For the March 7 concert scheduled for the 50th anniversary of Alabama’s notorious Bloody Sunday, in Montgomery, organizers had landed two superstars: Michael McDonald, formerly of the Doobie Brothers, and Patti LaBelle, a soul legend.
Then, in January, McDonald canceled. And Denise Welch, Montgomery’s events manager, didn’t hesitate to make her pronouncement: “We need to reach out to Luke Wade.”
Who? Around the state capital, eyebrows were raised. The Dream Marches On concert would occur on the historic weekend anniversary five decades after state troopers took up tear gas and billy clubs against defenseless civil right marchers in nearby Selma.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
What’s more, the March event would happen on the campus of historically black Alabama State University, and the audience would be predominantly African-American.
McDonald was one thing, a superstar whose recent music featured Motown. But Wade, a regular white guy from Fort Worth?
“I caught flak from a few local African-American leaders,” Welch admits. “There were politicians who questioned my suggestion.”
But she held firm, a gut decision based on nights in front of the television last fall watching the hit NBC reality show The Voice. Welch had watched from beginning to end, and though the Texan didn’t survive past the final eight, no other performer made more of an impression.
“He just had an incredible voice, such a unique sound,” Welch says. She says she knew he would “bring a huge dimension to the show.”
This was her hope, anyway, and her neck was squarely on the line. On that recent March evening, Wade and his band, No Civilians, opened for LaBelle before a crowd of 3,000 — mostly people of color. The first song landed with a thud, greeted by polite applause at best.
“It wasn’t that they were skeptical,” says Wade’s manager, Amy Smith. “It’s like they were indifferent. … It was painful.”
The only person in the hall who seemed oblivious was Wade himself.
From here to there
Several days before, the 31-year-old artist was sitting in Fort Worth’s Ol’ South Pancake House, devouring a lunch of breakfast tacos. With a busy afternoon looming that included a fitting for a tuxedo for the Montgomery gig, he was telling his companion about one of his major songwriting influences, Ray LaMontagne.
Suddenly, a woman approached, intent on interrupting. Obviously recognizing him from his appearances on The Voice, she gushed about how much she admired his singing, then apologized for not remembering his name.
“I told my son, ‘That guy was tremendous on The Voice,’ and I voted for you,” she told him “… You were, like, our fave. So anyway, I said to my son, ‘That’s got to be him, or he’s got a twin.’”
After his fan’s departure, Wade offers a common reflection: “That happens all the time, every day. Pretty cool.”
Just a year before, Wade had spent most Sunday afternoons at Woodshed Smokehouse, a popular riverside restaurant in Fort Worth, playing acoustic sets to a small group of devoted fans and otherwise indifferent patrons who would glance over between bites of a burger. Then he was just another talented-but-starving singer-songwriter, living the familiar story of the North Texas music scene, scratching out a meager existence by playing wherever somebody would have him.
Wade’s longtime drummer, Blaine Crews, remembers a night four years ago when the band played to an audience of exactly one: the bartender. “When the bartender went to the bathroom, we were literally playing for nobody,” Crews says.
Wade, who admits to struggling with depression over the years, threatened to bag it several times and find a real job, but says his band wouldn’t let him.
Then, last year, talent seekers with The Voice stumbled across Wade in a YouTube video. An invitation to audition followed, and not long after, his fall appearance at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. From the Woodshed, Wade took the national stage for the blind auditions of The Voice.
“Before you go onstage, you just try to wrap your brain around the fact that this is really about to happen,” he says.
For his performance, Wade chose an obscure soul ballad called That’s How Strong My Love Is, most famously covered by Otis Redding in the mid-1960s. The four celebrity coaches/judges — Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani, Pharrell Williams and Adam Levine — seemed flummoxed by the fact that a white guy could pull off the number with such, well, soul.
That was the first of the local singer’s 10 performances on the show. Levine gushed early on that he was the season’s best. Twitter and iTunes charts lit up after every Wade performance.
But on a memorable night midway through the season, Wade started a song two beats early and had to scramble to recover. It was a common flub for any working musician, but NBC promos later called it “the night that shocked America.”
Says Wade: “It was a new situation and it wasn’t music — it was the show. Being good at music and being good at the show were two different things. I was trying to learn how to be good at the show. And everything is under a microscope.”
Gradually, he says, the glitz, superficiality and pressure take a toll. Friends and family who were with him in Los Angeles say he seemed increasingly lost, dispirited. For his performance in the final eight, Wade sang Simply Red’s 1985 hit Holding Back the Years, and by his own admission, “mailed it in.”
“I didn’t mean to,” he says. “It’s just a thing that happens when you start singing. It’s just like sitting in a car with a dead battery. When I was done, it was like, ‘Yep. That’s it.’”
On the next elimination show, amid drum rolls and cameras tight on his face, America watched up close as Wade got axed.
“Honestly, by then it’s hard to keep a straight face,” Wade says. “It’s just silly and you know it’s silly.”
But for 10 weeks, millions of people like Denise Welch had been watching.
A different stage
Before his time on The Voice, Wade’s Twitter followers numbered less than a thousand. Today, he’s pushing 40,000. He parlayed the extended national exposure into a winter tour across the South and a cold, rainy New Year’s Eve gig before thousands in Fort Worth’s Sundance Square.
On June 28, Wade will join the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra for the popular Concerts in the Garden, and by the end of the summer, he and his band will have performed in every major market in America.
The Susan G. Komen foundation recently picked him to film a promotional music video, while he and Pharrell Williams, the superstar producer from The Voice, remain in discussions about a record collaboration.
Meanwhile, Luke Wade and No Civilians have traded in an ancient van for a legitimate tour bus.
“It was my dream, to have a bus like that — have a bed, have a home on the road,” Wade says.
Still, a dud in Montgomery might have blunted the momentum of Wade’s career. And after that first song, all bets were off.
Melvin Hines, the athletic director at Alabama State University, calls soul and R&B music the soundtrack to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“Music meant something to young people,” he says. “We had Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Their music stirred your consciousness, stirred your soul.”
That was the expectation for the March 7 concert in the Alabama State basketball arena. And after the tepid reaction to Wade’s first song, something in the arena changed. One by one, people in the audience started to dance.
The human swell continued to build through the short set. Wade’s seventh song was Try a Little Tenderness, the Otis Redding tune. As he had when performing the song on The Voice, Wade sang and danced across the stage. By the end, the arena was on its feet.
Wade’s band left the stage for his final song, not another up-tempo R&B number, but an emotional acoustic ballad that had become his signature song. ’Til the Fighting Is Through, a song about struggle and the hope for transcendence, seemed written for the occasion.
The arena fell silent and Wade choked back tears as he sang: “I’ve heard you say, in more articulate ways, that the things that make you different are what make you great. … I’m always feeling these things too soon, but you never know what you’re fighting for till the fighting is through.”
“You could have heard a pin drop,” he remembers.
After the final chord, the crowd hit its feet.
“Everyone stood up and was applauding Luke’s soul,” Hines says. “He didn’t just stir my soul — he stirred everybody’s.”
And somewhere in the arena, Denise Welch was both happy and relieved.
“He was great,” she says. “People are still talking about it.”
Tim Madigan is a freelance writer and author. firstname.lastname@example.org.