Right said PHRED
New London singer’s specialties are keeping her busy during pandemic
The road-warrior standard for most touring acts has always been expressed in a retrospective, bemused, how-did-we-survive? fashion. Something like, “That’s back when we were doing 250 dates a year!” — a figure meant to convey marathon sagas of legendary proportion.
Of course, with the coronavirus, there aren’t any 250-date musical stalwarts currently out there.
Well, wait. There IS New London’s Phred Mileski, the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist. Since March 2020, Mileski has played over 230 gigs. That is not a typo.
It’s complicated, but Mileski — whose marvelous soprano voice is equally enchanting in a variety of styles from pop and jazz to classical and liturgical — has over time carved out a career of select venues and opportunities that happen to conform to conditions ideal for a pandemic-era performer. There are plenty of options. She works solo — Simply Phred — or with musical partner Kipp Sturgeon in the duo The Too-Timers. She, Sturgis and bassist Bob Bradshaw comprise jazz trio The Three-Timers, and in Straight UP with guitarist Mark Mamula. Through all these, Mileski has found herself in greater demand than ever. She’s consistently singing at funerals, weddings, rehab and retirement centers, church services, and sundry one-off events — all in completely safe and socially distanced fashion.
“It’s true. I’ve been really, really busy,” Mileski says by phone last week. “I feel a little guilty about it, to be honest. But it’s worked out through a series of circumstances that are just right for the conditions. For a long time, I’ve been honored to be regularly asked to sing at funerals — one year I did 87 of them — and I’m also one of those crazy people who will sing outdoors in any kind of weather. I was lucky enough to meet Kipp, who was doing a lot of retirement home gigs before COVID, and we teamed up.”
Mileski, who has charismatic stage presence and is witty and self-deprecating in conversation, also sings each Saturday afternoon at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Mystic and each Sunday morning at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex. “It’s a happy and comfortable situation,” Mileski says of the dueling Catholic and Episcopalian gigs. “I’m equal opportunity when it comes to religion. All prayers go up.” She’s also been doing weekly virtual “Live From My Living Room” performances of her “Simply Phred” solo club act.
A Norwich native, Mileski graduated from Norwich Free Academy (class of ‘82) and Connecticut College, and while her degree is in visual art, she sang in two choruses and a female a cappella group at Conn. She also learned to play organ and taught herself guitar and other instruments. After graduating, she sang in bands for a few years but nearly destroyed her voice. She let her throat recover and, over the next 20 years, took singing lessons, got into classical repertoire, gave recitals, and even wound up in a couple of operas.
Over time, Mileski has become very familiar to audiences throughout the area and New England. She has sung with such diverse acts as Celticity, the Jay Dempsey Band, the BeeKeepers, and Phred & Friends, and she has entertained in dozens of restaurants, lounges, clubs and theaters. She also worked regularly as an accompanist for music and dance classes at local colleges. It’s been a good career.
Truth told, though, just before the pandemic hit, Mileski was a bit worried. As a performer who frequently relies on a wide repertoire of other artists’ material, she was, along with a lot of other musicians, an increasing casualty of crackdowns by music licensing companies like BMI and ASCAP. Typically, venues shoulder the costs of licensing fees to those organizations — who pay royalties to songwriters and recording artists — so they can hire live entertainment by so-called “cover artists.” But when the licensing outfits started raising their rates over the past few years, a lot of clubs cut back on live music.
“It took a big toll on musicians,” Mileski says. “A lot of live gigs were suddenly gone. At the same time, Conn College, where I’d been providing accompaniment for music and dance classes since 2006-7, also cut their budget and those jobs stopped. I was down to my regular church gigs and the funeral and wedding jobs. Then, out of nowhere, in the middle of March, I got an email from Kipp asking what I was doing.”
Interestingly, despite being active musicians in a fairly tight artistic community, Mileski and Sturgeon didn’t know each other until December 2019. Mileski was about to do a Sunday show in the lounge at the Bee & Thistle in Old Lyme. As she was setting up, she heard someone performing in another part of the venue whose voice and delivery immediately captured her attention. Mileski walked down the hall and saw Sturgeon, dressed in a full Dickensian outfit, strolling through the dining rooms playing holiday music.
“He looked fantastic in this top hat and costume, even a holly sprig,” Mileski remembers. “And he had this big, warm voice that sounded like it came through an old-time gramophone or something.”
After his gig, Sturgeon — still dressed the part — walked through the lounge, and Mileski spontaneously called, “Hey, you, get up here! Let’s do something!” Both had ukuleles at hand and, off the top of their heads, delivered a crisply harmonized arrangement of “Jingle Bells.”
“It was just instantly comfortable and fun, and more than that, there was just instant musical chemistry.” She laughs. “Then he headed out, and that was the last I heard of him for a while.”
“I meant to reach out to her,” says Sturgeon, a retired mail man who has played guitar and sung in bands and in a solo restaurant/lounge guise for years. “But I did 30 gigs in 31 days in December, and then I got pneumonia, and I was down for a while.” After recovering, COVID hit, and he got a call in late February from Wendy Colvin, activities coordinator at StoneRidge Senior Living Community in Mystic. “Wendy could see the pandemic heating up and wanted to get around it safely if she could (in terms of entertainment for the residents). She asked, ‘Can you do something outside?’”
Since his own retirement, Sturgeon has found a niche he enjoyed, performing at dozens of retirement community gigs. When Colvin called, it occurred to Sturgeon he had battery-powered amplification and equipment, and then came the clever idea of using an iconic little red wagon to pull the gear to numerous stops on the exterior of a facility.
Sturgeon also thought it would be fun to see if Mileski was interested in the outdoor experiment. She was. The only caveat? She had just recovered from a serious cold herself. Sturgeon says, “We didn’t have time to rehearse. I just said, ‘Show up. We’ll be fine!’ And we played like we’d been together for years. And we haven’t stopped.”
“It’s incredibly rewarding,” Mileski adds. “We’ll pull the red wagon from one area to the next, and you can see the residents in their windows. They sing along, they clap, they smile ... This has been an incredibly stressful time for everyone, and these are people who probably can’t be in the same room with their loved ones. It’s a special
privilege to give them something to enjoy.”
“Kipp was playing for us regularly, and when COVID hit, he asked if he could bring a friend, and it was Phred,” says Paula Smith, director of therapeutics recreation at Groton Regency Retirement. “From the first show, it was clear they’re a match made in heaven. Our residents absolutely fell in love with them, and they literally have a fan club here. Weather permitting, they’ve appeared every Wednesday including through the winter. Our residents can’t wait for them to show up. They wait at their windows and call it band practice. ‘When is it time for band practice?’ I hope (Phred and Kipp) know how much good they’re doing.”
Mileski says, “These shows mean so much to us. That first time, it seems like we played four hours and made 15 stops around the perimeter of the building — and I just kept thinking, ‘I want to do this again.’ It’s so much fun. We just combine an old vaudeville style with comedy and all sorts of music because nowadays residents in the retirement facilities have grown across generations. They’re used to everything from Sinatra to Broadway to the Beatles.”
Take a solo
If Mileski is delighted and fulfilled by her musical partnership with Sturgeon, her work over the past 11 months has also carried on with plenty of regular solo gigs. Though wedding gigs have slowed a bit during the pandemic, she continues to sing Saturdays at St. Patrick’s and Sundays at St. John’s. She is safely distanced, of course, and always wears specially designed vocalist’s protective masks.
“A few companies make them, and they’re invaluable,” Mileski says. “They’re not pretty — they look like platypus masks — but they’re very reliable. I feel safe, and I know the congregation will be safe.”
Mileski enjoys singing for church services; the variety of material she might cover ranges from hymns and gospel to classical and liturgical — and even includes Gregorian-style chants.
“There is just a certain power and force to getting to sing at church services,” Mileski says. “It’s not just the majesty of the music but also how the audience reacts.”
Mileski feels similarly about singing at funerals — which she does a lot. “It’s a noble occupation because of what it is,” Mileski says. “Naturally, I don’t know most of the people, but in some ways that makes it a bigger honor and responsibility.”
Mileski says she started singing at funerals years ago. “Someone called and asked if I’d sing at a funeral, and I did. I was nervous, but it was very rewarding. And I must have done OK because I started getting calls. It took a few years of word of mouth, but now I get references from organists and funeral directors, ministers and rabbis, or families who heard me at a service. I get a lot of calls, and I’m gratified to do this.”
“There are a lot of great singers in the area, but there’s only one Phred Mileski,” says Reid Burdick, a funeral director at Byles Memorial Home in New London. “Phred is what I call a professional vocalist in that she has a magnificent voice and knows how to rise to a specific occasion. If a family has a special or unusual singing request for a service, I immediately call Phred.”
Burdick describes one family from California who flew to New London for a graveside service and requested someone to sing some patriotic hymns. “There were probably six people at the cemetery,” Burdick says, “and Phred arrived with three singers, and they did a stunning medley of patriotic songs and a few other tunes thrown in. Incredible harmonies. It was outstanding and way beyond what I’m sure the family was anticipating. They were so impressed. But I knew something like that would happen. That’s Phred.”
“I don’t take any of this for granted — not in the least,” Mileski says. “I’ve been getting 20-plus gigs a month — at least half of them thanks to Kipp — and, if I never expected to work this much, particularly during a pandemic, it all means so much more because of the circumtances. And the relationships we’ve built are ones I think will last for a long time. Because I’m getting as much out of it as the people I’m singing for.”