Gospel singer Steve Darmody had performed in front of audiences around the world and been embraced by fans in faraway places. But he was unprepared for what he would experience as he landed in Bucharest, Romania, for his first concert in the country.
“I was told a police escort was going to help me get through the crowd,” says Darmody, now a Realtor with the Ooltewah office of Keller Williams. “I asked what was going on – and they said my concert.”
After years of performing before small to moderately sized crowds, Darmody finally had an inkling of how John, Paul, George and Ringo must have felt when they landed in the U.S. at the start of the British Invasion. But the surprises didn’t end there. Later, when Darmody performed, he packed the largest auditorium in the nation, which seated 5,500 people.
After he sang “Crown Him with Many Crowns” in Romanian, he thought the walls of the building were going to crumble from the force of the applause.
Darmody’s unexpected popularity in the foreign country puzzled him. But he soon learned why his visit had caused a stir.
“Years earlier, I had sung at the University of Prague (Charles University) for 400 pastors. Afterward, I sold every CD I had,” he says. “About 20 of those pastors had duplicated the CDs by the thousands and distributed them across the nation. People were learning English by listening to them.”
Darmody’s first concert on U.S. soil after his return from his European tour was a much smaller affair: he drew 65 people. “Not to worry,” his kids said. “You are now king of Romania!”
While Darmody remembers the “U.S. Invasion” of Romania, he has trouble pinpointing when it took place. “It was about a decade ago,” he says. After 26 years of singing gospel music full time in cities across the U.S. and countries around the world, the details tend to blur.
Darmody has also sang hymns before the U.S. Senate, in the Pentagon and at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and graced countless religious television broadcasts with his deep, smooth baritone bass voice, which one female listener compared to milk chocolate.
But in the wake of a year-long period that shook the foundation of his life, the 60-year-old Darmody has scaled back his music career and traded his travel shoes for a pair of gravity boots.
Just over a year ago, Darmody’s sister-in-law, Gayle Tucker, died of pancreatic cancer. Close to the same time, Darmody’s son, Alan, and daughter-in-law, Alysa, brought Oliver into the world. Ollie, as the family affectionately calls him, has lissencephaly, a brain malformation that will limit his development and possibly his lifespan. In addition, Darmody moved his 87-year-old mother, Carole, to Ooltewah, where he and his family lives.
“Ollie has taught us about true love,” Darmody says. “We’ve also learned that when a family is going through a difficult time, it takes everyone to get through it.”
But with 85 concerts on his calendar annually, Darmody was gone more than he was home. So, he cut his singing obligations in half and began spending more time with his family. He also started to focus less on the global community and more on his local one. “When I go to church, my wife knows everyone because she’s there every week, but I don’t know anyone because I’m there six weeks a year,” he says.
Trimming his concert schedule reduced the income Darmody earns and created a need for a new revenue stream. He chose a career that places him in front of audiences as small as one: real estate.
Darmody is not used to being new at something. So, after 39 years of full-time ministry, starting from scratch in real estate has felt strange. But he’s welcomed the change with the gusto of a Romanian gospel music fan.
“It’s been rewarding in every way,” he says. “I love getting to know people. I also love them getting to know me. Typically, if you’re not the baggage handler at the airport, you don’t know who I am.”
Darmody is a self-professed sanguine who’s never met a person (or a microphone) he didn’t like. He’s also optimistic to his core. Now, this positive outlook that has shaped his perspective on life is molding his views of real estate.
For example, while most local Realtors are calling Chattanooga a seller’s market, Darmody says the city and the surrounding areas are prime territory for buyers, as well.
“Inventory is low but we haven’t seen a big bump in cost,” he says. “We’re seeing prices stay within reason, so we have a unique buyer’s and seller’s market. We have level-headed people selling to folks who need good homes.”
Darmody’s newfound emphasis on community is also fueling passion for his new career. “Real estate shapes communities. When you see a Taco Bell, it’s there because a real estate agent went after the deal,” Darmody says. “Real estate defines the socio-economic identity of a community.”
Darmody has made the Keller Williams office in Ooltewah his professional home. The company, which emphasizes training, has taught him many things in the short time he’s been an agent, including the notion that real estate is not about selling property, it’s about assisting others.
“I’m not supposed to sell houses,” he says. “My job is to provide my clients with information and let them decide what to do. That takes the pressure off me.”
Darmody does, however, use the bargaining skills he sharpened over 26 years in the music business. “The one thing I’ve carried over from my singing career is my ability to negotiate a good deal,” he says. “I know contracts.”
Darmody doesn’t try to strongarm the other side, though. Rather, his goal is for each transaction to be a win for both sides.
“Realtors are problem solvers, and when you put money on the table, there will be problems,” he says. “I want to be the calm, reasonable voice that convinces people we can resolve their differences.”
Much like Darmody conquered the stage, he hopes to overcome the challenge of becoming a consummate real estate professional. “I want to provide complete care for every person who walks through my door,” he says.
This includes the divorcee he’s representing who wants to stop paying rent but whose credit is a shamble. “I want to find good people and shape their destiny,” he says. “When they look back on their life, I want them to see that one of their pivotal points was meeting me because I was able to help them find their dream home and connect them to the right lender.”
Darmody’s professional aspirations are anything but small. But he can still recall a time when he wouldn’t even open his mouth to sing.
From bitterness to freedom
Darmody was born in Texas and raised by his mother after his parents divorced when he was 7. Darmody and his two brothers spent every day of their young lives after their parents split without a father, and as a result, acted out.
Darmody’s resentment manifested itself in a refusal to sing. His father, Gordon, was known to have a tremendous voice, but – out of spite – Darmody wouldn’t intone a single note, despite his mother’s pleas.
“I never received a birthday or Christmas card, or a phone call or visit, so I boycotted music,” Darmody says.
Although Carole held the family together with her love and grit, Darmody’s rebellious behavior eventually landed him at a boarding school, where his mother hoped he would fall under the guiding hands of the men there.
When the school’s vocal teacher, Bill “Sid” Mills, heard the 14-year-old Darmody speak with his rich, post-pubescent voice, he suggested the young man join the school’s choir. Darmody agreed but not because he wanted to sing; he joined the choir because he was hungry.
“When you sang with the choir, you traveled off campus on the weekends to perform in churches and ate potluck dinners,” Darmody says. “I still had no intention of singing; I was dying from the terrible food at the school. It was not my momma’s cooking.”
Mills was wise to Darmody and knew he was merely mouthing the words to the songs the choir performed. But instead of removing him, he sent the young man to take voice lessons, which he paid for out of his own pocket. When Darmody still refused to sing, Mills met with him once a week in private to teach him one song: “Precious Lord Take My Hand.”
Mills wanted Darmody to perform the song during the school’s upcoming Week of Prayer. Darmody said no and threatened to run away if anyone tried to force him to do so.
Although Mills backed off, he was as persistent as Darmody was stubborn and hatched a secret plan to make Darmody’s debut performance happen.
“I was in chapel during the Week of Prayer when Sid sat down beside me and said the principal was about to introduce me as the special music,” Darmody recalls. “My heart stopped. I was devastated. He saw the feeling of betrayal in my eyes but said it was too late to back out.
“When the principal called my name, I told Sid I couldn’t do it. But he grabbed my arm and walked me to the piano. I looked at the exit and calculated that I could be on the road hitchhiking before the meeting was over. But I also thought I would faint if I let go of the piano.”
Mills played the introduction to “Precious Lord Take My Hand” but Darmody just stood there, clinging to the piano and his mulish silence. He kept his jaws clenched as his mentor played the intro three more times. Finally, Darmody decided to just sing and get it over with.
When he opened his mouth, the direction of his life changed.
“I was instantly in control and singing with a bigger voice than I’d ever had,” he says. “Everyone did a double take.”
The ice broken, Darmody never looked back. He began to sing in choir, he joined vocal ensembles during his summer breaks and sang the solos in Handel’s “Messiah” as a student at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale.
Darmody also took the initiative to reunite with his father.
“The summer before I started at Southern, I invited him to hear me sing,” Darmody remembers. “While he was with me, I grabbed the pianist from our group and we stepped into an empty church. I sat in the back and my dad went to the front with the pianist and sang ‘How Great Thou Art.’ It was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard.”
After Gordon was finished, he walked to the back of the church and apologized to his son for not being able to sing as well as he once did. Darmody stood, wrapped his arms around his father and burst into tears.
Darmody says getting to know his father over the ensuing years taught him who he was. “I had a lot him in me. Our sense of humor, our interests and our voices were the same,” he says. “My mom has called me by his name more than my name.”
From that summer on, Darmody and his father became “the best of friends.” Gordon died 16 years ago after seeing his son accomplish more than either of them had dreamed he would.
Music did not come first, though. After earning a bachelor’s degree at Southern Adventist and a Master of Divinity at Andrews University in Michigan, Darmody entered pastoral ministry in 1978 and spent the next 13 years pastoring two hospital churches: Texas Health Huguley Hospital Fort Worth South and Lakewood Seventh-day Adventist Church in Atlanta.
Darmody began his public music ministry in 1981 when he recorded his debut CD in Nashville with Brentwood Records and went on his first tour. But he remained focused on pastoral work, even as the waves of invitations to perform grew taller each time he said yes and his voice reached new ears. “For 13 years, I said no to doing music full time and made my churches my priority,” he said.
When a top-level employee of the Seventh-day Adventist Church told him to leave his pastoral work and sing, the crashing of waves became too loud to ignore. “He said he knew a hundred people who could preach every Sabbath, run a church board and counsel others, but none of them could sing like me,” Darmody recalls. “He said my singing was an inborn gift that was pointing me to my destiny.”
So, Darmody called his employer and told them to not send him another check. The person with whom he spoke told him his children were going to starve. He said God had told him to jump off a cliff, and he was going to do it.
Once Darmody pulled the plug on his pastoral ministry in July 1991, he received seven requests to perform.
As Darmody performed on stage after stage, he saw a sea of faces no singer could remember. But his prayer was always that his music would do more than entertain; he wanted it to impact lives.
It did. In addition to a thick stack of thank you letters he’s saved, he’s stored the stories of dozens of meaningful encounters with his listeners in his memory.
After a concert in the Northwest (that’s as close as Darmody can pinpoint the location), he noticed a mother and daughter standing to the side of the table where he was signing autographs and selling CDs. The two waited until everyone was gone and then shyly approached him and asked for a favor.
“The mother asked me to go with them to the emergency room, where her husband was working. He’d wanted to come to the concert but had been unable to because of his schedule,” Darmody remembers.
The mother told Darmody her husband had suffered from depression while he was in medical school and on one occasion locked himself in his room for seven days. While in there, he repeatedly listened to Darmody’s “Shall We Learn to be Friends” CD.
“He said the lyrics helped him dig his way out of his depression, and that if it hadn’t been for my music, he would have taken his life,” Darmody says.
The man had gone on to become an ER physician. Darmody, whose stories always end with someone laughing or crying, works both into the story as he relates how the mother talked him into pretending his arm was broken so she could surprise her husband with the man who saved his life.
“When he walked in, he recognized me and started to cry,” Darmody says. “As he told me his story, I began to cry.”
Darmody has other stories, but if he were to string them together, they would all lead to one place: Ooltewah, where he sells homes for a living and lives to spend time with his family.
A new life at 60
Darmody’s office at Keller Williams is tiny, with just enough space for a small desk and a bookcase. But he’s fit all the things that matter to him in the room.
On two shelves nailed to one wall, he’s placed a photograph of his four grandchildren below a sloppy painting that declares “We love grandad.” Flanking his grandkids is a photograph of more family members and a picture album called “The Year.” On the cover of the album is a selfie of his wife, Joni, and him outside Easy Bistro in Chattanooga.
The couple’s two children, which includes their daughter, singer Jaclyn Pruehs, had sent them on a date to relieve the stress of everything they had endured during the earth-shaking 12-month period of their lives. “It reminds me that life is short and I need to make mine count,” he says.
Darmody is making his life matter by being with his family. He sits with his mother in church, hopes to take his grandchildren to their soccer games and spends time with his wife of 40 years, whom he loves desperately. “She’s stunning. She’ll be 64 soon, but when she walks, she looks like she’s 29,” he says.
Darmody is also ministering to his community. He plans to make himself available to sing for free at funerals when there’s a need, he’s been asked to perform at Open Arms Care, which takes care of special needs children and adults, and he’s joined the choir at Ooltewah Seventh-day Adventist Church.
“When I go to practice, no one realizes how giddy I am to be there. I’m with other people and I know their names!” Darmody exclaims, his cheeks cracking into a smile.
Darmody is even taking time to enjoy life. He plays golf regularly, savors his favorite meal of the day (breakfast) and plans to try his hand at becoming a thespian.
Darmody already has one notch in his acting belt. A life-long fan of the theater (he’s seen “Wicked” in Los Angeles, New York and London), he performed the role of Mr. Cunningham in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Chattanooga Theatre in 2012.
Darmody credits his new career with giving him the freedom to pursue these and other interests. “Real estate is meeting a need in my heart to be a present contributor to my family and community,” he says. “I don’t have to stand in front of 1,000 anonymous people anymore; I’d rather know a handful of people who love seeing me step through the door because I helped them make an important financial decision.”
Although Darmody has made great strides in his transformation from globe-trotting gospel singer to hometown boy, he still has his fingers in a few music-industry pies – and always will. His record label, Morning Song Music Group, requires a modicum of attention, as does his booking agency. Darmody will also perform a series of concerts in Shillong, India this month and is planning a brief tour of Australia that will take place next year.
Plus, Darmody has a few items to cross off his bucket list. For example, next July, he’ll emcee a gospel music program and sing at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Even with all the changes Darmody has made, the “king of Romania” is thinking about stepping off his throne more often to spend even more time with his family, real estate clients and community.
“I might drop down to 12 concerts a year,” he says. “Every house I sell is another weekend I can sit in church with my family and have a grandkid on my knee.”