"My voice was vulnerable, so it made me insecure and made everything in my life vulnerable," Urban recalls of the moment he reached out for help.
It was a night that boiled down to one basic message: Some of the biggest names in popular culture owe their vocal health, and therefore their careers, to the esteemed Dr. Steven Zeitels, the legendary surgeon at the forefront of laryngeal surgery and voice rehabilitation. The Voice Health Institute’s Raise Your Voice Gala, their 15th annual fundraising soiree, honored British stage and screen legend Julie Andrews and brought out a who’s who of chart-topping stars from multiple genres of music, all of whom lavished praise on Dr. Zeitels and the institute as a whole.
“The night's proceeds are to raise awareness of human voice loss and support surgical research to solve vocal problems,” Dr. Zeitels told Billboard of the event, which was hosted by British actress and singer Connie Fisher, featured performances by Sam Smith, Keith Urban and Roger Daltrey, and included video messages praising Dr. Zeitels from the likes of Bono and Lionel Richie. “[The night] supports the education and training of the next generation of surgeons and scientists.”
“The dedicated doctors, scientists and staff who make up the Voice Health Institute are the real superstars and heroes,” noted Andrews, who underwent Dr. Zeitels’ care in 2000 after a botched surgery left her with damage to her vocal cords. Andrews is quick to credit the doctor and his team for bringing her voice back. “I’ve watched first-hand Steven working on my throat, and it’s quite a revelation. The meticulous care, focus, passion and determination you exhibit is why we’re so behind you. You’re miracle workers.”
For Andrews, the honorary chairwoman of the Voice Health Institute, her vocal issues surfaced as a young performer. “I started singing at about age 7 and I had one of those four-octave ranges. I would hit high notes and dogs would howl for miles around,” she explains. “When I was magically asked to come to Broadway [in the original production of My Fair Lady in 1956], one of the difficult things was sustaining eight shows a week. Being in My Fair Lady for two years, slamming vocal cords together, with perhaps a week off here and there, was really daunting.” According to Dr. Zeitels, vocal cords collide 100 to 110 times per second when speaking at a regular volume. “How hard they collide is how loud you get. At the notes Julie was reaching, she’d often experience 400 to 600 collisions a second.”
In addition to Andrews, Dr. Zeitels also points to Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler, another artist who benefited from his care, as a “prime example” of someone who’s experienced the tribulations of vocal trauma. “He probably has performed more large-scale rock shows than anyone else given the frequency of his touring [and] was actually singing at more than 105 decibels during his concert, and his vocal cords collided more than 780,000 times in one show.”
The night’s trio of performers all benefited from Dr. Zeitels’ care as well. A guitar-wielding Keith Urban, who crooned through hits including 2016’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” explained that performing five nights a week for four hours a night during his early days in Australia and a “less than healthy lifestyle” left his vocal cords with heavy damage. “I was touring and just getting through gigs by not talking the next day,” said Urban. It was through his wife Nicole Kidman’s suggestion that Urban speak to friend John Mayer, who had vocal issues of his own, to find out who Mayer saw. “It was Steven, so I went up to Boston to meet him. He took a good look and was like, ‘Oh yeah, we can clean all that damage right up.’”
According to Urban, it wasn’t just his voice Dr. Zeitels saved. “I didn’t realize how much low-grade depression I was really living with. My voice was vulnerable, so it made me insecure and made everything in my life vulnerable. When you healed it and fixed it the way you did, I felt my entire spirit and life lift. I got stressed way less, I didn’t have anxiety. It had such a profound effect on my whole being and world. That’s how important my voice is to me.”
Sam Smith -- who delivered his biggest hits, including “Stay With Me” and “Too Good at Goodbyes,” with only piano accompaniment -- explained he saw Dr. Zeitels after his voice gave out in August 2015, which subsequently caused him to cancel his tour. “Now I’m getting ready for another tour,” the singer noted of his upcoming calendar of dates, which kicks off in the United Kingdom later this month. “I can’t drink, which is f---ing boring.” The Who frontman Roger Daltrey also took the stage, thanking Dr. Zeitels and running through classics like “Who Are You,” “Baba O’Riley” and “Pinball Wizard.” The rock icon closed his set with “Always Heading Home,” a new song from his upcoming solo album that features only a piano and upright bass.
In addition, the night also heard from Aerosmith’s Tom Hamilton, sports broadcaster Joe Buck, artist George Condo and acclaimed operatic mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who all stressed that they owed the continuation of their diverse careers to the Voice Health Institute and Zeitels.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to be at the forefront of restoring the voices who influence and advance popular culture,” Dr. Zeitels told Billboard. “ I had absolutely no idea that my future life’s work could be anything related to the entertainment industry. I knew when I was young that I was interested in becoming a surgeon or physician, but I never imagined this.”