The Girl Singer
By Suzanne Buzek
Debbie Purtell was never comfortable singing in church. But singing with a dance band turned out to be another matter. Purtell’s self-proclaimed “saloon voice” has weathered the changes in musical styles and the erratic demand for live bands. Singing with the same band—Music by Wes Neal—for all but three of the past 30 years, the assistant director for the Office of Financial Aid has a broad musical repertoire and a library of colorful anecdotes recalling her performing experiences, successes and mishaps.
“I’ve performed in winter storms where the band has outnumbered the audience members and I’ve performed in front of a thousand people,” she says. “I’ve even sung the wrong words before. The band was playing ‘Saturday in the Park’ and I was singing ‘Does Anybody Know What Time It Is?’ I’ve also knocked over music stands and all of the instruments on stage in front of an audience.”
But such mishaps never dampened Purtell’s love of being onstage, or her love of singing, which traces its roots to her childhood. At family get-togethers or at her father’s company picnics, her brother would strum along on a guitar while her dad played the drum to her singing. A “basement band singer,” as she calls it, in her adolescence, and without any formal instruction, she jumped at an opportunity to perform in a band that desperately wanted a female singer for gigs.
“My husband and I were dating at the time, and this friend of his needed a singer with his band,” she recalls. “I used to sing in church, but it would make me so nervous, with it being so quiet and delicate. I never had a churchy voice; I have more of a saloon voice. So I jumped at the chance.
“I ended up trying out for the band in the middle of Princeton High School’s prom—this was when people would hire bands for dances,” she recalls. “I sang my one prepared song, Roberta Flack’s ‘Killing Me Softly.’ I could do her inflections and everything. Then they asked me to sing something else. Well, I hadn’t prepared anything, so I flipped through their books and did a horrible rendition of the Beatles’ ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.’”
Purtell may have been disappointed, but the band was impressed; the next weekend she took over as Wes Neal’s lead singer, beginning a professional career that averaged 100 gigs a year. As of late, however, that number has been decreasing.
“When I first started singing with the band, I was doing a lot of rock ‘n’ roll and disco. I was singing ‘Long Train Runnin’’ by the Doobie Brothers, a lot of Donna Summer and a lot of Earth, Wind, and Fire,” says Purtell. “We used to play at a lot of proms, especially when we had a horn section. But music has changed in recent years in style and in what people want to pay for. We’ve gone to where we used to play in hotels, VFW or police halls, to now mostly doing country clubs and private parties. It’s not so much that people can’t really afford us, but more that the music style has changed.”
The musical style transition from harder rock ‘n’ roll and staple party songs to softer and more jazzy tunes has been easier on the voice, and fewer gigs means less demands on her time. But a mere decline in the demand for live rock bands and the rise of disc jockeys for social events has done anything but pacify Purtell’s saloon voice.
“No matter what happens, you learn to keep on, because once you get on stage, it’s show time,” she says. “Thing are easier on the voice with doing jazzier stuff, and since there is less smoking around, that’s good, but I’m still singing ‘Long Train Runnin.’ ”
Since she began working at Xavier in 2007, Purtell’s interaction with current and prospective Xavier students is even more special: Her daughter Caroline is a program coordinator in Xavier’s Institute for Politics and Public Life.
“I kind of fell into financial aid, and working here with Caroline so close is just icing on the cake,” she says.
At the end of the day, Purtell’s heart belongs on stage, singing her heart out and having a great time with her fellow band members.
“The best feeling in the world is when you finish a song, and the band sounds good, you feel like you nailed it, you remembered the words and people are clapping for you. It doesn’t get any better than that.”