A vocalist has the most delicate instrument in any band or orchestra. After all, you can replace a violin string, a trumpet mouthpiece or a saxophone reed. But if you’re a singer with a gig tomorrow and your throat is raw today, you need the best doctor in the world.
For the majority of his 97 years, Sam Zurik was an ear, nose and throat specialist with an Uptown practice. Dr. Zurik, who retired after Hurricane Katrina at age 92, treated Fats Domino, Aaron Neville, Deacon John and Irma Thomas among his many musical patients.
“I don’t think Tommy Ridgley saw Dr. Zurik,” Irma Thomas reflected at the funeral home, after the service, just before the January freeze. “Tommy had that nasal surgery and I don’t think Dr. Zurik would have gone for that.”
A native of New York City, Samuel Zurik graduated from Tulane Medical School, served as a naval flight deck surgeon in World War II and returned to New Orleans where he spent the rest of his life. His widow, Jesselyn, is a distinguished artist. They had a son and daughter, six grandchildren (including TV reporter Lee Zurik) and seven great-grandchildren.
Artists and musicians gravitated to Zurik not only for his professional skills but also because he was an absolute gentleman, well-mannered and modest, and his personality radiated joy in the art of living.
In 1953 he took out my tonsils. As I lay in bed at Touro, he said conspiratorially, “The tonsils are in that jar, as you requested.” I nodded. “Have you looked at them?” Manfully, I nodded again, the sight of them having triggered a sudden impulse to disgorge. He continued, gently: “Do you still want them?” Age 4, glum at the thought of the jar, I stared. “If you don’t want them,” he whispered, “no one will know.” I nodded. After making sure my swallowing was on track, he took the jar as he left. I was relieved.
“My relationship with Dr. Zurik goes back 30 years,” recalled Deacon John, who looked dapper in a tuxedo at the funeral.
“He treated me for bronchitis, sinuses and a host of issues related to vocal chords and the respiratory system. He took care of the whole person, like a counselor. I’d come in and he’d say, ‘What are you doing with that frown on your face? Come on, Deacon John, you got the world by a string. Smile!’
John continued, “He’d pull out these medieval-looking instruments, put that spring in your nose, tell you to inhale and when you exhaled a big cloud of smoke came out. Man, that felt great. He had his own formula for nose drops. Dr. Zurik’s Nosedrops had some mixture of peppermint oil and other ingredients. I used those magic drops for years to clear up any congestion dripping on my vocal chords, inhibiting my ability to hit those high notes. I’d tell him some of my troubles and he’d give me great advice. It was always right-on. Everybody would recommend him. He specialized in voices. His son-in-law, Dr. Richard Spector, practiced with him for years. Now I go to him. He’s continuing the legacy.”
Zurik treated opera singers including, by some accounts, Beverly Sills and Maria Callas. Curious about that dimension of his practice, and other artists he treated, I called Spector.
“I cannot divulge names because of federal confidentiality laws,” Spector begins, casually alluding to the law degree he earned several years ago in order to deal with the nightmare of managed care. “The photographs on the wall were given to us by the patients for internal use.”
But Spector didn’t disappoint.
“Sam developed an interest in professional voice at the outset of his career,” he says. “He was friends with many singers and intuitively connected with them, both for medical intervention and with an awareness of their professional lives. Much later, after he was receiving referrals by word of mouth, a national movement began amongst physicians like Sam, singers and vocal coaches, resulting in The Voice Foundation. As they published data it became apparent that Sam had been practicing intuitively for decades, doing what the science showed was appropriate and necessary.”
Warming to his topic, Spector explains that, “singers are people very attuned to their bodies, like high-quality athletes.
They know when something is going wrong. Physicians are trained to identify pathologies, meaning they have to see illness to know something is wrong. Vocalists see a doctor before the physical changes. Physicians not experienced with the professional voice write them off as hypochondriacal. Sam realized early on that these people were anything but hypochondriacs – they were trying to relate a problem for which they didn’t have easy words. Here’s an example from my practice: The singer who thinks he’s coming down with a cold takes 4,000 units of Vitamin C. Suddenly, he can’t sing. The problem isn’t the cold: it’s the Vitamin C, which has dehydrated the singer who needs moisture on the vocal chords. The treatment is first, listen to the patient. Then, tell him to drink a lot of water and stop taking the Vitamin C. Twenty-four hours later he can usually sing.”
Spector cites the case of a vocalist who couldn’t get through the third set of a gig. Some doctors might say the artist was overworked – don’t do the third set. But if you’re hired for three sets, you sing three sets.
“That’s how singers make their living,” he says pragmatically. “The physician who listens will ask questions that aren’t medical. Can you hear your monitor speakers? Answer: yes. Can you hear them on the second set? Answer: no. Why is that? Because everyone has their own amplifier, the pianist and guitar player are increasing their amps, and I [the singer] can’t hear because of the amps. The solution is non-medical. If your instrument is one you can’t raise, then get the sound technician to run all the amps through a single board so you can hear your voice. Most singers don’t imagine their illness, they’re not looking for a day off. The case history is as critical as the physical exam and allows the physician to coordinate medical knowledge with circumstances in which the performer is working. That’s the kind of stuff that I learned from Sam.”
I was 8 when a crash on the bike put me in Zurik’s office with a broken nose. Back to Touro I went. He fixed it beautifully. I had appointments with him only a few times after that. He was a golfing pal of my dad’s. Before my knees gave out I saw him often as I jogged in Audubon Park, stopping when he came off the links, catching up, trading data on things that count.
In later years we ended up as neighbors, living a block from one another on a street off Carrollton Avenue. It is my humble duty to report that on a blazing summer day seven years ago, as I slashed with a machete at tangles of floribunda choking my house, the blade hit a root with a twang that fired a jolt up my arm, the machete flew under the house and, utterly drenched, I bellowed words that cannot be printed here. At that moment a melodious voice floated in from the street: “Now, you good Catholic boys are not supposed to give this neighborhood a bad name.” There, with his car purring in neutral, sat Sam Zurik, sporting a Cheshire cat grin. We spent a half-hour talking.
Dr. Zurik was a patriarch beloved by his family. He was a mensch, a stand-up guy and one of those rare souls whose mere presence produces optimism about the human experiment.