobs ranging from being a cashier at McDonald’s, a waitress at a formal restaurant and cleaning offices and private homes for her husband’s janitorial business before joining First Union Bank in Roanoke in 1991, where she eventually rose to a senior position. But throughout all these years, however much they might have been sublimated to the needs of survival, René’s musical instincts were alive and feeding on her experiences of life. In time, the need to sing became stronger and in 1996 she had begun to nourish that need. She had started to sing at gigs with a trio for which she was writing charts and, by 1997, was rehearsing for a CD she planned to record.
"The 31st of December was the day we were to start the whole thing. I had contacted Flat 5 Studios in Salem, Virginia, set up the first couple of recording dates, picked out the tunes we were gonna do, arranged the charts, chosen the musicians. Everything was ready and so was I."
But this rebirth of René’s musical consciousness was not happening in a vacuum. And that meant that there would be repercussions.
I was scared as hell, but I left anyway