The wait staff at a north-side brunch spot know what Blair Clark means when he orders "The Usual."
On a bright but chilly early Sunday afternoon it is one egg cooked medium, wheat toast and crispy bacon. Clark, a professional singer and vocal coach, has nurtured such camaraderie at three restaurants in the Carmel area. But despite living here for more than 20 years, he's a virtual unknown in the local music scene.
Clark has been performing professionally since his teens. Much of that time has been spent interpreting cover songs at weddings and corporate gigs. He fronts a nine-piece band named Blair and Company. They're as adept entertaining a cocktail set as they are igniting a dance floor. Then there's his jazz ensemble, simply titled Blair. That's where he focuses his efforts on writing original songs, while adding vivacious flair to various classics.
"I cut my teeth in jazz at a very early age," says Clark. "I loved it."
Growing up in Michigan, it was Motown that he discovered first. His father being a folk singer and his brother listening to the likes of Barbra Streisand gave Clark even more of a musical education. But it was old stage lions like Mel Torme that ultimately determined his direction.
"I decided that's what I want to do be able to sing with melody yet cut and trade out with the sax or trumpet or something," says Clark about using his voice as an instrument.
He's had ample time to hone his craft. His age is off the record, but Clark will say he's been singing since his vocabulary was limited to "da-da-goo-goo."
"My whole family sang," he says. "Ever since I was a kid. We'd sit around at Christmas and everyone would just start harmonizing."
By age seven, he was performing in his school and church choirs. By junior high he was student director of his choir and earning top ratings in solo vocal performances. His first professional gig came at age 16, with famous jazz keyboardist Henry Butler. Clark later toured Europe with a theater group and then hit the road with one band after another.
The corporate gigs and private parties are a means of making money while Clark writes his own material on the side. Along with that he's also a voice-over artist for radio and television and an in-demand vocal coach on the north side. One of his pupils was Susan Guilkie, Miss Indiana 2006.
An on-stage snapshot
Clark has only recently focused more on his own music. After largely eschewing nightclubs over the years, he's slowly working his way back into the scene. Clark recently filmed and recorded a concert he performed at The Jazz Kitchen for an upcoming CD he's calling Snapshot
. The project includes jazz originals and standards.
His intention was merely to book a show at the venue when he contacted Jazz Kitchen owner Steve Allee. But after explaining his career trajectory, Allee suggested he record his debut live rather than save money and toil in a studio.
It almost didn't happen. Clark came down with stomach flu and a sinus infection just before the show.
"I just sucked it up and prayed," he says. "I already had a three-camera crew and two-man audio crew and all the musicians."
Clark has an air of confidence that has pulled him through some tough times, including this one. He's pleased with the outcome of the Jazz Kitchen show.
Clark credits his audience as much as himself for the positive result. He considers himself a full entertainer. That means including spectators in the performance. During a slow song he brought a dancing couple on stage with him.
"Everybody had a blast with it," Clark says. "For me it's not just about music. It's about entertaining a crowd and having them feel when they walk out of there that they had a great experience. The music has to be good, but to be able to touch the audience, you have to reach out to them.
"There's a lot of singers who get into this ego thing like, 'It's all about me. Clear the stage,'" he continues. "Come on. We aren't curing cancer or saving lives. We're just making people happy for a while."
A walk through the valley
Indeed, music has helped pull Clark through some dark times. In 1996 Richard Bowden of the country duo Pinkard & Bowden heard Clark in an Anderson club and invited him to Nashville to sing some country tunes. Clark is versed in a number of genres, but country was new for him. Nonetheless his takes were good enough to impress the president of Warner Bros. Records. The day after Clark performed for him, he found out his father died.
"From that point I took a break on music," says Clark. "My dad was one of my best friends. I lost interest in everything. Even getting up in the morning was hard."
It didn't end there. His sister, just a year older than him, lost her battle with cancer in 2004. Clark was driving back and forth to Michigan to stay with her in a hospice. The time crunch left him little time to perform. Eventually he lost his house. Then his wife left him.
"Now if that's not a blues song that needs to be written," says Clark.
He used these trials to focus on others. Clark established the non-profit Friends Helping Friends, which has several components. One is Carmel Voices, a group that sings and spreads cheer to residents of places like nursing homes. A memorial fund named after his sister raised $9,000 for twins with a rare cranial disease who needed to go to the Mayo Clinic. Clark also hopes to start a home for terminally ill patients where family can stay with them an option he was glad to have when his sister was dying.
"She would've died alone if I wasn't there," he says. "We don't have that in Hamilton County. You could be right across town and still not be there when they die."
Clark is at work on readying Snapshot
for a pre-Christmas release. At this point he doesn't know if he'll ever become a famous performer. It's really no longer a concern.
"I decided life is more than what you can get, what you can make, what you can get people to do for you," he says. "I love music. I love entertaining. I love what music can do for people. And I love the opportunity to use that forum to help people."