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Finding her voice by starting over

Rene Marie

TEXT OF STORY

TESS VIGELAND: The New Year is often a time of reflection on just how our lives are going. In addition to all those resolutions we ask questions like, Am I happy? Do I like my job? Well even if you love your job, don't tell me you've never dreamed about ditching it and going off to paint or dance or sing. Maybe even get paid for it. Today special correspondent Jo Giese introduces us to a woman who did just that.


JO GIESE: Rene Marie married young, at 18, and while her two boys were little she took part-time jobs to supplement her husband's income.

RENE MARIE: I was a cashier at a grocery store. I did janitorial work for my husband's business. I cleaned the houses of affluent women. My perspective of it was money is money. And I didn't want to spend a lot of time away from my sons.

When her boys were teenagers, Rene got a fulltime job at the First Union Bank in Roanoke, Va. She worked her way up from sitting at the desk doing customer service to training customer service reps.

But she'd always liked to sing -- mostly just around the house. But even at the bank the singer in Rene could not be contained.

RENE MARIE: I'm one of those people that you either get enjoyment out of listening to sing all the time, or you stop up your ears and say, "I wish she would shut up!"

Rene remembers one time in particular when she belted out the theme to Gilligan's Island.

RENE MARIE: My boss was a very serious-minded person, and the very last verse of Gilligan's Island he comes out of his office and he gestures with his left arm. And he goes "Here on Gilligan's Isle!" And I felt like that was a real accomplishment for me.

She'd been working at the bank for five years and enjoying it more and more as she moved up the ladder. That's when a call came from her son changed the direction of her career.

RENE MARIE: My son goes to this restaurant and he calls me from the restaurant, saying, "Mom, this woman is singing the songs that you sing at home all the time and she's nowhere near as good as you. Out of curiosity I go. And it was when I sat down at the table and were listening to her, and I was saying to him, "Man, I can't believe she's getting paid for this."

On the spot, her son became her career counselor.

RENE MARIE: My son says, "Mom, I've seen you do this at home with a carrot in your hand. That's your microphone." He says, "You were made to do this." That's how it got started. It wasn't like I had this dream all along that one day I was going to start singing. I really did think that I was too old to start.

At 40 years old, Rene started over. At first, she scrambled to do everything at once -- she worked at the bank, she borrowed $3,000 from her Mom to record a CD, and she did gigs. Things started to click.

How did she decide to leave the security of the bank and that nice steady paycheck to become self-employed?

RENE MARIE: My brother kept telling me to jump and the net will appear.

She jumped and turned in her two-weeks notice.

RENE MARIE: My co-workers were congratulating me, you know -- "Did you get a record deal?" And the answer was no. . . . There were no bright prospects facing me the next week.

But then, the net appeared.

RENE MARIE: Three days later, I got a phone call from a theater in Richmond, Va. and they were desperate to hire a vocalist for 10 weeks.

That started Rene on her way. Today she's at work in Atlanta, rehearsing with her pianist, Takana Miyamoto. She's wearing black, spiked leather boots, a black leather jacket, a red t-shirt. A far cry from the pumps and pantyhose of her banking days.

GIESE: How does it feel now to make your living as a jazz singer versus working in a bank?

RENE MARIE: It's a lot scarier. What I'm actually able to put in my wallet at the end of the day is half of what I was earning. That's the price of freedom.

After five years as a professional, Rene Marie has a record contract with Max Jazz. She's produced three CDs. She's played most of the major jazz festivals and clubs. And she's made several appearances at the Kennedy Center.

I'm Jo Giese for Marketplace.

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