I’m the first professional musician in my family. But had my mother, Sarah, had her way, she would have owned that distinction. As a teen-ager, her dream was to have been a big band singer. And I think she could have done it, only World War II, marriage, and five kids got in the way.
My mother loved music. She taught herself to read music, and then taught herself to play piano. She had a large record collection, and our living room was stacked with sheet music, both sacred and popular. She was a “go-to” church soloist for some four decades. When I was in high school, she competed in a local talent contest singing Beatles’ songs, and then landed the featured alto solos in an area-wide performance of The Messiah. In the late 1970s, then in her 40s, Mom made a custom recording of contemporary sacred songs and arrangements, accompanied by three inexperienced college kids: Mark Hayes on piano, Don Cason (who would go on to become president of Word Music Publishing) on bass, and Yours Truly on drums.
Oh, and my mom was also my first writing collaborator. (Yes – she was a solid lyricist, too.) My earliest publications (about a dozen pieces) featured lyrics by Sarah Sterling. As one of my musical mentors, Charles F. Brown, once said of her, “Your mother is a hip broad.”
My mother was the first person to ever sing my best-known choral piece, “Jesus Paid It All.” I had just completed the SATB arrangement, and Mom was scheduled to sing in church the following Sunday. So, we adapted it as a solo for her. When the piece was later published, I dedicated it to her. That was more than thirty years ago. I think she would be happy to know that it is still going strong. Shawnee Press has just released an SSAA version of the arrangement, keeping Mom’s legacy alive.
Like I said, I’m the first professional musician in the family. But I’m not the last. My younger son, Aaron, is one of the most in-demand recording drummers in Los Angeles. He’s far more talented than his old man, and I now go to him for advice on what is hip and cool. I wish my mother had lived long enough to see Aaron’s success. I know she would have been proud. Who knows, she might have wanted to make another record, this time with a much better drummer!
Music is a force connecting my past, my present, and my future. It’s a family thing.
A piece written by Sarah Sterling, arranged by Robert Sterling, still available for kids’
choir after all these years: Consider the Tiny Ant