Gre­gory Charles’s par­ents are his role models

Re­nais­sance man to re­ceive Martin Luther King Jr. Award

Montreal Gazette - - Culture - BILL BROWN­STEIN ARTS & LIFE bbrown­[email protected]­tre­al­gazette.com Twit­ter: @bill­brown­stein

Not that he doesn’t ap­pre­ci­ate all the won­der­ful things that have come his way in this city, but it’s days like this when Gre­gory Charles won­ders what it would be like if his fam­ily had stayed put in Trinidad where the tem­per­a­ture is about … mmm … 70 de­grees warmer.

“Half of my fam­ily grew up in a place where it’s 36 de­grees ev­ery day of the year,” Charles notes. “The other half of my fam­ily had it worse. Still my ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents and great-grand­par­ents from Que­bec would prob­a­bly hit me across the head if I were to com­plain about the weather. Be­sides, it could be worse, and it has been worse here.” Ah, spo­ken like a true Mon­trealer. Charles al­lows that per­haps it was the el­e­ments as well as the de­ter­mi­na­tion of his fam­ily that pushed him into over­achiev­ing and be­com­ing as close as any­one in th­ese parts to be­ing a mod­ern-day Re­nais­sance man. Charles is an award-win­ning singer, mu­si­cian, ac­tor, choir di­rec­tor, ra­dio and TV host, teacher and, oh yeah, lawyer. Al­most eas­ier to list the oc­cu­pa­tions he doesn’t have.

Charles is about to add an­other credit to his ré­sumé. On Satur­day evening at the down­town La Plaza Hol­i­day Inn, he will be pre­sented the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achieve­ment Award at the 27th Vi­sion Cel­e­bra­tion Gala, which is held an­nu­ally by the Black The­atre Work­shop to kick off Black His­tory Month fes­tiv­i­ties in Mon­treal in Fe­bru­ary. Charles is be­ing hon­oured not only for his in­ter­na­tional artis­tic success, but also for his com­mu­nity involvement. He joins an im­pres­sive list of past award win­ners: Os­car Peter­son, Oliver Jones, Ra­nee Lee and Trevor Payne, among other no­ta­bles.

Charles will warm up the crowd Satur­day night by tick­ling the ivories com­ple­mented by some in­spired croon­ing. Also on the per­form­ing bill will be 12-year-old clas­si­cal pi­ano prodigy Daniel Clarke Bouchard, who brought the house down at Place des Arts in De­cem­ber at the 30th an­niver­sary Mon­treal Ju­bi­la­tion Gospel Choir Christ­mas con­cert.

“I’m ob­vi­ously very proud about the award, but in a funny way, I’m even prouder for my dad. I’m a par­ent now and I ap­pre­ci­ate even more now what my par­ents did for me and for the role models they were. So when I’m rec­og­nized for the work I have done with kids and artists as a com­mu­nity-in­volved per­son, my first re­flex is to think who my models have been. My dad used to tell me: ‘If you can walk, run. If you know, teach.’ And this has ap­plied to pretty much ev­ery­thing I’ve done.

“My par­ents were just per­fect. My mom was my gen­eral and so hon­est and de­mand­ing. I could al­ways trust her to tell me how she felt. My dad was so pos­i­tive and so­cially so as­tute. Ev­ery­body who has ever spo­ken to my dad feels like they’re the most im­por­tant per­son on the planet. He made me feel like I could ac­com­plish any­thing I set my mind to.”

Charles also points out that his par­ents would al­ways stress for him to think in terms of “team” — and not in­di­vid­ual goals. He hopes to im­part the same phi­los­o­phy to his year-old daugh­ter when she grows up. Charles cred­its his wife, Ni­cole, a Mi­crosoft exec, for keep­ing the fam­ily on an even keel.

An over­achiever, too? “Let’s say she’s an am­bi­tious per­son. I can never ad­mit to be­ing an over­achiever, ei­ther. But I can ad­mit to be­ing very am­bi­tious, that life is more in­ter­est­ing when you fol­low Cap­tain Cook’s credo: which is not to go any fur­ther than any­body else, but to go as far as is pos­si­ble. And love what­ever you do with all your heart and all your soul.”

He re­calls how his mother used to de­cry the word “sat­is­fac­tion.” She felt it “un­bear­able” that it meant to do “enough.” She thought the word should be linked to do­ing “ev­ery­thing in one’s power.”

Even by his mom’s strict def­i­ni­tion, Charles has to feel sat­is­fied. He be­gan early. When he was 7, he won a pi­ano con­test at the Cana­dian Mu­sic Com­pe­ti­tion. Af­ter per­form­ing with sym­phony or­ches­tras around the coun­try, he would later ap­ply his pi­ano skills on tour with Cé­line Dion be­fore break­ing out as a solo act.

Charles now does about 200 con­certs a year around the planet. He is for­ever host­ing va­ri­ety shows as well as his TV and ra­dio pro­grams. His first one-man show, Black and White, has played to more than one mil­lion peo­ple, and he holds the house record at the Bell Cen­tre for do­ing it 43 times. The show also hit the leg­endary Car­lyle Café in New York and re­ceived glo­ri­ous plau­dits from The New York Times.

One could go about his record sales, act­ing ac­com­plish­ments, awards — in­clud­ing two Félix prizes for best stage show and best male singer. He is a judge on and a mem­ber of the teach­ing fac­ulty of Star Académie. He is founder and pres­i­dent of the Mon­dial Loto-Québec de Laval. Plus, he is also head of the Gre­gory Foun­da­tion, a lo­cal char­ity that of­fers sup­port to young Cana­di­ans in the arts. He has been teach­ing as­pir­ing artists for the last 18 years. He has also been in­volved with spe­cialty mu­sic and sci­ence sum­mer camps for kids as well as pro­grams for in­ner-city kids in St. Henri. To those ends, he does about 30 fundrais­ers a year.

And can’t for­get that Charles also has a doc­toral de­gree in civil law.

OK, so he’s not a med­i­cal doc­tor — yet. But there’s still time. He’s only 44.

Charles is also one of the few who is a fix­ture in both the an­glo and franco cul­tural com­mu­ni­ties.

“I’ve been lucky to re­ceive such rich cul­ture from both my FrenchCana­dian and English-Cana­dian fam­i­lies,” says Charles, whose cousin Kevin Br­ere­ton is the well-known rap­per k-os. “Add to that, my Caribbean back­ground. I have been so en­riched by all th­ese com­po­nents and all th­ese peo­ple. And I do be­lieve my con­stant de­sire to bet­ter my­self is a re­sult of my roots.

“I don’t ex­pect to be given the key to heaven for what I’ve done. I’m sim­ply the re­sult of what my par­ents made and I’ve fol­lowed through on what they taught me.” Pause. “And even be­ing a lawyer proves one can still turn out to be a de­cent per­son,” he cracks.

“Ac­tu­ally, I prob­a­bly would have turned out to be a really lousy lawyer had I cho­sen to con­tinue on that path. But it also con­nects with who I am. Lawyers are taught to be­lieve in pos­si­bil­i­ties, and that prin­ci­ple has guided me. I don’t be­lieve it’s pos­si­ble to change the world, but I do be­lieve that when you ap­ply your­self, it’s pos­si­ble to change your world. And the way to do that is to move peo­ple, be it by song, words or deeds.”

Charles passes down ad­vice he picked up from then-young vedette René Si­mard sev­eral decades back: “I asked him how one makes it in show­biz. His re­sponse: ‘Never say no.’ I was a lit­tle dis­ap­pointed with the an­swer then. But I learned to ap­pre­ci­ate it later.”

And Charles rarely says no, be it to gigs, fundrais­ers or do­ing na­tional an­thems at Habs games.

“Talk about pres­sure. If you sing and they lose — as they did against the Leafs last Satur­day when I sang — they won’t want to see my face again.

“It proves you can’t get too smug in this busi­ness.” The Black The­atre Work­shop’s 27th Vi­sion Cel­e­bra­tion Gala

takes place Satur­day at La Plaza Hol­i­day Inn, 420 Sher­brooke St. W. Cock­tails are at 5:30 p.m., fol­lowed by din­ner at 6:30 p.m. Gre­gory Charles will be pre­sented with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achieve­ment Award. Charles and pi­anist Daniel Clarke Bouchard will per­form. For tick­ets, call 514-9321104 ext. 225. For more in­for­ma­tion, go to black­the­atre­work­shop.ca

PETER FORD

“I’m a par­ent now and I ap­pre­ci­ate even more now what my par­ents did for me and for the role models they were.” says Gre­gory Charles.

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