PHILADELPHIA — Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Dot Levine’s nifty riff on the singing telegrams of the previous century is a “serenade service” that’s perfectly in tune with this pandemic year.
“People are really in need of community, of human touch,” said Levine, an ebullient interpreter of American popular songs and jazz standards — from silly to sublime and all the notes in between.
“I am singularly useful at this singular juncture. We can’t touch each other right now, but I want the people I perform for to feel good. To feel touched.”
A North Jersey native and West Philly resident, Levine, 34, identifies as queer and prefers the pronouns they/them. They had a busy schedule of live gigs and teaching in person until the pandemic hit in March, and everything dried up.
“Suddenly, time was moving very slowly,” Levine said. “I was worried about rent and food. I had to figure something out.” A comedic podcast that likened singing telegrams to public shaming might seem an unlikely inspiration, but it got Levine thinking.
As a “weird” and “awkward” high school student, Levine experienced how playing stand-up bass in the high school jazz band became “a liaison with the rest of humankind.” The pandemic was depriving many people of the sort of contact Levine had once lacked as well. And besides, the singing telegrams concept had a retro, playful vibe.
So on March 21, after a response to Levine’s Facebook pitch from a client, Dottie’s Serenade Service was born. Levine went on Facebook Live and in person to an anniversary couple’s house in Powelton Village, singing on the sidewalk while playing Billy Joel’s “She’s Got a Way” on a custom-built Pleinview guitar.
Since then, Levine has given about 200 performances across the city and in the suburbs, from spacious neighborhoods to skinny rowhouse streets that render music-making while social-distancing an art form in itself. An Ella Fitzgerald classic? A recent hit by Ray LaMontagne? “Wind Beneath My Wings” or a 1922 novelty number about singing in the bathtub? If there’s sheet music available for a song, Levine can serenade you with it.
“And after I sing, a lot of people want to talk, because they’re isolated. Sometimes I just end up chatting with a person because it feels like the right thing to do,” Levine said.
“There’s something about the way Dot comes across, sort of whimsical and unexpected, that puts a smile on my face,” said Elisabeth Flynn, a Havertown writer who helped arrange a performance for a friend. “There’s a lightness to it I really enjoyed and appreciate more than ever now.”
The performer’s witty and congenial tone also come in handy on those rare occasions when, say, a neighbor isn’t thrilled by someone breaking out into song on their block.
“I can count the number of times I’ve felt unwelcome on one hand. But I was on one of those tiny South Philly streets, and as I play my first chord, a door opens and someone says, ‘Oh no, no singing, I’m watching TV in here,’” Levine said. “I promise it would take three minutes, and afterward they go straight from angry to a big smile.”
Clients engage Dottie’s Serenade Service for birthdays, wedding anniversaries, retirements, just-because occasions, or as thank-you gestures to nurses or other frontline workers. Levine does the requested song or short set, without amplification, on guitar, banjo, mandolin, or other stringed instrument. People request the service for themselves or as a gift to others. Business has gotten so strong that Levine recently hired a friend, Grace Bonds, to help with bookings.
“People want to do something special for family or friends who have been isolated for too long,” said Bonds. “A lot of clients want to do something for someone going through hard times, like losing a job.”
Bonds works with clients to figure out what songs they want and to get details about the serenade recipient. Levine uses the information to make the event more personal. And as someone who’s experienced mental health challenges — “I’ve been open about my struggles” with depression, said Levine — empathy is another element of the performance.
“Without music I’d just be at home, probably … moping,” said Levine, no stranger to physical health challenges either. Repetitive stress from playing instruments, as well as earlier injuries from skateboarding mishaps, caused disabling pain that led Levine to consult with Diane Gaary of Ardmore. She utilizes a holistic, mind-body approach to assist musicians, dancers, actors, and other performers to improve their technique.
“Dot is a unique talent,” Gaary said. “Dot hasn’t sprung out of nowhere. It takes years of preparation to get to their virtuosity, and they are still refining their technique. There’s a lot of work that goes into creating what looks ‘effortless’ to an audience.”
Levine certainly is working hard. One recent Sunday, “I was on from 8:45 in the morning until 6:45 in the evening, teaching and performing. And in this heat, it wrings you out.”
“We recently hired another musician, and I want to (add) other musicians,” said Levine. “I’ve got some really big aspirations.”
No wonder, given how jazzed the performer gets when describing another recent South Philly gig.
“This couple had to postpone their wedding because of COVID, and the people on their block bought them a serenade of their wedding song,” said Levine. “They gifted this couple ‘Stand by Me.’ It was beautiful.”
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer