Before Steve Lippia talked with South Aiken High School band and chorus members on Friday, the students watched a video of the “Simply Swinging” singer performing a Frank Sinatra standard, “Come Fly with Me.”
Lippia, a vocalist who once toured with Ray Charles, appeared at the URS Theater for the Arts on Thursday and Friday and, in between, met with the students at the school.
One might wonder how teenagers would react to the music their grandparents may have listened to. But the students were respectful and were especially interested in the discussion by Lippia and his music director, Steve Sigmund, about their careers. Several students stayed behind to talk more with Lippia as the others returned to class.
“I really appreciate his talent,” said Khalil Baker, a ninth-grade choral student. “I know he put in a lot of work.”
Lippia was asked how he felt about modern music, responding that he would never buy much of it.
“But I'll listen to it critically and say that's cool,” he said. “I always keep an open mind.”
Sigmund, an accomplished trombonist himself, has worked with Lippia for many years. They have flown all over the world from venue to venue, too often experiencing scheduling chaos.
They described one adventure where they had a performance slated in Detroit. Lippia was traveling by himself, and Sigmund and their musicians arrived first. Then Lippia had a nightmare of a day, getting stuck in other cities before making it to Detroit and then the performance site literally minutes before the show. That just comes with the territory, both men said.
In a real way, Lippia got his big break as a kid in parochial school, where Sister Marianne discovered his talent. He later encountered a prominent musician, Bobby Kay, who liked Lippia and hired him as a “roadie,” traveling ahead of the band to unload equipment and then pack it back up. Over time, Lippia would get a chance to sing, and, after years of hard work, he got the job with Ray Charles. He stayed for 17 years and even tried law school before getting back into music for good.
That didn't mean the hard work was over, Lippia told the students. As a vocalist, he keeps focused on maintaining the quality of his music. After all these years, he said, he still gets nervous before performances. Lippia won't just stay in his dressing room until the last minute. He checks out the audience from the wings, getting a feel for the audience.
“It's more than singing,” Lippia said. “You have to be visually interesting to the audience, because people are curious about who you are. So you have to hold their attention and talk to them. You can't be just a guy singing or playing the piano, but these performance elements can take years to develop.”
Although he sounds a lot like Sinatra, Lippia does throw in a country song or two during his gigs and thoroughly enjoys them. However, he reminded the students that most forms of music don't stay forever.
“There are always stylistic differences,” Lippia told the students. “But, I'll leave you with this. Just because something is more than six months old, it doesn't mean it's bad.”
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter.