Three Mo’ Tenors
Three Mo’ Tenors
“A Three Mo’ Tenors concert,” noted the St. Petersburg Times, “is like a cross between a classical recital and a nightclub act and a gospel sing, with opera and Broadway and jazz and blues thrown in for good measure.” The Three Mo’ Tenors—Victor Trent Cook, Rodrick Dixon, and Thomas Young—emerged as musical boundary crossers of the first order in the year 2000. They crossed the line between classical and popular music, crossed the boundary that has kept many African-American male singers out of the world of opera, and confounded the classifications that have divided musical styles of the present from those of the past. And, even with all the innovations they have accomplished, The Three Mo’ Tenors have continued to delight audiences with concerts that deliver generous quantities of sheer entertainment.
The formation of The Three Mo’ Tenors was inspired by the opera-singing trio of Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras, who came together to present a concert at the 1990 World Cup soccer championships in Rome, and were so enthusiastically received that they reunited for several more megaconcerts and released a best-selling series of recordings. The original Three Tenors spawned a host of imitators, including the Three Irish Tenors, Denmark’s Three Royal Tenors, and even the Three Countertenors—male classical falsetto singers.
Cook, Dixon, and Young were all veteran musicians by the time The Three Mo’ Tenors was formed. Each had been trained as an operatic vocalist, but all were versatile musicians, well-schooled in the art of making a living by expanding beyond the relatively slim pickings available to American classical vocalists. The best-established of the three was Young, who was born in the late 1940s and had enjoyed a substantial three-decade operatic career before joining the group. He had performed all over the world, and his experience included both standards of the operatic repertoire and new works such as Anthony Davis’s X, an opera based on the life of spiritual leader Malcolm X. Young also made concert appearances singing classical songs, recorded an album of jazz vocals, and spent three seasons performing on Broadway in the musical Ragtime.
Dixon, born around 1967, grew up in New York and hoped as a youngster to become a professional baseball player. He sang gospel music when he was young. But he won a spot in the Brooklyn Boys’ Choir as a child, and music became more and more important to him as he attended New York’s High School of Music and Art, and learned to play keyboards and to write orchestrations and arrangements. Dixon attended the Mannes College of Music in New York, eventually earning a master’s degree there. He was inspired not only by
At a Glance…
Born Victor Trent Cook; born Rodrick Dixon c. 1967; born Thomas Young late 1940s.
Career: All three had classical and pop careers before forming group; group began touring, 2001; appeared on PBS television series Great Performances, 2001; released album Three Mo’ Tenors, 2001.
Address: Office —c/o Trawick Artists Management, Inc., Community Concerts, Ltd., 250 W. 57th St., Suite 901, New York, NY 10107.
Italian singers such as Pavarotti and Carlo Bergonzi, but also by the historical figure Roland Hayes, the first African American to sing with a symphony orchestra. Dixon spent three years in a young artists’ training program at the Chicago Lyric Opera, and in the 1990s appeared with several major opera companies. But he, too, sought employment outside the classical world, appearing in a Chicago production of the musical Showboat, as well as in other productions.
Cook, another Brooklyn Boys’ Choir alumnus, is a countertenor—a rare specialty in classical music but one with some antecedents in the African-American musical world. His major-venue classical debut came as a boy soprano in Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Providing the top layer for the close-harmony numbers performed by the Three Mo’ Tenors, he also sang harmony in R&B backing groups. Cook appeared on Broadway and won a Tony award nomination for his work in the 1995 show Smokey Joe’s Café. He won $100, 000 as a contestant on television’s Star Search, and has also appeared at the White House.
Cook and Dixon were acquaintances before The Three Mo’ Tenors came together, but the group’s real originator was Marion J. Caffey, a native of Gainesville, Florida and a Broadway producer and onetime performer himself. Watching a televised concert by the original Three Tenors given in 1994 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Caffey began to reflect on how few African-American male singers, especially tenors, had made it to the top echelons of the operatic world. “As a classically trained African-American tenor, you don’t get many jobs in opera,” he pointed out to the Boston Herald. “I can guarantee you that you can’t name more than three working tenors of any notoriety in opera. It’s still the most closed of the art forms.”
Caffey was familiar with Young as a performer-years earlier he had paid a $7 cover charge to hear Young sing a nightclub date. He told the Boston Globe that at the end of the show he approached the singer and said, “Mr. Young, I owe you $93. I just saw your show for $7, and there is no way I should have heard what you just did for less than $100.” In 2000 Caffey placed a notice in the professional theater magazine Back Stage that advertised auditions for a “theatrically staged concert celebrating the African-American tenor voice touring through 2003. Must have legitimate operatic training and the ability to sing Broadway, jazz, blues, spirituals, and gospel.” Among those who responded was Cook, who had also worked with Caffey on the Street Corner Symphony show. Young was hired, Cook brought Dixon aboard, and after an enthusiastically received workshop performance in New York, The Three Mo’ Tenors took to the road early in 2001.
Crowds were sparse at first, but Caffey stuck with the concept. “I could have gotten Luther Vandross, Jeffrey Osborne, and James Ingram and made a lot more money, but when it got to classical music, what were they going to do?” he mused in an interview quoted on the website of the Public Broadcasting System. “So the point of Three Mo’ Tenors is that these are classically trained tenors who do other things.” An appearance on the prestigious Great Performances series during the PBS fall pledge drive in 2001 alerted audiences to the tenors’ musical versatility, and their touring from then into the year 2002 grew increasingly hectic. Their concerts, captured on a live CD release entitled Three Mo’ Tenors, opened with operatic arias and moved on to soul music (“Midnight Train to Georgia”), jazz (“Take the A Train” and an exuberant “Minnie the Moocher”), pop (“Send in the Clowns”), spirituals (“Have You Heard About the Baby?”), and, with added significance after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, patriotic music.
With bookings set into the year 2004 and a Christmas CD in the works, The Three Mo’ Tenors had already outlasted any impression that they might be simply a temporary novelty; even the traditionalist Opera News had been won over by their concerts. Perhaps the most promising sign for the three tenors’ future as a group was the range of their musical interests. “We certainly have a lot to say about different genres, like country and rap,” Dixon told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I kid you not. Victor has done some R&B work, and there is 20th-century opera to deal with.” Dixon perhaps summed up the group’s appeal when he gave the Boston Globe these reasons for its success:” We’re honest. We are really having fun, and people who come to see us want to be included. That’s what we’re about-including everybody.”
Three Mo’ Tenors, RCA, 2001.
Back Stage, October 6, 2000, p. 7.
Boston Globe, May 16, 2001, p. C6; February 24, 2002, p. C5.
Boston Herald, May 16, 2001, p. 51.
Chicago Sun-Times, March 14, 2002, p. 51.
Jet, October 15, 2001, p. 64.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 21, 2002, p. El.
Opera News, December 2001, p. 78.
St. Petersburg Times, March 28, 2002, p. Weekend-22; March 31, 2002, p. B2.
Washington Post, May 31, 2001, p. C4.
Public Broadcasting System, http://www.pbs.org
Three Mo’ Tenors, http://www.threemotenors.com
—James M. Manheim
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