A Voice That Spans Two Worlds : Cantor Nathan Lam serves the ancient rituals of Judaism and the demands of pop music


He has prepared boys for bar mitzvahs, and Beatles for world tours.

He has produced songs for God and the Go-Gos.

He is Nathan Lam, 43, cantor at the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel-Air and vocal instructor for Lionel Ritchie, David Cassidy, David Coverdale, Barry Bostwick and John Davidson. His life is a nonstop shuttle between two worlds--the ancient rituals of Judaism and the modern demands of popular music.

“This is fun,” Lam said after a half-hour sesson with actor Dean Jones. “I love expressing myself in the musical world. And when I’m at the pulpit, that’s spiritual. It’s sustenance, like eating.”


Lam didn’t expect this extra dimension to his cantorial career. How to meet a Beatle wasn’t taught in religion class.

“I’m not usually star-struck,” said Lamb, who gave Ringo Starr six weeks of lessons in 1989 in preparation for his comeback tour, “but I kept thinking, ‘He’s a Beatle.’ And I’m teaching this guy how to sing ‘Yellow Submarine’? I must have heard that album about 90,000 times.”

He expected the traditional life of a cantor: bar mitzvahs, weddings, funerals and Sabbath services, maybe an album or two of Jewish liturgy.

And that’s what happened until he officiated at a wedding in 1977. A woman heard his voice and asked if he taught singing lessons. “I told her to come to my office, and I’d give it a try,” Lam said. “I had never given lessons before.”

Soon, the woman brought her husband, and word of Lam’s talent quickly spread. At the same time, his fascination for voice technique grew. He bought books and listened to other performers.

His first breakthrough with celebrities came when Barbara Anderson, who played Eve on the television series “Ironside” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, came in for a lesson. Anderson had lost her voice, and needed strengthening exercises to be ready for a speaking role in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Anderson’s voice gradually improved, and she reported her success to acting instructor Milton Katselas, who, in turn, passed the tip to his pupils. “I was soon inundated with calls,” Lam said.

His new life began. Soon he was instructing Burt Reynolds, who was about to star in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Said Lam, “He’s a better singer than people think.” Next came Richard Harris, who was appearing in “Camelot.” Harris hired Lam to arrive an hour before each show.

For 13 weeks--and 99 performances--Lam came backstage, and made sure Harris was ready to sing. “I never missed a performance, even when my daughter was born.” he said. He was almost late once when he was stopped by Barbra Streisand, who required his immediate expert opinion. He told her he would squeeze her in later that week between visits to Reynolds and Rod Stewart. “She was working on ‘Yentl’ then, and wanted to know about the authenticity of certain Jewish music.”

He also gained automatic entry into rock ‘n’ roll circles usually uncharted by men of clergy. Lam produced the vocals for the Go-Go’s’ third album, “Talk Show,” and began teaching Stewart, David Coverdale of Whitesnake, and members of Poison. Sometimes he’d recognize the absurdity of his double life.

“What am I doing here?” he wondered while on the Poison tour bus between Oklahoma City and Lexington several years ago. “It was 4 a.m., and I’m playing Trivial Pursuit with a rock ‘n’ roll band.”

His new life threatened to interfere with the old one. A congregation leader worried about Lam’s commitment; with 2,850 families, Stephen S. Wise is one of the world’s largest synagogues. “I told him that the job will get done.”

The congregation’s governing board wanted Lam close by, granting him permission to hold voice lessons in his office. He didn’t miss the point.

“The synagogue comes first,” Lam said, “and I make sure all my students know that. If there’s any kind of emergency, I’ll stop a lesson to do what I have to do.” An emergency might mean final bar mitzvah lessons for a nervous 13-year-old or officiating at a funeral.

The synagogue is where he started. As an 8-year-old boy, he attended Temple Adat Ari El in North Hollywood every Sabbath service. One day, everything changed.

“I stood there singing,” he said, “and something touched my soul. I was smitten. Sometimes when I do services now, I’ll go back to that sense of awe I had as an 8-year-old. It helps to inspire me to pray to another level. I have to find some way to inspire my congregation.”

He wasn’t a natural. Cantor Allan Michelson, his first instructor, wasn’t overly impressed with the early Lam sound. “The voice wasn’t that good,” Michelson said, “but when he became a teen-ager, I knew he’d become a cantor. He had passion, and he worked at it. He has a tremendous musical memory.”

Throughout adolescence, Lam filled in as cantor at congregations in West Covina and Highland Park but didn’t perceive it as a full-time career. He briefly gravitated toward law, until realizing his passion--singing--could become his profession. A cantor is responsible for leading his congregation in prayer before God.

He studied for several years in New York before returning to Los Angeles and assuming the pulpit at Stephen S. Wise in 1976. Today, he’s vice president of the Cantor’s Assembly, an international organization, and has released five albums of Jewish music.

“Judaism has given me a sense of empathy for the people I teach,” Lam said. “Everyone who comes to me is a voice that needs to be helped.”

Frequently, Lam’s students, even the famous ones, have lost confidence in their singing voices. They don’t believe they can reach the notes necessary for the next concert or musical. Lam must act as therapist, too. “When I know there’s nothing physically wrong with their voices,” he said, “I have to find ways of tricking them into doing things they didn’t think they could do. And I’m a master at that.”

His students testify to his healing powers. Marq Torien, lead singer for the hard-rock group Bulletboys had strained his voice after two years of touring, screaming on stage and constant drinking. His livelihood was in jeopardy.

“He got my voice back,” Torien said. “He showed me how I had wasted so much energy with my voice, and how to stop doing that. He cares about me.”

About 20% of Lam’s students come from physicians’ referrals. Coverdale was sent to Lam by a doctor after undergoing surgery in April, 1986, for a deviated septum. “A vocal coach was completely alien to me,” Coverdale said. “I went more out of desperation.”

Like most of Lam’s pupils, Coverdale learned exercises designed to strengthen his chest and lung capacity. Lam teaches his students to position their diaphragm to move in conjunction with the vocal chords.

“Singing should be an extension of one’s speaking voice,” Lam said. “If the vocal chords aren’t in their right position, the person sounds hoarse or breathy.”

Until a few years ago, Lam believed everyone held the potential to develop an excellent singing voice. “But at that time, I hadn’t seen some of the clients I’ve had since then. Not everyone can sing.”

Lam regularly trains more than 100 students, charging $60 for half an hour and $120 for an hour of instruction. His rate goes up for house calls. “I have no star rates,” he said. “The rate is based on the hours, not the stars.”

Each day, Lam is reminded of his travels between the worlds of Jewish observance and contemporary popular music; from Friday afternoon lessons with Ritchie, he moves smoothly to Sabbath services with hundreds of congregants. The trip represents his personal statement.

“I want my kids to see that there was a cantor who they see on Friday, who can be a religious Jew and be in the synagogue, and they also can see has a foot in the real world,” Lam said.”