SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Lynette Sheard’s musical career started with a song about her love of KFC.
She was onstage at the opening of the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center in West Orange with her three daughters, two of whom were dressed as a bucket of chicken and a biscuit. The jingle that Sheard made up was sung to the tune of “At Last,” by Etta James, and the family won the contest that day in 2000.
“It just fed my soul,” Sheard said in a phone interview on March 12, saying she had lost her job in sales just a few weeks earlier. “My daughters are all artistic and it was an opportunity to do a family project. It was the silliest thing.”
Years later, Sheard sang at the South Orange Performing Arts Center as part of the “Blues in the Loft” series on Sunday, March 24. It was the next show in her professional singing career, which started out as a hobby.
“I would sing for free at nursing homes and veterans centers and children’s hospitals,” Sheard said. “So it’s been such a joy just to learn and grow. I’d wanted to do it and I didn’t know what to do, so I did it for fun.”
Ever since she sang about chicken at OSPAC, Sheard has found other gigs. The West Orange resident won the inaugural “West Orange Idol” contest in 2002, and she has sung across New Jersey and New York City. She has also done musical theater in both states, appearing in “Dreamgirls,” “Aida,” “Avenue Q” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” among other shows. She credits those experiences with providing her voice training, as she’s never had any formal training. Sheard doesn’t even know how to read music.
“I can’t read music, but I have perfect pitch and a five-octave range,” she said. “So if you show me the music with all of the notes going up and down, I don’t know what it says. But I remember the pitch and the key, and I go from there.”
Sheard said she is an introverted person, and often gets nervous before performing. She doesn’t spend a lot of time rehearsing and works out her sets with the band shortly before a show. According to Sheard, she learned about jazz and R&B, the styles of music she frequently sings, at OSPAC jazz workshops.
“I grew up listening to R&B,” she said. “And with jazz, you have the framework of it and you can just go. People have always compared me to jazz artists.”
Sheard, who sings gospel, often sings in churches and her musical influences include those genres. She cited Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross and the Temptations as her musical inspirations. Though she also sings pop music, Sheard said she likes how R&B and jazz can be understated.
“I don’t have to be cute,” she joked. “I could be 300 pounds and wearing a muumuu and people would still listen.”
Sheard’s set list for her SOPAC show is ready to go, and it includes such classics as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “My Favorite Things” and “Route 66,” in addition to a medley of pop songs reinterpreted as blues arrangements. The two-hour show came about when she was playing another show in South Orange and someone in the audience told her she should sing at SOPAC. A few months later, the date was set.
Sheard will continue to perform in the area, including as part of the Essex County Summer Concert Series. She’s looking to record an EP, and is working on choosing her 10 favorite songs to include on the album.
“Right now I’m singing in the loft, but I would love to be on the main stage,” Sheard said. “That’s definitely a goal.”