When Jeff Bridges won the Academy Award for his portrayal of an aging, alcoholic country singer in the movie “Crazy Heart,” he memorably thanked his parents, the motion picture academy, his director, his co-stars, and then, toward the end, as if recalling a particularly fond friend, “Roger Love, man!” And though Bridges may have been the most publicly effusive in his praise, he’s hardly the first performer whom Love has helped become a better singer or speaker. From Eminem to Glenn Beck, when celebrities want to sound like superstars, they turn to vocal coach Roger Love.
A deceptively unspectacular gray building on Hollywood Boulevard serves as Love’s studio. But once you pass through the big red doors into the warm, loftlike lobby, you remember not to judge a book by its cover. The soundproofed walls of Love’s office are covered with platinum records from all the musicians he’s worked with over the years. A small table displays the books he’s written, translated into several languages. For a man with so much success, Love is remarkably humble when it comes to his origin in the business.
Love started working for vocal coach Seth Riggs when he was just a teenager. Riggs, a classical music lover, decided he wanted to teach opera in Canada for six months, and he asked the 17-year-old Love to fill in for him. “My first day, I had Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys; Earth, Wind & Fire; the Jacksons; The 5th Dimension ... Luther Vandross came in. All these huge, huge stars, because he literally had every famous singer in America studying with him.” Love chuckles as he thinks about trying to teach such luminaries how to sing as a mere teenager. “Here’s a little Jewish guy and here’s Earth, Wind & Fire, singing gospel.”
Love said he “just faked my way through six months.” But when Riggs returned, most of the clients he’d left with Love wanted to keep working with him. And so, a career was born.
Teaching vocal technique is hardly an exact science. “Singing technique is mostly passed down from teacher to student,” Love said. “Nobody ever really learns how to teach. In a funny way, it’s a practice that doesn’t have a very good method to become a teacher.”
“Traditionally, for vocal technique ... there are two main thoughts. You either take your chest voice and belt it up as high as it can go,” or, Love said, “just teach everybody head voice, especially women.” Love was satisfied with neither technique. “Most people, when they try to go from low to high, there’s an area in between chest voice and head voice, where the voice doesn’t know what to do.” This is why so many singers have trouble toward the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “There’s supposed to be another voice, middle voice, that lives in between.” Love decided he’d concentrate on helping his clients bridge the gap between low and high, and he experienced great results.
In the early 1990s, Love branched out on his own, leaving Riggs and starting his own business. Up until that point, he’d worked only with singers, but he gradually began to be approached by famous speakers looking for help. At first, Love turned down the requests. “No, I’m a singing teacher,” he’d tell them, and refer them to a speech pathologist. But soon, “The people who started calling started becoming so interesting” that Love couldn’t resist taking them on. And so he decided he’d take the techniques he’d learned to help singers keep their voices healthy and use them on speakers like Anthony Robbins and Suze Orman.
In working with speakers, Love became interested in what makes people listen to or trust one person over another. “The statistics say that only 7 percent of the words I use make you believe me,” Love said. Fifty-five percent is physicality, body language, but as Love knew, many people were already teaching about that. “Thirty-eight percent of whether or not you believe me and whether or not I have any influence over you has to do with tonality, the sounds your voice makes aside from the words.” It was in tonality that Love found his gold mine.
“I became known as an influence expert,” Love said. “A great singer, with a great song and a great delivery, can move you to a myriad of emotions. I just did the same thing with speakers.”
When Bridges approached Love about learning to sing for his role in “Crazy Heart,” Love said he jumped at the chance. “Jeff came to me, brimming with natural musical talent. He loves, and has loved playing the guitar for many years,” Love said. Love was surprised by how excited Bridges was to take on the role, and together the two of them began the work of polishing Bridges’ voice. “It wasn’t big enough ... it was kind of like he was playing the guitar and singing for himself,” Love said.
So Love set out to make Bridges the amateur sound like Bridges the pro. He helped Bridges expand the higher end of his vocal range, teaching him how to project and to use his breath more effectively and thicken his voice. “He was very intelligent. Very sweet. Every second with him was a pleasure,” said Love, recalling their time spent in the studio together.
What may be the most surprising thing about Love’s prominent position in the vocal world is that it all started in synagogue. “Where can a young Jewish boy sing? At temple,” Love said. He was brought up in a Conservative family that attended Temple Beth Ami in the Valley, and started singing in synagogue and studying with Cantor Allan Michelson. “He taught Nate Lam [now Cantor of Steven S. Wise Temple] and myself. Nate always wanted to be a cantor; I always wanted to be a singer.”
Love was even hired to be the fill-in cantor at Burbank Temple Emanu El as a teenager. But when his vocal-coaching career began taking off, “Judaism took a backseat role ... for the next number of years.” It wasn’t until Love was about to get married that his non-Jewish wife, Miyoko, brought Judaism back into his life. Love’s mother-in-law suggested that the marriage would work better if the Loves shared one religion, and she encouraged her daughter to study Judaism. Miyoko eventually converted.
“Am I the best Jew? No. Do I spend a lot of time studying the Bible? No. Should I be doing that? Yeah, probably,” Love said. “But I am a teacher; I’m teaching all day. I don’t happen to be teaching about what’s in the Bible. But I’m making beautiful music. And I’m making people more connected to their dreams, their desires, their happiness. I feel like I’m doing something very special.”
Love clearly enjoys his work. When asked whether he has any especially beloved clients, he was quick to answer. “When you’re a voice coach, you quite often work with people who can’t sing and might be famous and might be in a position in the industry to make records. And then you’re forever helping people who are not legitimate, real, born-to-be, spent their whole life working at it — singers,” Love said. “So, every so often, somebody comes along like a John Mayer who is the real deal. He plays from his heart, he writes from his heart, he sings from his heart. He writes because he has to write. He’s a real artist.”
And despite the big names he’s worked with, Love is remarkably unconcerned with pop culture. “A lot of people come to me and I don’t even want to know who they are or what they do,” he said, laughing.
He hasn’t seen “The King’s Speech,” despite having worked with stutterers for years. People keep telling him to check it out, but he says there aren’t enough hours in the day. “What you mostly learn [when working with stars] is that everybody’s just normal. And superstars are just totally normal. It’s just there’s also a part of them that can do something incredibly well,” he said.
One of Love’s weirder experiences was working with rapper Eminem, whom Love calls “one of the prophets of the generation, in a way. You may not like what he says, but he’s a prophet.” Love was contacted by Eminem’s people and flown out to meet the star before one of his concerts. There, Eminem’s manager told him, “You’ve got five minutes with him; he’s got to get on stage.”
When Love entered the green room, he was in for a surprise. “There were two Eminems sitting there ... identical.” Apparently, the show called for Eminem to magically appear on the other side of the stage during the concert, and they’d brought in a body double. Love knew he had only five short minutes to sell himself to Eminem before the show, so “I started rapping.”
“This funny Jewish guy starts rapping Eminem songs,” Love said. “He’s laughing at me; you know, you do whatever it takes.”
Love’s bold move was appreciated, and he was subsequently asked to accompany Eminem on tour and spent a week working with him on the road.
And as for dealing with divas? “People often say to me, ‘Oh I’ve heard that celebrity’s a nightmare, they’re a total jerk,’ ” Love said. “Even if you’re a jerk, when you go to the doctor and you think you’ve got an illness, you’re really not that much of a jerk to the doctor. Even a jerk is fake-nice to a doctor.”