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Throwback Thursday: Riding in an Elevator with James Earl Jones

by John on April 21st, 2011

I remember the rush of excitement when the decision was made. We were hiring Darth Vader.

My freshman year of high school, I played bass with the New Jersey Youth Symphony, a group that made money hand-over-fist for allowing children the privilege of playing community organization that ensured that musically-inclined children would be able to play the classics, regardless of what their school offered1. For a President’s Day concert, we were playing Lincoln Portrait, an orchestral work by my favorite2 composer, Aaron Copeland (also the composer of “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner”). The piece is for orchestra & narrator, and we were all set to use somebody from the local NPR station.

But then, James Earl Jones was available. My memory here is all funky, because I really want to say that he was in the middle of filming Coming to America, but the timing simply doesn’t work out. This was February of 1993, years after Coming to America was released. So, if you happen to know what Terrence Mann was doing in New York City in February of 1993, I’d love to know how we got him.

How isn’t important, though – he had a late scheduling snafu and *poof* he was available to us. We hired him.

The actual performance went well. No major screw-ups that I noticed from the group, and I, personally, didn’t come in 2 measures early after a long period of rest like I normally did. The narration, obviously, was magnificent. While we never managed a rehearsal with Mr. Jones, he had obviously performed the piece before & was absolutely in sync with the orchestra. We received a standing ovation.

Now, I am not a patient person. Well, that’s not entirely true – I can be quite patient, but I loathe waiting in lines. The school that we performed at was three stories, the performance hall was actually in the basement – the main entrance was actually up the stairs. I notice a service elevator off from the beaten path when we were heading into the auditorium that I made a B-line for. While kids were queuing up near the “not as scary” elevators, I got right in. As soon as I went to hit the button, though, I heard “can you hold that for me?” in a rich baritone.

I rode on a rickety elevator, going up two floors, alongside the god that gave voice to Darth Vader. I remember him saying something like “I like to find the quiet way out of a room, too” and chuckling as I tried to reconcile the fact that I was listening to Darth Vader chuckle while actively not peeing my pants.

What’s funny is that I’m somebody who is immensely comfortable in front of a group. Part of why I’m so successful at my job is that I’ll say my piece (and I can be quite well spoken) without regard for who is at the table. Ultra technical crowd? Great. CEO of the company? Makes no difference. I just don’t seize, no matter the company.

But this one time, I did. I blame his Jedi Mind Powers.


1 If it sounds like I don’t like the New Jersey Youth Symphony, you’re right on. They kicked me out when I couldn’t make a concert’s dress rehearsal because I was playing a jazz band concert that same evening. Despite their insistence that “school events should always come first,” that apparently only applied to actual classes. That, in itself, was fine – they didn’t want me to play a concert, so I didn’t play the concert – and, with that, I just quit the group. I’d leave it at that, but in the first rehearsal of the next season, they talked about how important “full commitment” was and then proceeded to talk about the bass player they had to make the difficult decision to ask to sit out a concert because he couldn’t make up his mind between a the symphony and other commitments.

On top of all of this, enrollment in the symphony wasn’t cheap (depending on which level you were in, enrollment was between $120 and $400 a year, if memory serves), the suggested donation at concerts was $20 per ticket and we threw PBS-type pledge drives (play a pops concert, but interrupt between each song about how important donations were to making things run). The thing is, we rehearsed in schools & churches that didn’t charge us rent. I believe we had to rent out the performance halls, but we nearly packed every performance (seriously, 100+ kids each brining two parents, a sibling or two, and a grandparent . . . that will pack most any auditorium), so the “suggested donations” should have more than paid for themselves. I’m pretty sure that the conductor of the New Jersey Youth Symphony was making a very comfortable six-figure salary, leading an orchestra that rehearsed for 3 hours a week.

2 Not actually my favorite. I despise the vast majority of Aaron Copeland’s music

16 Comments
  1. I also feel gruilty when people talk composers because I’m usually like “who?” Similarly I generally don’t know the names of people in bands. Watch the extent of my knowledge:

    Metallica: Lars Ulrich and others
    Van Halen: Eddie Van Halen and Alex(?) Van Halen plus Diamond Dave and others
    Def Leppard: One Armed Drummer
    Rush: Neal Pert
    Journey: Steve Perry and assorted people
    Red Hot Chili Peppers: Anthony Kedis and some dudes.
    Foo Fighters: Dave Grohl. That is all. Maybe there’s another Dave in here too. Dave…you know, the other one. Who was in Jane’s Addiction? That Dave.
    The Classics IV: a guy my dad went to high school with

    That is literally all I’ve got as for as band members go. I feel like I should know the names of some others but…not so much. Maybe if you told me the name I could place it with the band but…mostly I just know which songs I like.

    My point is: I feel guilty for never knowing who created the music I like.

    • You know, I’m absolutely horrible with who is in what band. I’m fairly confident that Simon & Garfunkel included Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel…and the Dick Clark Five are a death-metal band.

      But, composers & their works? They stick with me. Also, I can name the songwriter of a lot of the great songs, even if I can’t always who played/sang it . . . I’ll be posting some of my own works to the blog in the near future.

      And? One-armed Drummer made me chuckle.

  2. You were just afraid he was your father…

  3. Martin Sheen nodded at me once on the street. It was cool, but not even on the same planet of coolness as an elevator with Darth Vader’s voice.

    Also?

    The Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner line kills me. Kills me. Was a composition major in college. Classical music humor…. ::chuckle::

    • I was proud of the Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner. I’ve played Rodeo three times, and each time I hate it a little bit worse. The last time, though, I convinced the orchestra to shout out “Beef!” at the end of the piece. The conductor hated me. I’m a proud Geek.

  4. Ugh, composers – such a “use it or lose it” piece of information for me.
    Yeah, I would have peed my pants too. Ooh, that voice!

    I bumped into Kianu Reeves on the street in San Francisco one night. He reeked of cigarettes and WOW is he short. So are Omar Epps and JC Chasez.

    I’ll stop with the best NAMEABLE brush with the famous I’ve had: Ben Harper came into the jean store where I worked and he told me I had a great ass and I needed a real man to take care of it.
    (b/c meeting Larry Ellison and James Avery was INCREDIBLY boring.)

    • Really, Keanu Reeves is short? I figured he was “hollywood average”, which is just slightly taller than most . . . but then I think of the rumors of Tom Cruise, who I know is supder duper short.

      I’d compliment your ass if I saw it, too – good to know that I share that with Ben Harper. 🙂

    • Really, Keanu Reeves is short? I figured he was “hollywood average”, which is just slightly taller than most . . . but then I think of the rumors of Tom Cruise, who I know is supder duper short.

      I’d compliment your ass if I saw it, too – good to know that I share that with Ben Harper. 🙂

  5. Okay so my big claim to fame (just kidding – I rarely tell anyone) is that my mom’s cousin is Marcia Lucas (married to George Lucas for decades before their divorce) so I got to go to all kinds of cool premiers and I even had C3PO underoos. I know you’re jealous.

    I got to meet a lot of those people back before I knew to be really excited. And I have no idea what happened to the underoos.

    But for a while it was pretty cool. I never did get to meet James Earl Jones, though. DANG.

    (and as an aside, you are crushing it with all these posts. how do you fit it in?!)

    • First, thank you – I’ve had a LOT of post ideas for awhile, so I’ve just been fitting them in whenever. Writing is never an exhaustive process for me, as long as I know what I want to write about. I was so blinded with the old blog, only writing about “health issues,” that these ideas just started queuing in my brain (and my memory is like a bear-trap, never allowing anything to leave . . . unless it’s something really relevant, when my mind then acts like a sieve and it’s gone nearly as gone as soon as it enters). Once I come up with the idea, I only need 10-15 minutes to hash out a blog post (it helps to be able to type at a faster speed than I’m able to think)

      CP30 underroos are really damn cool, and yes, I am jealous. My parents never got me cool underwear, though I remember wearing Spiderman underroos that were hand-me-downs from my cousin. My actual best “brush with greatness” happened when I was too young to realize it. My second-cousin, once-removed is Sara McLachlan, and she was touring NY with the Chieftans when my grandfather took me to meet her for a cup of coffee. She was incredibly nice, incredibly soft-spoken…but, me at 9 years old was much more into the cookies that were served than the to-be-superstar across the table from me.

  6. I can just imagine that deep baritone voice and the chuckle. How cool! I was mesmerized by your story.

  7. I have no classical music knowledge.

    No knowledge of composers.

    No interest in Star Wars or James Earl Jones.

    So I will connect on two other points . . .

    I am also not a patient person.

    And I love your footnotes.

  8. I have heard this story many times. I still get chills.

  9. And don’t ever ask him about Andrew Lloyd Weber. He will crush your Phantom of the Opera loving heart.

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