They Said I Was Crazy: From Secretary to Big Band Singer

By Elizabeth Gehrman
Linda Lee Michelet: "I'm 62 years old, and I took baby steps toward realizing my dream."
Photograph: Ben Hoffman

Linda Lee Michelet

Who: Linda Lee Michelet, 62, Portland, Oregon

What: After her divorce, she rediscovered her childhood love of music and became a big band singer.

When:

When Linda Lee Michelet sings those classic Etta James lines — "At last, my love has come along. My lonely days are over, and life is like a song" — it’s not just a pretty tune, it’s a description of her life. At 62, Michelet has started drawing crowds and rave reviews as a singer. "My whole life I depended on my dad, my husband, or my boyfriend," she says. "I always turned over every dream I had to a man. It never even occurred to me to have a dream of my own."

During college, Michelet fell desperately in love with a man who was black. But when she introduced him to her parents, they told her if she didn’t break up with him, they would take her out of school. She ended the relationship and was miserable. At the same time, however, she was corresponding with a friend of a friend — a soldier who needed a pen pal — and when he got out of the army several months later, she started seeing him. "Next thing I knew we were planning to get married," she says. "I was very confused about what love was at that point, because it had been taken away from me. As it turned out, we just weren’t right for each other." By the time her younger child was entering high school, plotting a way out of the marriage was constantly on her mind. "I had finally realized that I couldn’t go the rest of my life never experiencing what it’s like to be loved," she says. "So I just opened my mouth one day and said, ‘John, I’m leaving you.’" She was 46 and had been married for half her life.

Michelet stayed in the house she had shared with her husband and continued working as a secretary for Portland’s transit authority. "One day my daughter said to me, ‘Mom, you’ll probably die in this house,’" Michelet remembers. "That’s the day I said, you know what? I’m moving on. I amazed myself. I sold every stick of furniture and moved to the other side of town." On a whim, she joined the backyard band of some people she knew from work. "I had taken piano lessons as a kid," she says. "But during my marriage it never would have occurred to me in a million years to get back into it." Michelet became interested in singing jazz and got her chance when the owner of Music Millennium, a record store in Portland, agreed to let her do a tribute to Peggy Lee. "I worked on the show for almost a year," Michelet says, "meticulously picking out the songs, doing research, finding a costume, and creating a look."

The show proved a success, drawing a crowd of 200. She was asked to do another featuring the music of Julie London; that too was a hit — so much so, in fact, that a talent agent who saw it offered her a regular slot at the five-star Heathman Hotel. Since 2003, she has performed there on the last Saturday of every month and at Tony Starlight’s (a supper club and lounge) every other Thursday; she has also recorded two CDs and sings at jazz festivals. "I’m 62 years old now and finally realizing that I’m okay," she says. "I never gave myself the credit of accomplishing anything. Other people told me what to do and how to do it. But I’m doing it myself now. I took baby steps toward my dream — and I’ve had every door in the universe open up to me."

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