It was a rowdy grown-folks night out.
Writer Mister Mann Frisby was celebrating his 40th birthday at Warmdaddy’s during one of his epic jam sessions. Drinks were flowing like water and people were chowing down on soul-food dishes like catfish fingers, skillet macaroni and cheese, and collards with cabbage and smoked turkey. In the middle of all of that, there was 13-year-old Cam Anthony standing onstage in a dress shirt and necktie.
Philly audiences are notoriously tough, so it had to have been intimidating for someone so young. But he grabbed that microphone like a pro and began belting out the plaintive lyrics to Sam Cooke’s legendary civil rights anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” My first thought was, “Whatchuknowboutthis?” Then my jaw dropped as the words seemingly poured from his soul: I was born by the river, in a little tent, and just like the river I’ve been running ever since. It’s been a long a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come. Oh, yes it will …
Needless to say, Anthony brought us to our feet. We clapped and clapped. We knew that we had just witnessed something special and that a star was in our midst.
“Performing at the jam sessions, it made me very comfortable to be onstage,” Anthony told me last week. “Performing there, it was such an intimate setting that you couldn’t help but be vulnerable while you’re performing and I think that’s very important when it comes to the stage.”
On Tuesday, when it was announced that he had won Season 20 of NBC’s The Voice, it was a magical moment, complete with confetti and big hugs. I whooped and hollered so loud my husband came running.
Anthony’s win, though, wasn’t just a victory for him. It was also a much-needed, feel-good moment for a beleaguered city tired of burying its young and for all of the people who have helped Anthony along the way, including Frisby, who learned of him back in 2013 while going through YouTube searching for singing talent.
“Mister’s jam sessions were instrumental. I think it gave Camren a taste of what it felt like to be a professional,” recalled Lamar Sherman, Anthony’s father. “[Cam] had to be prepared. He had deadlines and even though Mister gave him a lot of freedom to do what he wanted because of his voice, he kind of got that great part of it at an early age. So when it came time to do The Voice, he had to practice, he had to do sound checks, know what he was singing, know the words. Mister’s jam sessions for three or four weeks in a row [helped].”
So did getting signed at age 14 by Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment, performing for former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at the 2014 White House Easter Egg Roll, and winning on Fox’s now-canceled Showtime at the Apollo in 2018.
“He really sharpened his skills in Philly with people of a certain age who have a certain expectation of soul singers. He was just barely in middle school,” Frisby recalled. “There’s a whole army of people who come to the shows, who have been tracking his progress.”
The second oldest of five, Anthony, 19, comes from a musical family in North Philly. His mother, who’s also a singer, first noticed Anthony’s voice when he was just 4 years old and singing a Folger’s Coffee jingle. His first performance was at Crossroads Missionary Baptist Church when he was around 7. By around age 12, he was getting so many requests to sing that his parents decided to homeschool him.
» READ MORE: Philadelphia teen Cam Anthony just won ‘The Voice’
“He really wants this,” said Melissa Hayward, Anthony’s mother. “One of the things that I used to tell him when he was younger was, ‘Whatever you practice at home or for play, that’s what’s going to present out onstage.’ So Cam has developed this need to make sure that even in practice, even in play, he’s giving you everything, and that’s what he does. He goes out onstage and he gives you everything that he practices and even more sometimes because he’s able to musically think while he’s singing.”
Shortly after his big win Tuesday evening, Anthony went live on his Instagram page to talk with his mom and thank fans for voting for him. I was glad that even in the excitement of it all that he remembered Frisby, whom he invited to join him during the livestream. It was a full-circle moment for them both.