By Scott Brazda
“We try to bring a good time to whomever comes to see us, and at the same time, try to do some good in the process,” says Rick Dearman, thoracic surgeon by day, guitarist by night. “And that’s what we try to do in medicine, isn’t it? Make people better than they were before?”
So the joke would start something like, “A pulmonologist, a cardiologist, a dermatologist, a thoracic surgeon, two internists and a registered nurse walk into a bar and say, ‘We’d like to play music, please.”
But there’s really no punch line here, just some really good tunes played by some jammin’ medical professionals armed with a good cause.
Over the past year, six Lafayette-based doctors and a local R.N. have taken a mutual love of music plus a desire to make a difference outside of their respective offices, and formed a band. In fact, they practice once a week unless someone is…on call, which in fact was the reason the band’s name is On Call.
“The original name, actually, was Dr. Goodbeat and the On Calls,” laughs Gary Guidry, the Lafayette pulmonologist who serves as the band’s drummer. “But time and again we were unable to get everyone together just for a jam session because one or two of us was always on call. Pretty soon after, we simply became On Call.”
Guidry was there at the very beginning. About four years ago, he decided he wanted to learn how to play the drums, which led to him taking lessons with one of his patients, the late Ken Courville. Courville, meanwhile, was also a friend of Dearman, who soon began joining them on Guidry’s patio for informal jam sessions. “We thought it would just be patio parties at Gary’s house, with friends and families,” says Dearman. “But clearly, it has gone way beyond that.”
The number of participants began to grow: Internist Steve Salopek (guitar). Dermatologist Ronnie Daigle (guitar). Nurse Leah Stokes (vocals). Internist Bradley Chastant, Jr. (bass). And cardiologist Vernon Valentino (guitar). Except for Valentino and Stokes, none of those jamming had really done much in terms of pursuing their love for music.
“My dad had The Larry Valentino Orchestra in New Orleans, which played big band songs from the forties, fifties and sixties,” says Valentino. “I started playing guitar at 15, did some songs with them, and had a band to pay my way through medical school. So about a year ago (late 2014), when Gary and Rick asked me if I wanted to come over and play a bit, I was intrigued.”
“I went over a few times, played music, had fun and was surprised to realize I actually had something to contribute,” recalls Chastant, a guitarist since his 20s. “But being in a band? With a full-time job and young children at home? That wasn’t what I signed up for.”
But, that’s what was happening. And as they built a repertoire of over 30 songs, a mix of songs from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, someone came up with the bright idea of having On Call perform at the joint Christmas office party for Guidry and Dearman. “I was really nervous and didn’t know how it would be,” says Stokes, a former classical pianist and longtime vocalist. “We had never played in front of people other than our families, and we were all kind of afraid people wouldn’t appreciate our talent. But it turned out better than I thought it would and that gave us confidence to do the next few things.”
That first performance, however, did provide a valuable lesson for Stokes and her bandmates. Intermission, they learned, didn’t give them a license for excessive socializing. “The first set went pretty well, better than we thought it would,” remembers Salopek. “But at the break, we may have visited with family and co-workers a bit too much, maybe had one too many drinks.” Which means? “Our second set was terrible, just terrible.”
Dearman agrees. “That second set made me realize I can’t be a rock star. If I do anything other than water and ice tea,” he laughs, “then I’m in trouble.”
But still, things went well enough that soon after On Call performed at a friend’s birthday party where the band was more consistent, took things more seriously, and in turn, were much more encouraged about the possibilities. “We had a really good night, good crowd, good participation,” says Guidry. “But fittingly, in keeping with the band’s name, as soon as we finished, Rick had to rush off to operate because he was... on call.
In spring of 2015, it was finally time for On Call to leave the comfort of friends, family and familiar faces and to actually get out there and perform for the general public. Ronnie Daigle knew the owner of Daiquiris Supreme in Lafayette and made a pitch. “But the owner wasn’t that sure. ‘Ya’ll are kind of unknown and you might chase away my regular clientele,’ he told me. But I convinced him to give us a chance, that we weren’t charging a fee, and told him we could probably get a couple hundred people to show up.”
They shouldn’t have worried. The Daiquiris Supreme parking lot was packed, and the club itself was standing room only. “Daiquiris was crazy, just crazy,” recalls Stokes. “And I mean that in a really good way. Friends and family members couldn’t get in and those that could seemed to really enjoy what we were doing. It was a good, good night.”
It was also a night of realization. “The Daiquiris show told me, ‘this is for real now.’ And we were pretty good, which told me we might even have something here,” says Chastant.
Shortly after the Daiquiris Supreme show, On Call also discovered a philanthropic purpose; Salopek says that being people who, by their very professions, were driven by a collective desire to help others, made it a natural progression for the band. “We had kind of talked here and there about asking for money or taking collections and then donating those funds to a charity. And then Gary’s wife, Ruth, suggested Wounded Warriors.”
The plan was to raise enough money to purchase a track chair, one that would allow disabled military veterans to get out and easily move around fields or the woods, perhaps allow those who have served our country to resume activities like hunting or fishing. Problem is, a track chair comes with a $15,000 price tag.
“I’ve never served, but I’ve always been patriotic,” says Stokes. “This was just an ideal way for me to show my gratitude to those who have given so much time away from their homes so I can have freedom. And the best thing about this band, with this project, is that it allows me to take two passions, singing and doing something for our veterans, and combine them into something really incredible.”
The Wounded Warriors Project is a perfect fit for others in the band, as well; most have had family members serve in military actions in World War II, Korea, Vietnam or the Middle East. Dearman himself, the elder statesman of the group, served in the Army Medical Corps in the late 70s. “I owe everything I am to the military. I had a four-year obligation to the military and the Army allowed me to first go to the medical school on a scholarship. After that, Vietnam had just ended and I got extensive experience, saw the injuries and chronic conditions. Wounded Warriors has a root in all of that, and you get a real appreciation for those who serve.”
Instead of getting a performance fee, On Call combined donations and ticket proceeds from subsequent shows and created The On Call Band Fund at Community Foundation of Acadiana; as of this writing, that fund has $10,000 and is two-thirds of the way to its track chair goal. “I think all of us have patients who are veterans,” explains Valentino. “It’s a great cause, a worthy cause that everybody can get behind.”
In terms of both mission and music, On Call continues to grow. The Daiquiris Supreme event was followed a few months later by well-received performances at Route 92 in Youngsville, The Grouse Room in Lafayette and then at Keith’s Ballroom. “We’ve played four times in public, with happy music and great energy,” smiles Daigle. “It was so loud at the Grouse Room, with people screaming and dancing, and all of that had its own energy.”
With the ages of band members spread over four decades — Stokes and Chastant are in their 30s; Salopek, Valentino and Guidry in their 50s; Dearman and Daigle in their 60 –- it’s natural that the musical tastes vary. “Leah and I are trying to get them to rock more,” laughs Chastant. “I’ve been pushing ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. And Leah’s a big fan of Journey.” On a typical night, you can hear anything from “Mustang Sally” to “Margaritaville” to “I Want You to Want Me.”
“We’ve all got our individual niches,” explains Daigle. “Leah’s our lead singer and she loves rock ‘n roll; Steve likes country; I’ve got vocals for the 50s and 60s tunes, like “My Girl” and “Sweet Caroline.”
Now, understand that singing the lead on the band’s country songs was not exactly in Salopek’s crystal ball, “Heck, no. That’s Leah’s forte,” he chuckles. “I’ve had difficulty speaking in front of a group and now I’m playing an instrument and singing a song in front of a crowd? I surprise myself, and I guess it’s good to get out of your comfort zone every now and then.”
With any group dynamic, particularly with seven adult medical professionals in play, it’s natural that disagreements or even fights will occur among band members. “No, not really,” corrects Guidry. “It really is a democracy. We all make suggestions like ‘let’s try this song’ or ‘I’m not singing that song.’ If it sounds good, we put it in; if it doesn’t work, we move on.”
“There are no egos,” Daigle concurs. “Nobody’s trying to power their way through, nobody wants to run the show. The personalities don’t lend themselves to it. We just have a lot of camaraderie and just like having fun and being with each other.”
So, what exactly is On Call? Is it, as one friend put it, “a bunch of doctors who have put together a band” or is it a band that just so happens to be made up of doctors and an extremely talented nurse?
“I think there’s probably a mixture of opinions in the crowd,” surmises Valentino. “It’s a novelty for anyone to see a co-worker, or possibly in our case, their doctor or nurse playing live music. I think a lot of our returnees have gotten past that and just like the music we play.”
“My patients think it’s really cool,” adds Stokes. “I’m always humming at work, which in turn gives me a great opportunity to share the story about the band. Patients want to know who you are outside the hospital, outside of the scrubs.”
How good is On Call? Valentino, whom all of his band mates say would be the breakout star, believes reality has already exceeded his expectations. “I’m not gonna’ say we’re the best band in the city, but we definitely have some nights where we’re really on top of it, where people really like what we’re doing.”
Roughly about a year in, what’s next for On Call? Where do members see this jam session turned rock/country band going?
“Everyone’s committed to going on,” says Guidry. “We’re all trying to get better.”
“I’m just enjoying the ride,” laughs Chastant. “I only hope they don’t decide to replace the bass player.”
“No one is looking at the band as a springboard to the next career,” remarks Daigle.
“Next career?” asks Salopek. “My day job keeps me too busy to even think about that.”
And if On Call decides to stop…. accepting calls?
“The legacy I would like to leave?” ponders Dearman. “That people remember us as a group of professionals who tried to bring a good time to as many people as possible and do some good in the process.”
(Note: On Call’s next public performance is scheduled for March 18th at Route 92 in Youngsville).