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Voice of reason

He's nurtured young singers on 'Idol.' Now he's stepping into the spotlight.

In his long career, Dorian Holley has backed singers like James Taylor and Stevie Wonder. Earlier this week he conducted a clinic at Berklee College of Music. In his long career, Dorian Holley has backed singers like James Taylor and Stevie Wonder. Earlier this week he conducted a clinic at Berklee College of Music. (WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / October 17, 2008
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"What a pretty voice. But what's the matter with your chart? Find out and fix it."

"Pardon me, your signals to the band were wack. Practice at home in your room. If you look goofy doing it, don't do it."

"Sing the first verse again, and sing it to . . . excuse me, in the third row, what's your name? Hannah? Sing it to Hannah, and your goal is to get her phone number."

Those are a few of the pearls of wisdom dispensed at Berklee College of Music this week by Dorian Holley, the associate music director and vocal coach on "American Idol." Holley, who has been conducting workshops on the art of the audition, is the sort of musician who doesn't register on many people's radar. He's neither a famous pop star nor a struggling lounge singer nor a member of a band. Holley is a working singer - a 21-year veteran of jingles, soundtracks, album sessions, television shows, and concert tours. He's backed Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Christina Aguilera, James Taylor, Kanye West, Queen Latifah, Sheryl Crow, and the list goes on.

While most of the young singers he's been working with this week have every intention of stepping into the spotlight, Holley's career is a model of something each and every one of them would do well to consider: reality.

"Everyone starts out dreaming, and then you get married, have a baby, buy a house and a car," Holley says, "and what I want to let people know is that there are so many jobs out there. My thinking is, if you're a musician and you can make music instead of digging a ditch, make it."

The dream doesn't die, though. Holley has just self-released "Independent Film," his first CD as a solo artist, and he'll perform songs from the album tonight at Cafe 939. It's a soul-satisfying project that won't pay the bills, and Holley's club show is peripheral to the real task at hand, which is to arm these students with the tools they need to make it as professional singers.

Hint: There's a lot more to it than good pitch and clean tones.

"I have to be a chameleon," says Holley, especially on a show like "Dancing With the Stars," where he was featured vocalist during the first three seasons. For that audition, Holley trotted out seven different sounds, from Frank Sinatra to Sly Stone.

"I've been at sessions where a producer has said he wants me to sound like Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen at the same time. I've had people say can you make it a little more green. Huh? It's tricky," Holley says. "Sometimes they think they want Sheryl Crow, because she has a hit single. But what they really want is magic, and that is whatever you, as an individual, can bring. It's a tough call between being a blank slate and being yourself."

By all accounts, Holley is a master of the craft.

Crow, who sang backup with Holley on Michael Jackson's "Bad" tour, says in an e-mail that "night after night he would blow me away with the agility of his voice. Dorian can sing anything and make it sound emotional."

James Taylor says that Holley's character and personality are as much a factor as his vocal skills. "You can say 'less vibrato' or 'more crescendo' but in many cases you're asking a singer to understand something about a song, and that's a high-level discussion," Taylor says. "Dorian is mature and intelligent, and that comes through in an ineffable way when he sings. That said, he can also put it on hold and be one-dimensional and shallow if he has to. Dorian is a real utility player."

Indeed. Holley considers himself as much psychologist as vocal coach on "American Idol." Technically, he helps contestants arrange and rehearse their songs. Given the range of talent in the early stages of the competition, that can mean helping a tone-deaf belter hobble through a chorus or counseling a natural like Jordin Sparks to pull back from time to time in the interest of overall dynamics.

But Holley takes it upon himself to be a protector, as well, offering inspiration and salve as needed.

"The primary job is making them feel strong enough to go on stage in spite of their fear about what's about to happen to them, and holding them together afterward," Holley says. "Everyone gets nailed, except maybe one. Simon murders them. And they're crumbling when they leave the stage. Honestly, I couldn't do that show. I would tell those judges to 'kiss my [expletive]. You get up here and do it.' And then I'd be voted off."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

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