Gregory Charles’s parents are his role models
Renaissance man to receive Martin Luther King Jr. Award
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
“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.