Singing the blues is
a fantasy come true

An interview with Melissa Deacon ’89

A favorite of both critics and fans in the Philadelphia area, Melissa Deacon (above) and her band just released their first CD. (Photo provided by Melissa Deacon)

Editor's Note: The following piece is by Margaret ("Meg") Patrick Haist ’88, who is currently completing a Ph.D. in public policy and lives with her husband and two children in Lexington, Kentucky. Margaret recently interviewed her good friend Melissa Beaver Deacon ’89 (shown at right) about her blossoming career as a blues vocalist with her band Melissa Martin and the Mighty Rhythm Kings. Portions of this interview were used for a story on Melissa that appeared in the Spring 2004 edition of Illinois Wesleyan University Magazine.

Last fall, the 107th Senate passed Resolution 316, designating the year beginning February 1, 2003, as the "Year of the Blues." In keeping with the recognition of the art form and its musicians as a "national historic treasure," this month we highlight an Illinois Wesleyan music theater alumnus who has made a name for herself on the East Coast singing the blues with a band bearing her name. Melissa Martin and the Mighty Rhythm Kings have been together since October, 1994, and recently released their first CD, entitled, On the Mark.

Melissa (known when she graduated from Illinois Wesleyan in 1989 by her family name of Beaver), subsequently worked with the Small Change Children's Theater in Minneapolis. Her "day jobs" included management positions with Providian insurance and the Nurses Service division of AON. Since her marriage to Patrick Deacon and the birth of her son, Patrick Jr., Melissa has focused on her home life and her work with the Mighty Rhythm Kings. I asked her about the progression from a musical childhood to becoming a minor celebrity on the Philadelphia music scene.

When I asked Melissa to describe her music for blues lovers who appreciate the range of the genre, she described it as "Good rockin', West Coast swinging, Jump Blues at its finest!" Here's what some of the industry's devotees have said about her work with the Mighty Rhythm Kings and their recent cut, On the Mark.

"The best I've heard from a contemporary blues band." — Glenn Pfau, Music Director, WRDV-FM, Hatboro and Philadelphia, PA

"As I listened . . . by the third or fourth cut, the music had painted a vivid picture in my mind. With the style of music they play and the way it is presented . . . I felt as if I were taken away from my desk and stereo and placed at a table in a 1940s style cabaret. . . there I was - tapping my feet, snapping my fingers and feeling good." — Peter "Blewzzman" Lauro

[The CD is] "terrific [and includes an] excellent choice of material." [Melissa has a] "good voice and a good feel for [the jump blues]." — Billy Vera, Billy Vera and the Beaters.

"This is a great album . . . Ms. Martin's vocals are gritty and sophisticated at the same time. Her phrasing is always fresh and full of surprises. The band is hot, hot, hot. . . Really easy to listen to, and great for road trips." — John Schroeder, IWU alumnus

For more about Melissa Martin and the Mighty Rhythm Kings, including a link to their performance schedule, and information on the release of On the Mark, go to: www.mightyrhythmkings.com or click here.

Melissa Deacon lives with her family in Glenside, Pennsylvania.

Meg: Melissa, you are originally from Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. You moved to Bloomington with your family when you were fifteen. You could have left what became your adopted hometown to attend college, but you chose Illinois Wesleyan. Was this because of its highly regarded music theatre program? Or was there a specific faculty member under whom you were interested in training?

Melissa: There was only one music theater program that I had heard of that incorporated dance, drama and music and was not a conservatory. I visited several campuses. IWU offered everything I needed.

Meg: Let's go back a little further -- do you come from a musical family?

Melissa: My grandmother was a lounge singer, from what I understand! My parents are really the ones who solidified music as a career choice for me. They made music a priority in our household. I remember I realized how fortunate I was just a few weeks into my freshman year at IWU. I became friendly with a fellow music theater major who was struggling to put herself through the program. Her parents refused to be involved in her college career because she would not choose a "practical" major. I soon found that her situation was not all that unusual. My parents would ask, "Why not music? Why not theater?" They had every confidence that I would complete the program and work in the field.

Meg: Was there a pivotal moment when you decided that music was what you were meant to do?

Melissa: There have been many "moments" throughout my career, my experience at IWU and even before. I don't think I ever thought of doing anything else. I believe I saw Grease 13 times in the theater! I thought I was Olivia Newton-John. Of course there were moments at IWU that were pivotal. I am sure every Music Theater major who made it through that program has a story about the "one role." The part that was just meant for them, and they would not, could not survive if a director saw it differently. I did not have loads of success in casting over those years, certainly had plenty of learning experiences but was not called upon to portray too many characters during my three year tenure. But that "one role" that I really had my heart set on..... Let's just say I still have the same butterfly feelings when I think back to seeing my name at the top of that cast list. It was most definitely a "pivotal" moment. These days, the fans are the true inspiration. Every night I am still amazed to see how many different kinds of people with vastly different musical tastes respond to what Melissa Martin and The Mighty Rhythm Kings do. Actually seeing the fan reaction to the music is all the confirmation I need. I know I am in the right business!

Meg: The "one role" you're speaking of is of course your performance in Sweeney Todd during your senior year, which I saw on a return visit to campus. Sweeney Todd is an incredibly demanding piece vocally for the lead performers, and interestingly, the part of Mrs. Lovett demands someone with a mezzo soprano voice, which you had been working for four years to develop. Do you find that your vocal training at Wesleyan prepared you for singing the blues?

Melissa: Mary Creswell taught me how to do it "right." Martha Dewey, also from IWU, thumped on my solar plexus until I figured out where my chest voice was. In a way, she is responsible for preparing me for the blues.

Meg: Why the blues, Melissa?

Melissa: Good question. Good question. School was about laying a foundation, the training was classical and the performance part that I lived for was musical theater. I fully expected to graduate and star on Broadway. That didn't happen, and well, I got the blues. No, I'm joking. As a matter of fact, I always appreciated blues music. I never dreamed I'd sing it. When I started working with The Mighty Rhythm Kings, everything just fell into place -- things made sense. The style of music just got under my skin; sometimes I feel as if it is the only way I know how to communicate.

Meg: When recently do you remember being moved by music?

Melissa: A couple of years ago I experienced pure joy at a Lyle Lovett concert. He is incredible, but truth be told, he hadn't even taken the stage for the second half of his show. Francine Reed brought down the house with the Ida Cox hit"Wild Women Get The Blues." The entire audience was blown away, yet I know she was speaking just to me. Only me. I think about that performance a lot at a gig, wondering if anyone out there is experiencing my music on that kind of level.

Meg: Which leads me to my next question: Who were your musical influences?

Melissa: Definitely Dinah. Dinah Washington can turn a phrase in a way I truly admire. Big Maybelle, Ruth Brown, Etta James, Wynnonie Harris, Helen Humes, Lillian Briggs, maybe a little Nellie Lutcher, and of course, Big Mama Thornton. When I am the listener, I respond to the gals who have it all but sound effortless. My favorite voice teacher, Mary Creswell, made sure I knew how to deliver a song; phrasing, diction, supported tone. The technical delivery comes across, not even in the blues, but especially in the blues! And the girls who can make all the "behind the scenes" mechanics happen and still rock it, well, they inspire me the most!

Meg: How was Melissa Martin and The Mighty Rhythm Kings developed and what is your reaction to the success you've received?

Melissa: Well, let's just say they weren't looking for a chick up front. A friend of a friend of a friend, you know how it goes..... We've been fortunate to make scorching hot music together and to honestly like each other. I think our success has had everything to do with being true to the music but especially being true to each other. The encouragement and support from those guys make it happen. I have been singing with these guys for nine years, and not a gig goes by that one of them still doesn't say "you rocked that set" on a given evening.

Meg: What type of experience did you have making your first CD?

Melissa: Excellent! Our CD was such a labor of love. Making it was just the culmination of years of good times and great music. I think the fantastic time we had recording is so obvious when you listen. It really is a Jump Blues party from the first note to "Much Later."

Meg: The crowd is out there, there is a feeling of anticipation in the air, and the music begins to pump......explain what you feel right before you hit the stage.

Melissa: I am sure this will win some kind of award for the least inspiring answer to this kind of question. Honestly though, it has been the same overwhelming thought night after night, year after year after year, "must........not........ trip." I'd be lying if I tried to make this sound even a little poetic. It's all about falling down.

Meg: I'm not sure whether to let that pass . . . I guess what you're saying is words don't capture the experience. So let me ask you about your personal life, because this is something performance arts majors have to consider when choosing such a demanding career path. How do you make it work in your home?

Melissa: I don't make it work. My husband, Patrick, makes it all possible for me. He is the most incredible father and partner. He builds homes for a living and yet on some level understands a musician's need to perform. As much as that drive still burns (long after the flame was lit by [professor emeritus] Dr. Ficca, [movement instructor] Sara Romersburger and my other mentors), these days, my family comes first. In the end, my son is what it's all about. Everything I ever did before he showed up seemed small. Having a child was huge, but that was very, very small compared to being a mom. Watching the gears turn in that little head, experiencing everything in a new way. It truly is all about this little life. And it strikes me every day how thrilled I am with that. I wouldn't have it any other way. He is the music for me.

Meg: One last question: What is your dream gig?

Melissa: Dream gig? One I can play in bedroom slippers? Dream gig......... Today was a dream gig. We played an art festival. The fans were standing shoulder to shoulder in front of the band shelter. I could see rows of Mighty Rhythm Kings t-shirts and folks singing along. Every single face I could see, ten rows deep and a Philadelphia city street block long was smiling. I guess that was a dream gig.