Editor’s note: In commemoration of Black History Month, The Pentagram is featuring a series about Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Soldiers and who influenced their careers in the arts or subjects of expertise.
The U.S. Army Band Downrange vocalist Sgt. Maj. Christal J. Rheams is preparing to produce and perform an exclusive social media tribute to Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul’s music has played a key role in her musical career, but other individuals, musical and nonmusical, have stoked her passions.
Several entertainers Rheams holds close to her heart can be recognized by just their first names. She admires Aretha, Ella, and Etta, and a guy who played basketball in her neck of the woods named Michael.
As an 11 year old, the North Carolina native was most impressed when family gatherings centered around the piano where passion rose from the vocal chords and aged fingers.
“I think that the most important part of influences who are concerned with black history and this month are the people who had no names,” Rheams said. “When I say no names, I mean the people who weren’t famous. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by a family of musicians and friends who were musicians. We had friends over often, and there was an old piano in the dining room. Saturday nights or Sunday nights, there would be somebody sitting at the piano.
“Those folks sitting or singing at the piano probably had more of an influence than anybody I heard on the radio. My mother had a friend named Bennie Richardson. I’ll never forget Bennie. Bennie was a hospital janitor, but he played by ear; he couldn’t read music. He had this really deep, gravelly, bass voice. Every time he sat down at the piano, he would play Glen Campbell’s ‘By the Time I get to Phoenix.’ To this day, I don’t think I’ve heard a more beautiful version of that song. The way he played; I always remember he had arthritis (in his hands) because his knuckles were enlarged, but he still played so beautifully on an out-of-tune piano. He sang from his soul. He didn’t sing the words on the page. Those were the people I learned the most from because from him, I learned that music making the notes come to life.”
Her current work can find Rheams covering Franklin’s “Nessun Dorma” or Etta James’ “At Last,” but she said there are so many artists on her admiration list it would take forever to mention them all.
“Aretha and Nancy Wilson (three-time Grammy winning Jazz artist) are most definitely are on my list,” she said. “Ella (Fitzgerald) passed a while ago. I think very highly of Ella.
“A lot of people don’t know who Nancy Wilson is. All three of these women are pioneers in their field. With the (social media) Aretha tribute, I wanted to do either ‘I Dream a Dream’ from Les Misérables or ‘Nessun Dorma.’ The reason I wanted to do those two songs is because those were two things that had the most impact on me from Aretha’s days. Aretha was not afraid to put her spin on anything, but what was a little-known fact about her was that she and Luciano Pavarotti were very close friends. Once while ill, he needed someone to stand in for him, and he called her. I listen to ‘Nessun Dorma’ today, and I get a tear in my eye.”
Rheams’ wishes include reintroducing classic rhythm and blues, jazz, and soul when Downrange performs concerts throughout the Military District of Washington and nationwide.
“I do think I’m passing the torch,” she said of singing Etta James and Aretha Franklin selections. “We have a responsibility as musicians to honor what they did and to influence the next generation to hear and learn from that.”
Off the stage and moving to the basketball court, Rheams has been influenced by a basketball icon — Michael Jordan. She grew up in the heart of the Atlantic Coast Conference when Jordan was starring with the North Carolina Tarheels.
“I was all there for the Michael Jordan days,” she said. “That’s another icon. I’m definitely dating myself. I saw him play in Carolina. For me, Jordan has an iconic drive, and watching him just be the person that he was. I don’t think that Jordan thought he was as talented as he was. He made things happen. He was definitely driven from day one.”
Rheams also mentioned that WNBA star Mya Moore is on her list of well-respected athletes.
“She’s one of the first Jordanesque female basketball players that have ever come along,” Rheams said of the Minnesota Lynx star. “There are a lot of great (female players), but Maya Moore is one of the ones that took the skill of basketball and the iconic drive and added all of that and made a career out of it.”
Pentagram Staff Writer Jim Dresbach can be reached at email@example.com.