Tuesday, March 15, 2011


I was about eleven years old when I first laid eyes on Cliff Carter. I was working in my family's store, Metropolitan News, at the crossroads of the nation, Peel and St. Catherine Streets in Montreal, selling newspapers from all over the world. My family was teaching me the business. And Cliff, a singer and pianist, had just come to Montreal from the United States to play at The Clover Cafe across from the Montreal Forum.
As time passed, Cliff came to play in the Candlelight Room of the Diana Grill right next door to our store. I was too young to go down into the nightclub, but I could watch Cliff through the restaurant's storefront window and listen to his sweet music flowing out into the evening air over the loudspeaker. And that handsome man would look up at me and smile and make funny faces at the fat little girl in blue jeans.
And that teenage girl dreamed that one day, somehow, Cliff Carter would discover she could sing and invite her to be his partner. To me, he was always The Gentleman at the Piano. I listened to his radio shows and I started a fan club - and I sent all the fan mail myself. And he dedicated songs to me, and to my mother, and to my grandmother who also worked in our store selling Irish linens and fine English Bone China.
Decades later, Cliff would remind me that he would play a song I requested on his radio show. "Stella By Starlight". He remembered that. I didn't. Decades later, Cliff told me he had seen me riding a horse at the corner of Peel and St. Catherine in 1951 when I was fifteen. He remembered that. I didn't even know he had seen me.
I brought home every Hit Parade song book and I listened to the radio and memorized all the songs of the day. Someday he'll discover me. I studied theatre arts at the Montreal Repertory Theatre  - dramatics with Eleanor Stuart, voice and diction with Dorothy Danford, stage makeup with Griffith Brewer and history of the theatre, with Miss Stehle  I studied opera with Mme. Pauline Donalda, founder of The Montreal Opera Guild and co-star of Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso. Some day. One day.
I met so many fascinating people while working at Metro. Metropolitan News was my alma mater. Eddie Feigelman was an impresario - a theatrical agent - a big man with a big heart. One day, Eddie told my father that there was to be a Red Cross Blood Donors' Marathon at a Montreal armoury. All sorts of entertainers would take part. I overheard - and I dared to ask if I might have a chance to sing. Eddie said, maybe. I was surprised and thrilled when I received a telegram announcing that I was included on the program and a volunteer would come to drive me to the armoury. I was about sixteen.  I had never sung in public before. Thrilled, surprised - scared. I put on my salmon colour gown and my parents bought me a rose corsage. I still have that flower in a scrap book.
It was a cold, dark and icy night. The doorbell rang and a gentleman who identified himself as "Harry" waited to help me down the slippery steps to Uncle Harry's School Bus.
I had told Eddie Feigelman that I had no accompanist. Eddie said, "Don't worry about it." Don't worry about it? How could I perform in front of a huge audience and television cameras without an accompanist? God would provide. I went forward in a haze, my heart pounding with fear and anticipation.
The lights were out in Uncle Harry's School Bus. My guide told me there was one other passenger on the bus - "so don't get scared". There was only one person on the bus. I hadn't seen him in years. One person  - who happened to be the partner of my dreams - Cliff Carter.
That night, for the very first time, Cliff played for me to sing .When I stood up there on the stage in front of all those people and the lights and cameras, everything went white and I thought I would faint. I couldn't think of a word or a tune, Cliff played an arpeggio  - and my mind cleared and my pounding heart slowed down - and I opened my mouth, and I sang Blue Moon and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
I had never sung in public. I had never sung with an accompanist other than Peter Miller, my first singing teacher, and Mme. Donalda's sister, May Lightstone, who played for my lessons. I had never sung for Cliff before. And yet, when I opened my mouth to sing, he knew exactly what to play.

In 1957, Cliff returned to the United States. I had married " a nice boy" and settled down, but my heart had never settled. There was always something missing. I became more involved in politics and journalism. Twelve years passed and there was no word from Cliff. My dreams of becoming a singer were set aside like childhood's beloved toys - but they were kept in a secret place somewhere very deep in my heart. "Someday" had not yet come, and I didn't think about it. I just felt restless, insecure and incomplete. I loved my family but I rarely felt happy.
Cliff returned to Montreal in the late 1960's, but we rarely saw him. There followed years of turmoil in my life and, unbeknownst to me, also in Cliff's .
One day, my parents received a phone call from Cliff. He was playing at The Raphael in Montreal and he invited our family to come. It was Christmas time, 1971.
Cliff and I sat on the winding staircase in The Raphael to pose for a souvenir photograph. Something deep inside me stirred at that moment. Daylight. Awakening. I attributed it to sentiment. But I soon realized that it was something much richer. It was persistent and overwhelming and warm, and the newfound excitement brought hope back into my life. And terrible fear. There would be a lot of heartache before there could be any peace. Our incompatible marriages had both been on the rocks for years and had to be carefully dissolved before we could breathe freely. Out of the ashes of that painful transition, The Sheba - a new me - was born.
One January night in the late 1970's, Cliff was invited to play for a business party on the 34th floor of the Chateau Champlain Hotel in downtown Montreal. The baby grand piano stood by the bay window overlooking Dominion Square. Cliff played and we sang and the guests applauded. The guests surely thought I was singing for them. In truth, I never sang for the audience. I always sang for Cliff alone.
The white moon shone as I gazed down in awe at the park. The dark night was brightened by the sparkling snow and Christmas lights and the great church way down below looked like a pretty toy. Miniature cars and people scurried about. It felt like a dream.
Just then, I experienced a stunning revelation. It struck me like a zap of  lightening. From where I was standing at the bay window on the 34th floor of the Chateau Champlain Hotel, I could see the exact spot where, as a young girl, I had so often stood with my nose pressed against the window pane listening to Cliff play the piano in the Candlelight Room. I saw myself there, as I was back then - a young girl, enchanted. I felt now what I had felt back then. At that moment, I knew deep in my heart that there was a heaven watching over us.
" I believe in love. I believe in music."
Phyllis Carter  - The Sheba