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A Visit Back to a Source of World Fame

When Monique Powell auditioned to get into Gerry Schroeder’s pop music course at Golden West College four years ago, she asked him to play “Cry Me a River.”

“You could tell from the first note she sang that she had a special talent,” Schroeder recalls now.

Powell isn’t crying much these days. She’s the lead singer of the hip, internationally popular ska rock band Save Ferris. The band has just completed what amounted to a two-year tour, including Japan, Europe and Mexico. The night before Thanksgiving, she and her six male fellow band members will headline at the Hollywood Palladium.

But Wednesday was a day for Powell to relax and reminisce about her beginnings. She returned to Golden West in Huntington Beach to speak to music students and hang out with old friends.

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There was much to reminisce about. Powell may be just 23, but a lot has happened to her since she nervously asked Schroeder to fork up that old Julie London classic on the piano as her ticket to get into his class.

Powell has to be an inspiration to every teenager who ever played in a garage band and dreamed of stardom. And she had her share of those bands.

“I played in bands so bad we only liked ourselves,” she told the students. “I was in one all-girl ska band that was so bad we broke up after one show. But I loved those girls.”

If you aren’t familiar with ska music, Powell describes it as reggae with horns. If that still doesn’t tell you a lot, it’s an upbeat, almost Jamaican style of rock music that also has some roots in swing and standard pop.

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It’s making her famous--you can see her in Teen People this week, as well as in the Calendar section of today’s paper. But it’s not the only music style Powell likes.

She grew up in Cypress and Garden Grove, and attended the High School for the Performing Arts in Los Alamitos. She played singing parts in plays like “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Bye Bye Birdie.” But for many years, and at considerable family expense, she studied opera.

That sent her for a year to Cal State Fullerton. But unsure of an opera career, she spent the next two years at Golden West. She studied with Schroeder because she said he gave her confidence that she could make it.

After paying her dues in bands that didn’t work, she got a call from two members of the fledgling Save Ferris asking her to join the band. (The name refers to the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”)

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Her father thought it a crank call, because the two young men on the line were giggling. It turns out the giggles were because they had stolen her phone number from her high school records in Los Alamitos. They knew her work but hadn’t known how to reach her.

Borrowing money from her sister and parents, she contributed to the $4,000 needed for the band to put together its own CD, which she called “our calling card to radio stations and people in the business.”

But stardom, Powell insists, wasn’t on their minds.

“We just thought it would be cool to be on the radio so all our friends could hear,” she said. She recalled how thrilled they were when they made the cover of the entertainment section of a local newspaper as an up-and-coming band.

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“We were selling our CD out of the trunk of our car and just loving what was going on,” she said.

But then, two years ago, things got much bigger than expected. Someone from Epic Records--that’s a Sony division--heard the band and suddenly the money became big and Powell had to quickly learn about music as a corporate business. And life on the road.

“A couple of weeks ago, I looked at my suitcase and thought, I don’t want to unpack this. Because if I do, I won’t know how to go back to a normal life. We’ve been touring so long, I was scared just thinking about buying groceries or living in my house.”

The group is taking a much-needed break, she said, to concentrate on writing songs for the next CD. A chance to return to her old campus, she said, was a welcome treat.

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Powell, accompanied by her mother, Annette, was certainly among friends. One woman in the audience, Heather Clemons, 23, was wearing a Save Ferris T-shirt.

“I used to go see Save Ferris years ago when they were playing in a small club in Chico,” she said. "[Monique] has such a great voice, and the music is so upbeat. I just love it.”

Powell enjoyed the give-and-take with the audience:

How did she keep the shows fresh doing the same songs each night? “I play mind games; like I see someone sitting in front who looks like a jerk and I try to see if I can get him to smile.”

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Where did the Save Ferris song “Spam” come from? Someone in the band took up a challenge to write a song about any subject. “I sing it because audiences love it, but please don’t request it,” she said with a laugh.

She ended her speaking gig by showing students where it had all begun for her at Golden West. With Schroeder at the piano, she sang the full version of “Cry Me a River.” Knocked ‘em dead too.

For Schroeder, Powell’s return to campus was a delightful reminder that many of his students have fulfilled their dreams. But Powell wasn’t about to leave without Schroeder doing something for her in return.

After the crowd was gone, he helped her brush up on “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

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If you’re at the Los Angeles Kings hockey game tonight in Inglewood, you’ll hear Powell sing the national anthem before the game.

“I’m so excited because I’m a huge Kings fan,” she said. “And I got permission from them to let me yell ‘Go Kings!’ at the end of the song.”

Jerry Hicks’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Readers may reach Hicks by calling the Times Orange County Edition at (714) 966-7823 or by fax to (714) 966-7711, or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com.


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