Greg Marshall is a piano-playing 60-year-old who writes music, commutes to Oregon to visit his wife and came to Tacoma three years ago to be with his dying brother.
“We didn’t know each other well,” Marshall said. “I wanted to get to know Quinn while we had a little time left, get to know his family.”
Quinn died of cancer Oct. 1, 2011. It was the same day Marshall, who taught school in Oregon, was hired to work at the Tacoma Center YMCA, an adults-only facility in downtown Tacoma.
Carol Ann Briggs and other YMCA executives initiated a Late-Nite program there for teenagers on Friday and Saturday nights. Most came for the chance to play basketball. Some came to hang out.
Marshall introduced a music program late
last year and recruited singers.
“There weren’t any auditions,” he said. “I’d go through the lobby and ask kids, ‘Do you sing?’ If they said yes, I tried to get ’em to join.”
There were plenty of takers, though getting them to return week after week became an issue.
Given all that, a ragtag group of young people who didn’t know much about one another wrote lyrics to a Marshall melody called “Wake Up Every Morning to Happy.” Briggs entered them into the YMCA’s national song contest.
Those five Tacoma youths and Marshall went to Philadelphia in July to compete — and won. If you attend national YMCA events today, “Wake Up Every Morning to Happy” is the new theme song.
“We had three 16-year-olds and two 18-year-olds in the end, and we didn’t have a sound studio,” Briggs said. “So we’d take a keyboard into the weight room, and the kids would sit on the pads and sing.”
From a group of 35 young people, five emerged as the Late-Nite Five, largely because of their commitment to the program and one another. Marshall’s all-star group of singers included:
• Jael Kirkwood, an 18-year-old Pierce College student who had returned to Tacoma after two years living with her mother in Texas.
• Porsha Yearwood, Kirkwood’s cousin, a 16-year-old from University Place whose first response to Marshall was a resounding “No!”
• Melody Rowles, a 16-year-old Wilson High School cheerleader who was taking piano lessons. She loved to sing but had a problem: She couldn’t remember lyrics.
• Marquetta Boyd, a 16-year-old Mount Tahoma student with a sweet voice and even sweeter smile.
• Malik Vivian, at 18 the only male in the group and the last to join. His verse performed at the finals in Philadelphia was rapped and brought the house down, but it hadn’t been written when the group’s video was produced.
Marshall had the music and, thanks to his wife, the song title.
“I was playing it one morning, and she asked what it was called, and I said it didn’t have a name,” Marshall said. “Leona said, ‘Well, call it ‘Wake Up Every Morning to Happy.’ And I did.”
Kirkwood had not only been singing since age 9, but she’d written songs, too — hundreds of them.
“Give me a concept, I can write it on the spot,” she said. “I wrote the first two verses. Porsha wrote another. A few months later, Greg called and said, ‘We need another verse, and it’s got to have ‘YMCA’ in it.’ So I wrote that.”
Briggs said the group became a little family, and Kirkwood became the leader. Once the song was completed, the group was booked at every YMCA in Pierce County and sang at church events.
Marshall thinks they probably sang the song 500-600 times.
In Philadelphia, they learned stage presence and worked on choreography. In front of an audience of 4,500 YMCA officials from around the country, they sang it for the last time together. And won.
The Tacoma Center YMCA Late-Nites continue, from 9-11:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays. Briggs and Marshall hope to start another music program there late in October.
The original LNT5 is no more.
Now 19, Kirkwood is working on her singing and songwriting with a producer. Vivian is going to college in California. Yearwood, Rowles and Boyd all attend different Tacoma high schools.
“I really started missing everybody the last few weeks and tried to find them all on Facebook,” Boyd said. “We had a lot of fun.”
They see one another only by accident, Kirkwood said. What does she miss the most? She laughed.
“Everywhere we went, Greg was always dancing,” she said. “He’d be just off stage or in the front row, always dancing. He wouldn’t walk into the room. He’d dance in.”
WATCH THEM PERFORM
Go online to youtube.com/watch?v=sa6C YWDPZao
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638