Singer becomes the voice of songwriter Bernie Dalton, silenced by ALS
When Bernie Dalton - a surfer, single father, pool cleaner and aspiring singer - lost his voice, neither he nor his voice coach were initially alarmed.
And when it didn’t come back, he wouldn’t let that stop him from making the album he’d always dreamed of creating.
A few months earlier, just after turning 46, Dalton had responded to a Craigslist ad and begun taking voice and songwriting lessons from San Francisco musician Essence Goldman.
“He’d always show up early with a big smile on his face, very eager, waiting for me,” Goldman said in a phone interview from her home in San Francisco’s Richmond district.
When Dalton came to her in January 2016, they didn’t start by talking songcraft - they discussed their lives.
“I feel that voice is the direct channel to somebody’s spirit, so I tried to help him feel comfortable,” Goldman said.
“Songwriting is about “honesty and sharing your truth. So we cut right to it.”
Dalton, who lived in Woodside, talked about being a single dad, while Goldman shared that she’d recently been through a separation and was a single mom.
“He was extremely encouraging and supportive,” she said. “A very sweet (platonic) relationship was born.”
As a songwriter, Dalton was a beginner but showed a lot of natural talent, Goldman said.
Once he brought her a fully formed original song. Another day, he sang the blues classic, “I’m Tore Down” by Freddie King, which Goldman recorded on her iPhone.
“That is the only known recording of Bernie singing in the world. because shortly thereafter, his voice disappeared,” she said.
Year with no voice
When weeks without a voice became months, Goldman became extremely concerned.
“Bernie, you’ve got to see a neurologist,” Goldman told him. “This is really bad. You can’t wait.”
Dalton finally got some medical tests during the spring of 2017, a year after he’d lost his voice.
“I think that there was optimism - you could call it denial - but Bernie is an extremely optimistic person almost to a fault,” Goldman said.
“He just kept thinking he was going to get better.”
It’s didn’t take long to diagnose his condition: the disease Dalton and Goldman most feared, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Despite the shock and his deteriorating physical condition, Dalton could still drive and kept coming to San Francisco for lessons with Goldman.
Writing on a yellow legal pad, he asked for advice about how to tell his teenage daughter, which was gut-wrenching, Goldman said.
“I urged him not to wait. I told him she would want to know so she could be there to help him and comfort him.
“He didn’t want to burden her. It was finals time at her high school, late spring 2017. He wanted to wait until finals were over, and that is what he did,” Goldman said.
“He is always thinking about other people before himself. Bernie is the most selfless person I’ve ever met.”
Make an album
Goldman stopped accepting money for the lessons and offered to start a fundraiser so Dalton could travel with his daughter before his symptoms worsened. But he didn’t want to take a trip. He wanted to make an album.
She asked him: “Bernie, how are you going to make an album if you can’t speak or sing?”
He replied: “I want you to be my voice,” but initially she didn’t think she could do that.
Dalton kept sending Goldman handwritten lyrics, asking her to help him put music and melody to his words.
“I was working on my own album,” she said, a follow-up to her 2016 release, “Black Wings.”
“But he’s persistent, extremely persistent, and he kept sending me the lyrics in the mail. He said, ‘This can be your next record.’ And there was just something so important and heartfelt about what he was doing.”
Goldman launched a GoFundMe campaign that raised more than $23,000 to pay for producing Dalton’s album.
Members of Goldman’s band joined Goldman and Dalton in a recording studio and knocked out a song a day.
Dalton was involved in every aspect of song creation, from the melodies to the horn parts, offering his comments on a dry-erase board or giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the musicians’ suggestions.
They named the band Bernie and the Believers and titled the album, “Connection.” Last February they had an album release party at the San Francisco club Slim’s.
The first song Dalton wrote, “Simon’s Hero,” is a message to his daughter’s future children, kids that Dalton will probably not live long enough to know.
Dalton and Goldman crafted that song, whose title references Dalton’s hero Paul Simon, in her living room as she played a Dobro guitar.