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There Are No Handbooks for the Darkness Cancer Brings - But Music Helped Me Survive

20/06/2016 11:41 | Updated 20 June 2016

I have always had the dream... you know the stardom one. But not as it is now.

Back in the late 1950s, at a very early age, I had to learn my craft in performance, singing and modern and classical dance. It was a grooming in the technicalities of performance that gave the artist longevity in a harsh showbusiness environment and also nurtured that elusive, relentless drive that spurs the dream on.

In the 1960s I had a couple of singles out and was appearing on TV shows like Ready Steady Go and Top of the Pops, rubbing shoulder pads with The Rolling Stones, Lulu and The Animals and singing on the same bill as The Beatles and Cliff Richard.

I started working alongside Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and singing backing vocals on albums for stars including Madonna and Celine Dion. I then began recording and touring with my own jazz band - and working with the great British jazz players of the time.

I worked hard, and enjoyed it very much, but there was no 'stardom'.

As I got older, the avenues to work got smaller and I therefore became a vocal coach to many personalities and groups. Most famously they included the Spice Girls - who I am still so proud of to this day - but I also helped Graham Norton, Jennifer Saunders and many others.

Although this was nourishing and creative work, that dormant dream was ever present until, after a spell of not working, it began rearing its creative head again.

The idea was to make a CD of songs from around the world with a jazz vocalese style of singing, using my voice like an instrument with driving Latin rhythms.

Entering my 70s, I approached the record with many insecurities. Could my voice achieve what I wanted it to? The songs I had chosen were so challenging and the voice changes as you get older.

To make things harder, I set myself the task of writing lyrics to some compositions written by the incredibly talented American jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.

I had to adapt my voice, as I could no longer perform the same vocal tricks as before, and practised for two hours each day until I knew I was ready to record.

Then, just as everything was going well, I was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, after feeling something obstructing when I swallowed.

I remember all my family around me in the doctor's room, but I could not hear or understand what was going on. All I heard was the 'cancer' word, which for me equated death. Even though they had said it could be treated and cured, I did not hear.

Ahead of me was the dark tunnel called treatment, which I had known about through friends and family who had experienced this disease.

The word 'gruelling' did no justice to my experience. I lived in a relentless round of chemo and radiotherapy. I ended up experiencing such depression that it culminated in me writing goodbye notes to my loved ones.

There has been much written about mortality, but there are no handbooks to help the sufferer cope with the darkness that engulfs them through their treatment and after. I went through 10 months of life without colour or everydayness.

The humour, love and support from my closest friends and family are what I cherish. In that bleak world, it nourished and sustained me and wrapped me in a cloak of comfort and security.

And it was the music that tore through the endless days and nights of physical and mental anguish. The light shone after such a long tunnel of despair, only because I wanted to finish my CD and perform again.

I had achieved my own personal stardom. I was cured and am performing again with this music that spurred me on and gave me hope.

I am not fulfilling the same dreams I had as a young girl in the 1950s, but I am up there singing my socks off... and still dreaming!

• Pepi Lemer plays the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho on Monday January 27. Tickets are available from www.pizzaexpresslive.com

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