Here, There & Everywhere: Carla Zilbersmith

By Don Heckman

I’ve written dozens of obituaries for the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, some for close friends.  No one, however, will write a better obituary for Carla Zilbersmith, who is experiencing the advanced stages of ALS, than she will do for herself.  But an appreciation of the work of this extraordinary woman is an entirely different issue.  And there’s no time to do it like the present.

I first became familiar with Carla Zilbersmith and her music more than a year and a half ago.  My initial contact was with her CD, Extraordinary Renditions.  I thought it was one of the most impressive vocal jazz recordings of the year and reviewed it favorably.  Click here to read the review.

A month later, in October 2008, I met Carla, when she gave a live performance in Los Angeles.  This, too, was an utterly engaging effort from a singer and songwriter who brought musical insight, intelligence and interpretive believability to everything she sang.  Click here to read that review.

It was also one of her Carla’s last performances. In December of 2007, she had been diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) – also known as “Lou Gherig’s disease.”  Which, she said, “sucks, because I hate baseball.”

“I’d really rather have been diagnosed with a basketball disease,” she told an audience shortly after receiving the diagnosis.  “Maybe with Wilt Chamberlain Disease.  That’s the one where you have sex 20,000 times and then you die.”

That kind of dark humor has characterized the way Carla, who is a writer, teacher and comedian as well as a singer — has dealt with the ALS over the past year and a half.  Her blog, Carla Muses, has included a series of remarkable posts, filled with sardonic wit as well as explicit descriptions of the progress of the disease.  Each post has been a stunning combination of sheer courage, outrageous humor and a passionate desire to let everyone know she was here.  Late last year she was instrumental in creating a 2010 calendar titled “Always Looking Sexy” which featured sexy photos (including one of Carla ) of models with ALS, ranging in age from 23 to 69 – all of them enticing.  Her latest blog entry is a pitch to sell more calendars (even though it’s April) via a film clip, created by Richard Ross, in which Hitler rants about the importance of the Calendar.  It’s one more example of Carla’s extraordinary bravery under fire.

I urge every one to log on to her blog and read a collection of material that will amaze you and, hopefully, find its way into book form.  Here’s the link to the blog: Carla Muses.

Yesterday an email arrived from Carla’s friend, Kathy Sprague.  “Carla’s energy level has continued to decrease,” she wrote.  “She finds she’s better off when she spends most of her time in bed.  In anticipation of her spending more time in her bedroom, her fabulous caregivers have strung up lights there and are decorating it with butterflies.  The hospice nurse is most concerned with Carla’s diminishing ability to swallow and told us that she believes Carla has weeks as opposed to months.  Carla wanted me to point out to everyone that she has beaten the odds before.”

I hope she does it again.  The world is a much better place when a person like Carla is a part of it.  But ALS has its inevitability. When asked how her friends would be informed of her passing, when it happened, she jokingly told Kathy Sprague that “she would put it out on her Facebook.”  The real plan will be an email distribution to her friends which will include her own obituary, no doubt filled with her typical gallows humor.

When I received my first email from Carla, she described herself as the “jazz singer with ALS.”  I wrote back, scolding her, saying her singing and her music stood on its own.  We both were right, of course.  The ALS was inescapable, and its progress soon made any further music-making impossible.  But the singing she recorded while her skills were still in fine form is still available.  And it should be heard by all who value pure talent.  The title, again, is Extraordinary Renditions, and it’s available, along with other of her recordings, at CD Baby, iTunes and Amazon.  A ninety minute documentary about Carla — Leave Them Laughing by John Zaritsky – will have its world premiere in Toronto in May.


3 thoughts on “Here, There & Everywhere: Carla Zilbersmith

  1. Wonderful words for our Carla. My heart breaks for this young vibrant talented women, and I can’t help but cry. But then I think, what would life have been, for her friends, and her family without her – someone said: If one life shines, the life next to it will catch the light. Carla has left so many lives brighter and so many of us richer because of her humour, vitality, strength and honesty. Just getting to know her through her blog has been a privilege.
    Love you Carla


    1. To have shared so deeply her “process”, her joy, her beautiful voice and spirit has been a true gift to all of us. Thank you Carla for your SPIRIT AND LOVE, they will always be with us. The eternal always remains. In gratitude and with love, Mary (A Gladstone Grad with your Mom and Dad)


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