Just when Bernie Dalton was ready to sing, his voice was taken from him.
Dalton, a surf-crazed Santa Cruz native and single father who cleaned pools for a living, always had a passion for music. In January 2016, he responded to a Craigslist ad for vocal lessons from veteran San Francisco singer-songwriter Essence Goldman.
“When I met Bernie, he wanted to pursue his songwriting after having a lifelong dream,” Goldman says.
For two months, Dalton drove from Santa Cruz into the city once a week and worked with Goldman on voice lessons while showing her his original song ideas. Two months after starting the lessons, his voice mysteriously disappeared. “We didn’t know what it was,” Goldman says.
Dalton still came for lessons and continued to share his lyrics with Goldman, and the two connected not only over his music, but also as two single parents, developing a platonic camaraderie. Goldman even began giving vocal lessons to Dalton’s teenage daughter, Nicole.
“We became friends, we talked about life,” Goldman says. “When you work with someone on their songs, you get to know them, and it’s a very personal experience.”
Time passed, but Dalton was not getting better. In fact, he was getting worse, having trouble swallowing, losing weight, drooling. He went to a doctor and, after a series of tests, was diagnosed in early 2017 with bulbar-onset ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The life expectancy for people with bulbar-onset ALS is one to three years. Dalton was 47 years old.
“It was devastating to watch this happen to somebody so sweet, so down-to-earth, so generous in spirit,” Goldman says. “He is just such a good human being, and you don’t meet people like that very often.”
Immediately, Goldman set out to help Dalton by setting up a GoFundMe page to raise money. Originally, Goldman planned it as a fundraiser to send Dalton and his daughter on a trip together, but Dalton wanted something else. He wanted to make an album, and he wanted Goldman to be his voice.
“He started mailing me handwritten lyrics and asked me to put them to music,” says Goldman. At first, she hesitated, as she was already working on her own album. She agreed to do a song or two.
“I sat down and I did one song, and it poured right out,” says Goldman. “It was a very amazing moment. I channeled a different voice I had never used before—I felt like I was trying to share his voice.”
Moved by the initial experience and an outpouring of GoFundMe support that totaled over $27,000, Goldman put her own project on hold and called her band members, guitarist Roger Rocha and drummer Daniel Berkman, to record a full album of Dalton’s lyrics.
“Bernie was instrumental in our creative process,” says Goldman. Dalton was on hand for the recording sessions, delivering input via a dry erase board and by giving a thumbs up or thumbs down to melodies.
The project became known as Bernie & the Believers, and the album, Connection, was released in February with a concert at Slim’s in San Francisco.
“It was the most prolific creative collaboration I’ve ever been part of by far,” Goldman says. “It had a life force all its own. This is a real-life dramatic tale that has a soundtrack.”
One of those in attendance at that show was Howard Sapper, a music-industry veteran whose credits include CEO of Global Pacific Records, the Harmony Festival and Extrordinaire Media.
A longtime resident of Sonoma County, Sapper currently books live music at the new Reel Fish Shop & Grill in town while also running his own nonprofit, Everybody Is a Star, which helps artists and musicians with special needs achieve their dreams of performing.
“Essence was a client of mine years ago. I’m a big believer in her gifts,” Sapper says. “I went down to see the album release at Slim’s. It was very powerful. I started thinking to myself, this project needs to be seen and heard in a big way.”
Dalton’s story has found an audience through features on NPR’s All Things Considered and in the San Francisco Chronicle, and Sapper recently reached out to the ALS Association Golden West Chapter, covering California and Hawaii, to organize a benefit concert featuring Goldman fronting Bernie & the Believers.
The show takes place at the Reel in Sonoma on Friday, June 15.
Today, Dalton is confined to a bed at St. Mary’s hospital in San Francisco, and is only able to communicate with an eye-tracking device. While he will not be able to attend the show in Sonoma, his spirit will reverberate through the band.
“Bernie, through this project, has had a lot of grace and a lot of reason to fight and stay alive,” Sapper says. “Every challenge has a blessing that comes with it, and the challenge of Bernie’s disorder came with the blessing of meeting Essence and being able to bring his gift as a songwriter forward.”
Essence Goldman and Bernie & the Believers perform on Friday, June 15, at the Reel Fish Shop & Grill, 401 Grove St., Sonoma. 9pm. $20–$35. 707.343.0044.