How a Humble Hollywood Cantor Became ‘Voice Teacher to the Stars’ and Saved Rock & Roll (Guest Column)

Nathan Lam helped resurrect the careers of Rod Stewart, Lionel Ritchie, Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Rogers and more

Rod Stewart Lionel Ritchie Linda Ronstadt Kenny Rogers
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For more than 35 years, Cantor Nathan Lam has blurred the lines between rock and religion, coaching artists like Rod Stewart, Ringo Starr and countless others from rock to folk and from punk to heavy metal. Hailing from North Hollywood, California, it’s not a reach to see why.

The fabled Laurel Canyon Blvd. winds through this part of Los Angeles County – born in the flats of the North San Fernando Valley, Laurel Canyon winds through the Hollywood Hills, and spills out at Sunset Blvd. These were the proving grounds where rock married folk – literally in some instances – and was home to everyone from Frank Zappa to Joni Mitchell.

Cantor Lam was firmly rooted in the burgeoning explosion of music that marked the ’60s. And as they say, “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.” Cantor Lam not only remembers that era, he was fueled by the artistry that echoes and is still worshipped today.

“My best friend in high schools father was David Frisina, longtime virtuoso violinist and concertmaster for the Los Angeles Philharmonic,” Cantor Lam said. “He had a huge influence on me. He would practice constantly. I learned that if you wanted to be great, you had to work hard.”

Armed with this work ethic, Cantor Lam explored his options in the music business. After being heard singing at a wedding, someone came up to him and asked him to give her voice lessons.

“This girl had a phenomenal voice, and because of her I started teaching voice.” Cantor Lam soon began giving voice lessons to actors, who sought him out in order to conserve their vocal chords as much as enabling them to deliver performances.

“This is when I got a call to work with Rod Stewart,” Cantor Lam explained. “I was working with Alana Stewart, Rod’s wife, and one afternoon I pick up the phone, and it was Rod: ‘I need to work on me voice.’”

Stewart was in trouble. What was reported as a “benign vocal nodule” that was removed was actually a slow growing thyroid cancer. In Stewart’s autobiography he writes, “I contacted a guy called Nate Lamb. He was a cantor at a nearby synagogue, and I had been told that he knew everything about voices and making then stronger. Nate came round and he showed me some vocal exercises: him at the piano, me sat beside him, feeling self-conscious and worried. It was like a daily workout for the voice – one that I still use today. He got me doing scales, runs, arpeggios. He forced me to make raspberry noises and humming sounds.”

Stewart referred to Cantor Lam as “determined, patient and confident” and remarked that Cantor Lam was “exactly what I needed. Day after day, Nate came back, and day after day we did the same thing. I owe the guy one hell of a lot.”

What followed were post-op career-saving gigs with Lionel Ritchie, Linda Ronstadt and Kenny Rogers. Cantor Lam’s work influenced the voices of a generation, and soon he became known as the “Voice Teacher to the Stars,” working with the likes of Metallica, White Snake and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, who told me Cantor Lam “had a great vibe.”

Cantor Lam even worked with a Beatle.

“I was on the road with Ringo Starr. At that time he had 15 years of sobriety under his belt. What a sweetheart. Ringo made sure that I knew he was married to a Jew. He had never had a voice lesson and made sure that I knew he was the first Beatle to have a solo hit,” Cantor Lam remembered, referring to 1971’s “It Don’t Come Easy.”

“He was very diligent and insistent that everyone on the tour remained sober. I had to remember that this was Ringo Starr – one of the Fab Four, and I was his voice coach.”

I asked Cantor Lam what was the stand-out moment of that tour for him.

“I remember standing off-stage with some of the greatest musicians of the world, all supporting this icon of rock and roll. Joe Walsh was playing the opening lead to ‘Life in the Fast Lane’, and being a huge Eagles fan, I was transfixed. I remember thinking, ‘Here I am, a kid from North Hollywood,’ and the realization that God gave me the ability to help these artists hit home.”

Cantor Lam’s epiphany on that stage has served him well attending to his new flock at Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills. It’s a short drive from Stephen Wise Temple, where the Sex Pistol’s guitarist, Steve Jones, would ride his Harley to for voice lessons.

“I enjoyed riding my Harley up to Stephen Wise, and I liked the Cantor,” Steve told me. “He had a nice vibe, but it was too early for me to grasp how to control a voice, so I don’t think I got much out of it. I think I would benefit a lot more if I went and saw him today, especially with breathing.”

In an industry where religion is usually not part of the equation that produces hits, Cantor Lam injects a sense of spirituality among the many music industry icons whose voices he has saved.

But what of his duty as a Cantor to sing the praises of piety? Cantor Lam summed it up simply: “These people came to me with their vocal problems, and maybe got a little closer to God.”

Richard Stellar was the winner of the Los Angeles Press Club’s best blog award and a Southern California Journalism Award for his HollyBlogs at TheWrap, as well as an award for the Facebook group that helped to muscle the salvation of long-term care for the motion picture and television industry. Stellar lives in Woodland Hills, California, with his wife of more than 30 years, Nuala, and much too much Beatles memorabilia.