Shrinking a Big Head

by Amy Anderson
Managing Editor

Today, I’d like to take a lesson from a godfather of soul. No, I’m not talking about James Brown. I’m talking about the man who is godfather to R&B star Usher–Entertainment legend Ben Vereen.

Now, I have to tell you that one of the things that most surprised me in my interview with Usher for our October cover story was his humility. I mean, let’s face it; the guy could have a head the size of Manhattan, and people would still buy his albums. If you rank up there with the Beatles and the Bee Gees when it comes to Top 10 singles, you’re almost expected to have an ego as big as your success.

Usher is aware of the expectation. “People think this lavish lifestyle is fun and games all the time, that there’s nothing serious about it,” he said. “But I take the time to really focus on what’s going on, so it’s not just fun all the time.” He went on to talk to me about the importance of mentors, of asking for help and knowing when you don’t know it all.

In 2006, Usher put on the old “razzle-dazzle” and starred as Billy Flynn in the hit musical Chicago. The young singer had done some acting before, but in smaller roles, and he didn’t feel entirely prepared to fill the legendary dancing shoes. So before he took his first steps onto a Broadway stage, he asked for help.

But why Ben Vereen? Let’s go back a bit.

When Usher was 15, he was in New York City working on his first album. He was still relatively unknown, and he was also dating a pretty young girl named Karon Vereen. Her father, Ben, was already a star of TV and film and had won a Tony Award for his role in Broadway’s Pippin.

Karon introduced the two, and Ben took an interest in the young R&B hopeful. He encouraged Usher to study legendary dancers, like Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse. He coached him on how to interact with a crowd, how to walk out to the microphone. And eventually, he became Usher’s godfather.

The teenage romance fizzled, but the mentorship relationship between Ben and his godson continued. So when Usher started rehearsals for Chicago (a musical choreographed by Fosse), Ben showed up to help out. He spent hours with Usher in the three weeks leading up to the debut and even more time as the six-week run continued.

Even at the top of his game, even with worldwide fame and record-breaking sales, Usher understood the value of a mentor. He didn’t let a big head weigh him down.

Do you?

It’s easy, especially when we start achieving some mastery in a particular field, to start getting a big head, to start resting on our laurels. It’s easy to let ourselves think we know it all. But who does? If a guy who sings and dances for a living needed to call in a mentor to help him with a singing and dancing role, why aren’t we asking for help?

Today, swallow that pesky pride, and just ask. You just might start a relationship with a legend.

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