Meet Music's Top Throat Doctors Who've Saved the Voices of Adele, Sam Smith and More
It’s a singer’s worst nightmare: losing the use of his or her voice. Fortunately for Adele, Sam Smith and many others, the celebrated physicians on our list of leading laryngologists are there with advice, innovative procedures and yes, scalpels, when needed.
THE MAESTRO: DR. STEVEN M. ZEITELS
Adele, Sam Smith and more entrust their powerful pipes to this innovative cord expert
When Christina Perri’s song “Jar of Hearts” debuted on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance? five years ago, she went from waitressing to landing a recording contract. “I was singing 15 times a day,” says Perri. “And then I started losing my voice.” She was a bundle of nerves when she first met Dr. Steven M. Zeitels, the Eugene B. Casey professor of laryngeal surgery at Harvard Medical School and director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Voice Center. “He took one look at my vocal cords, smiled and said, ‘I know exactly what to do,’ ” recalls Perri, who was referred to him after a congenital cyst appeared on one of her vocal cords. After Zeitels operated on her, she says her voice quality improved and since then she has not canceled a single performance.
Zeitels, considered one of the top throat surgeons in the world, also has operated on Sam Smith, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Julie Andrews and Keith Urban. Then there’s songbird Adele, who thanked him during the 2012 Grammys. But the cherub-faced doctor says that for all his platinum connections, he also is devoted to helping those who have suffered voice loss from trauma or disease. In 2009, Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton was battling throat cancer and scheduled to have his larynx and tongue removed. He went to Zeitels, who not only saved his voice, but excised the malignancies with a laser. Hamilton is now cancer-free.
In addition to patient care, Zeitels is working on new products, including a clear, Jello-O-looking blob decades in the making. Collaborating with an MIT scientist, The Voice Health Institute and others, Zeitels hopes to market the biogel, which will “simulate the suppleness of vocal cords.” In recent months, numerous patents for the product have been approved. “Unlike other fillers,” says Zeitels, “the biogel will hopefully allow the vocal cords to vibrate like new.” Cancer patients will be first in line to receive it, as early as two years from now. Zeitels speculates that in six years, it might also be available to seasoned performers. “If successful,” he boasts, “it will likely create super singers and potentially revolutionize the industry.” >> 617-726-1444, massgeneral.org/voicecenter
DR. ROSEMARY B. DESLOGE
Desloge, a self-professed Broadway groupie and laryngologist in private practice, became one of the Great White Way’s vocal healers after successfully operating on a lead from Jersey Boys. Now, Tony and Emmy Award winners, tween talent and even royalty depend on her to troubleshoot their timbres. Desloge never skips a Broadway show (or backstage invite), but you won’t glean her patient list from the walls in her spa-like office. Only one picture -- a bejeweled octogenarian beside the late Luciano Pavarotti -- is on display. “That’s my grandmother, who at 80 became a Pavarotti groupie,” Desloge says with a laugh. Musical fandom clearly runs in the family. » 212-717-2700, desloge.md
DR. ANTHONY F. JAHN
During intermission, a famed New York Metropolitan Opera soprano was doubled over with cramps and experiencing shortness of breath. Jahn went into high gear with his bag of needles. After a 15-minute acupuncture treatment, the singer’s pain resolved, she was breathing normally and the show continued. “Technology does not make the accumulated clinical wisdom of other cultures irrelevant,” says Jahn. “Acupuncture can help singers quickly, with no side effects.” A Hungarian immigrant and former pianist, he satisfies his musical yen as one of the Met’s seven volunteer doctors in exchange for free house seats.
» 212-262-4400, entsurg.com
DR. GWEN S. KOROVIN
Celine Dion was crestfallen when two Canadian ENTs told her she needed throat surgery. Seeking a final opinion, she met Korovin, a laryngologist in private practice. “I didn’t see the polyps that her other doctors claimed,” she recalls. “I just saw chronic swelling.” Korovin’s prescription: two weeks of the silent treatment. Dion emerged pitch-perfect and unscathed. “Had she gone through with the surgery, it could have ruined her voice,” she adds. Known for exhausting every option before resorting to the scalpel, Korovin has a client list that includes Hugh Jackman, Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga .
DR. ROBERT T. SATALOFF
In A Memoir, Patti LuPone describes how Sataloff “saved my voice.” Awaking from surgery, she heard “the sound of a baritone ... singing a liturgy.” It was Sataloff: cantor, professional choir conductor and professor and chair of otolaryngology at Drexel University and chairman of The Voice Foundation. He always knew he would follow his father -- a renowned ENT -- into medicine, even though he could have snagged a record deal. Among his many talents, Sataloff has created more than 100 surgical instruments and innovated numerous operating techniques, such as implanting a singer’s own fat between vocal-fold membrane and scar tissue to create “a new, pliable layer.”
» 215-545-3322, phillyent.com
DR. DAVID LOTT
Specializing in regenerative medicine, Lott, the Mayo Clinic’s director of its head and neck regeneration program, has developed a process to re-create parts of the voice box and vocal folds using stem cells and 3D printing. Although the technology is still in the investigation stage, he plans to offer the treatment to patients (which includes opera and Broadway stars) in 2016. More recently, a celebrity client was set to accept a lifetime achievement award when an unrelated pain condition left her with a breathy, unsupported voice. “By addressing the physical and mental aspects of the pain in addition to retraining her vocal system, she could speak with confidence,” he says. » 480-342-2983, mayoclinic.org
DR. GERALD S. BERKE
“I would not be on the stage tonight if it weren’t for Dr. Berke,” John Mayer told fans at the Hollywood Bowl in 2013, after being sidelined for three years with granuloma, or tissue inflammation of the vocal cords. “He’d failed therapy by other well-known laryngologists,” recalls Berke, professor and chair of the department of head and neck surgery at UCLA, who cracked the problem by paralyzing Mayer’s vocal cords with Botox to allow them time to heal. “When it comes to the voice, less is generally more,” says the doctor, who typically elects for out-patient procedures. » 310-794-0238, uclahealth.org
DR. SHAWN NASSERI
Nasseri’s private practice appointment book reads like an entertainment who’s who -- from Ryan Seacrest and Seth MacFarlane to Tom Petty, Carrie Underwood and Stevie Wonder. He credits his continued relationships with his patients as key to their recovery. “These people have excellent voice gifts but hectic lifestyles that provide a challenge to sustained wellness,” he says. “I’m constantly on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat to provide a personal presence.”» 310-289-8200, nasserimd.com
DR. RANDY SCHNITMAN
To keep his A-list clientele -- which includes Fetty Wap, Katy Perry and Mariah Carey -- out of the OR, Schnitman puts a premium on the less sensational aspects of vocal wellness. “People on tour often complain of sensitive throats,” he says. “Nine times out of 10, it’s acid reflux from late-night eating.” Also key is vocal training. “When you break into the business on your own, you haven’t been trained like an opera singer.” He encourages performers to prioritize warm-ups, hydration and pacing to minimize vocal strain. “When I don’t hear from my patients,” says Schnitman, “I know I’m doing my job well.” » 310-275-5432
DR. JOSEPH SUGERMAN
In the ’70s, when Sugerman was the protege and business partner of the late, great Dr. Ed Kantor, Hollywood’s original voice doctor, he would treat new artists while the boss soothed legends Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. “By default, I saw the next generation,” he says. Today, Sugerman credits fiber-optic video as the most significant tech advancement. When patient Mick Jagger complained of pain during an Australian tour in November 2014, a local physician emailed him a video of the singer’s larynx. “The video came in at 3 a.m., but I was able to advise from abroad,” says Sugerman. » 310-274-6005
DR. WAYNE R. KIRKHAM
“I found music before I found medicine,” says Kirkham of his days as a percussionist and vocalist at the University of Wisconsin. “In med school, I realized I could use my musical background to really make a difference.” Kirkham’s clients include rockers Steven Tyler and Stevie Nicks and sports broadcaster Terry Bradshaw. A recent challenge: ventriloquist -- and winner of America’s Got Talent’s second season -- Terry Fator, whose Las Vegas act includes impersonating Etta James and Garth Brooks. “There’s nothing better than seeing your performers continue to do what they love,” he says.
» 972-566-7515, drwaynekirkham.com
DR. C. RICHARD STASNEY
Treating opera singers like the late Luciano Pavarotti, who struggled with acid reflux, is how Stasney made his name. As the founder of the prestigious Center for Performing Arts Medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital, he learned that compassion goes hand in hand with adequate treatment. “If an opera singer gets a cold, that’s an emergency,” he says. “You can never underestimate the psychological component of the voice.” Which is not to diminish medical innovation: Three decades ago, he pioneered a fat-injection technique to help paralyzed vocal folds meet that’s named after him, and still used, today. » 713-796-2181, texasvoicecenter.com/stasney
DR. C. GAELYN GARRETT
After Garrett, senior executive medical director of Vanderbilt Voice Center, told Willie Nelson that he wasn’t Superman and needed to rest his voice, the country star decided to put the advice to music. Eight months later, he surprised Garrett by serenading her with a new song, the 2011 single “Superman.” When not molding tomorrow’s talent or caring for today’s country music marquee acts, Garrett is finalizing a “vocal pace-maker” that she hopes may one day reverse vocal cord paralysis.
» 615-343-0754, vanderbilthealth.com
DR. DAVID E. ROSOW
In college, Rosow performed as a violinist with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and DJ’d at a local music station, all while juggling the rigors of earning undergraduate and medical degrees at Harvard. Today, Rosow is director of laryngology and voice at the University of Miami, where he’s connected with Latin music cognoscenti and Univision TV anchors alike. While he loves Latin culture, he constantly warns his clients against too many Cuban coffees. “Caffeine can lead to acid reflux, irritate the vocal cords and dehydrate you.” » 305-243-2587, uhealthsystem.com
DR. MICHAEL M. JOHNS III
As founder/director of the Emory Voice Center, Johns has worked to support Atlanta’s “booming professional voice population,” hiring three additional laryngologists and six voice pathologists to cater to hip-hop and R&B stars and journalists from CNN and The Weather Channel. On the walls of his waiting room are photos of celebs from all genres, plus a couple of Coldplay albums signed by Chris Martin. Johns is known for his ability to “hear” subtle voice changes and for trying to keep his clients’ voices young. “While age-related changes to the voice convey wisdom,” says Johns, “you want to make sure you’re being heard.” » 404-778-2020, emoryhealthcare.org/voice-center
DR. MICHAEL S. BENNINGER
While studying singers at Oberlin’s Voice Laboratory, Benninger became enamored with the complexities of the human voice. Upon moving to Detroit, he became a vocal guru to the city’s Motown scene and opera divas. Today, as chairman of the Head and Neck Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, Benninger treats the vocal conundrums of an international clientele that includes a sheik, prime ministers and such platinum performers as Kid Rock. In his hospital’s recording studio, he captures baseline “vocal MRIs” of his patients. “Thanks to these technologies,” he says, “we assist artists as far away as China in real time.” » 216-444-8500, clevelandclinic.org/headandneck
Additional reporting by Bryan Reesman,
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of Billboard.