Apollo mission

Before Valerie Fernandez learned to form words, she somehow knew how to sing on pitch. Her earliest memories, from her toddler years, involve family friends and relatives asking her to favor them with a song. She’d inevitably comply with a spot-on version of “The Windmills of Your Mind,” or some other ridiculously complex pop song that no pre-schooler could possibly be expected to master.

When friends asked her mother, Dora, why she didn’t push the young singing prodigy toward a show-business career, the elder Fernandez responded, “I don’t want to, because I think she’s too sensitive.”

Fernandez, now a 40-year-old special-ed teacher at Brackenridge High School, thinks her mother was right. “When I was little, I would cry at the drop of a hat if I felt someone was criticizing me,” she recalls. “I don’t think I would have made a good Mouseketeer.”

Given Fernandez’s sensitive, self-effacing nature, it’s remarkable that she drove to Houston on the morning of August 4 and lined up at Houston’s Reliant Stadium to audition for Showtime at the Apollo, a syndicated talent show set at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater, a venue known for having the most brutally tough, unforgiving audiences in America. Next to the Apollo’s boo-birds, Simon Cowell is a model of tact.

Maybe Fernandez sensed that her music career, which has largely consisted of playing weekend corporate events and weddings with the Austin cover band the Pictures, could use a push. Her students asked her why she didn’t try out for American Idol, but given that show’s Logan’s Run-like, no-one-over-29 policy, Showtime at the Apollo looked like the best option. It also didn’t hurt that she’s a soul-music devotee, who worships at the altars of Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan and understands the historical importance of the Apollo. The Apollo appearance (which airs on Sunday, February 3, at 2 a.m. on KSYM 35) motivated her to collaborate with Grammy-nominated pianist Mark Little on a Christmas album, and she’s currently mapping out a strategy to attract record-label interest.

Fair-skinned, with dark, curly hair, Fernandez is humble and soft-spoken, quick to laugh and equally quick to make a joke at her own expense.

“She’s really down-to-earth,” says friend and producer, Cherylann Williams, owner of Nexus Recording Studios. “She is not a diva, she doesn’t have that swagger about her. She won’t need to have dancers or a big show around her. It’s more like Sade, where you just give her a band and when she opens her mouth, sweet sounds come out.”

Ironically enough, Fernandez found out about the Houston auditions while visiting relatives in New Jersey over the summer. She went to eat at Sylvia’s in Harlem, right around the corner from the Apollo, and saw a notice on the theater’s marquee announcing auditions in Houston. “I said, ‘I can’t believe I came all the way to New York, to find out there are going to be auditions in Texas,’” Fernandez says with a laugh.

After waiting three hours in the withering Houston summer heat, she and the other auditioners entered a big convention room, where a partition separated them from three judges. Fernandez had brought a recorded track for the Alicia Keys song “If I Ain’t Got You,” but when she learned that a track wasn’t required, she impulsively decided to perform an a-cappella treatment of the more upbeat Aretha Franklin classic “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).”

“I sang only a snippet of the song and they interrupted me,” she says. “They said, ‘Can you sing anything else?’ So I decided to sing ‘As We Lay,’ a song recorded by Kelly Price. They called me over and they said, ‘We’d like to invite you to be on our show.’”

Seven weeks later, on September 23, Fernandez faced the Apollo gauntlet. She says she’d prepared herself for any reaction from the crowd, and, for the first time in her life, psyched herself into a zone where she felt no nervousness at all.

“They told us Luther Vandross got booed off four times and Lauryn Hill got booed off several times,” she says. “So I didn’t really sweat it. I thought this was probably the only time in my life that I’d get to sing at the Apollo Theater, so I wanted to make the most of it.”

Fernandez says the audience started booing before she even opened her mouth, a reaction which surprised her, but didn’t affect her performance. As at her Houston audition, she sang Franklin’s “Until You Come Back to Me,” and she says the boos gradually started dying down. “I didn’t get a thunderous applause, but I got some applause, and when the song finished, I was really grateful to have made it to the end.”

Fernandez didn’t win the contest, but making it to the end of her song and being called back for the judging process − which is based on who gets the biggest noise-meter response from the crowd − constituted a moral victory and a major confidence boost.

Fernandez grew up in Rivera, near Kingsville, and although no one in her family played music professionally, every family gathering featured sing-alongs with plenty of harmonies and at least five people strumming guitars.

She attended Texas A&M-Kingsville on the “eight-year slacker plan” and graduated with an English degree. When she found her employment opportunities to be minimal, she studied to get her teacher certification in special ed.

Although her friends consistently raved about her voice, Fernandez never performed publicly until 1994, when a friend urged her to see a jazz band featuring Eddie Olivarez Jr. and Ric Cortez at a Corpus Christi restaurant. Her friend asked the band if Valerie could sit in, and she ended up singing Billie Holiday’s “Lover Man” and “Crazy” by Patsy Cline.

“They asked me to come back the following week, and when I did, the manager came out and said, ‘I’ve already discussed it with the band. Do you want to be a part of the band?’”

From that point on, Fernandez earned $50 a week as a singer, and when she moved to San Antonio seven years ago, Olivarez recommended her to the Pictures.

Her easy command of everything from jazz to country, and an ability to emulate everyone from Billie Holiday to Mariah Carey, makes her a natural fit with the Pictures, but Showtime at the Apollo and her recent 40th birthday have stirred some bigger dreams for this unambitious-by-nature singer.

While contributing backing vocals for an album by local artist Ken Little last year, she met his piano-virtuoso brother Mark, and they not only knocked out a Christmas album (Christmas Is Here!) in a matter of days, they’re currently planning an album of jazz standards, and a possible Fernandez demo of original material to shop to labels.

When asked what stands out about Fernandez’s vocal skills, Mark Little gushes, “Just a mastery. She’s a master musician and vocalist, and mostly what I hear is heart.”

“She’s definitely a force to be reckoned with,” Cherylann Williams says. “I think all she needs is a good band and the right marketing campaign, and some labels will be very interested.”


Sing It Sister!

Fernandez has her own Holy Trinity of R&B singing influences: Aretha Franklin, the queen; Chaka Khan, the queen’s most extravagantly gifted heir; and Teena Marie, Motown’s
supreme examplar of blue-eyed soul.

While you can hear bits of each singer in her highly expressive vocals, her range of influences is about as wide as a record-store’s inventory.

“I listened to a curious mixture of all the R&B hits you hear on the radio, mixed with a little Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow,” she says. “Pretty much the whole gamut. My grandparents were very poor, but my grandmother would order classical-music records from television so we would have some kind of exposure to bigger and better music. And my mom and my grandparents really liked country, so my first years were mostly spent singing country tunes.

“Later on, I remember buying Linda Ronstadt with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, on the Lush Life and What’s New albums, and being really into that. I think that first sparked my interest to sing jazz. From there, of course, I started listening to the greats like Ella
Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.”

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