By Kevin Cuneo
Not until she was 42 did jazz singer René Marie start her professional career.
I guess you could chalk up the life experiences of her first four decades as research, because now she pours every bit of the pain, joy and suffering into each song.
Married at 18, she remained with an abusive husband for 23 years, even though he ordered her to either stop singing or leave their home. She left and, at the urging of her older son, Michael, Marie started her professional career.
“I think every important thing that’s happened to me has made it into my music,” the 56-year-old Marie said.
“It’s all a part of what I am.”
Instead of conveniently forgetting the misery of a peripatetic childhood, marked by long periods when her family had no home, Marie embraces homeless people in every city where she tours.
“We were lucky when I was young,” she said. “After my mother left my father, following a violent domestic situation, she and my brother and I — we were the youngest of eight kids — would live with relatives.
“That’s the way it was back then; family would take you in. They might not be happy about it, but they did it. We’d sleep on couches, in a spare room or even on the floor for months at a time before moving on.”
The day after Sunday’s concert at Mercyhurst College’s D’Angelo Performing Arts Center, Marie and her trio will go to Community Shelter Services to put on a free performance for the homeless people staying there.
In previous appearances in Erie, including a rousing performance at the Jazz & Blues Festival in 2003, Marie has always been a crowd-pleaser. I have no doubt her show at Mercyhurst will soar, but it’s the gig for the homeless that sounds really interesting.
“We don’t give a pep talk or do any preaching,” Marie said. “Nothing like that. We treat it like a regular concert, except that it’s a lot more loose. The audiences tend to be quite verbally responsive.
“I always talk to the audience, and they talk right back to us. Sometimes, depending what they say, it can change the whole direction of the concert.”
Marie laughs warmly as she recalls a family at a shelter in Roanoke, Va. “I asked if anyone in the audience could sing, and a mother and her five children stood up and said, ‘Yes, we can sing.’ I brought them on stage and they launched into this tight, beautiful, natural harmony.”
Marie said she invited them to join her that night at the regular show. “They were a huge hit, and the oldest son, who was about 14 at the time, got involved with music. When last I checked, he was still composing songs. I think he has a bright future.”
It took Marie back to her own childhood when she and her family would play a game they called “Choir.”
“Each of us would find our own note and then we’d start a five-part harmony. I remember how nice it was to listen to each other.”
After spending the last six years in Colorado, where she began to gain a national following, Marie and her current husband recently moved back to Virginia to be closer to family.
It’s never easy to go home again, but the stories of childhood, struggle and perseverance should provide some wonderful new material for her songs.