Daniel Rodriguez: The Latino Voice of Patriotism
The life of the Brooklyn police officer who we remember singing God Bless America, has drastically changed after Sept. 11th.
In the wave of patriotism that has engulfed the country since September 11, few have pondered that the leading voice of this quickened, all-American pride is actually Hispanic. After performing in a September 11 memorial service last year, Daniel Rodríguez, a Brooklyn-born Latino policeman, shot to prominence as New York City’s “singing cop.” His booming tenor’s rendition of God Bless America has become the rallying cry for an entire nation, his tanned face a staple of televised public events.
“I’m very proud to be able to represent not only the NYPD, but also my Latin culture,” says Rodríguez, who has already released two solo CDs. “When I started in music, I thought about changing my name and then I thought: ‘Why do that?’ I’m going to be who I am.”
Rodríguez’s fortunes have skyrocketed on a unique combination of coincidence, talent, perseverance, a gift for seizing the moment, and a knack for charming the influential. “This is an amazing turn of events for me,” says the former cop, now 39. “It’s a dream come true!”
He relates how he frequently staged and sang in his own production, which he called Broadway Magic, and how he regularly opened the yearly Broadway on Broadway concerts in Times Square, singing the national anthem.
“That was recorded on September 9, 2001,” he states. “It was actually my first recording.” He had also auditioned for the play Les Miz, “so I’d probably be on Broadway by now.”
In recent months, he has appeared on major network programs such as The Today Show, Live with Regis & Kelly, Good Morning America, Larry King Live, The Bill Miller Show, and the Late Show with David Letterman. He has been seen on television in Brazil, South Korea, Canada and England. This summer, he starred in the PBS Spirit of America Concert with a dazzling lineup that included jazz trumpeter and pianist Arturo Sandoval and singer-songwriter Phoebe Snow. He sang to cheering crowds at Edison International Stadium in Anaheim, and at Disneyland’s anniversary celebration.
His manager and a small army of publicists now handle his busy schedule, a far cry from the days, not so long ago, when Rodríguez single-handedly produced his one-man shows in rented halls around New York City.
Born in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to Puerto Rican parents, Rodríguez takes after his father, a transit authority employee who loved to sing at parties. “We weren’t rich, but we had a sense of family,” he says. “My father had eight brothers and sisters, my mom had ten. Holidays were great!”
By age 12, the boy showed promise as a singer. An influential New York music figure began offering free voice lessons, placing him in recitals and a repertory company. But this mentor dropped Rodríguez in disapproval when, at 20, he married and became a father. Without music connections and depressed, Rodríguez stopped singing until about age 25, when he decided to re-launch his career. “I went out and rented a hall, hired a piano player, printed up tickets, sold them, manned the door, then went onstage and sang. I made $100. That proved to me I could do it.”
To support his wife and two children, he worked as a short-order cook, a truck driver, and a cabinetmaker, his worst job. “They gave me a drill, a screw gun and a pencil to cover up my mistakes. I went through more pencils! They finally moved me to shipping,” he recalls, laughing.
He was employed at the post office when, in 1995, he decided to enter the Police Academy. Meanwhile, he had kept singing at occasional gigs, in Brooklyn Catholic churches, and staging his own productions. Later, the rising rookie decided to audition for his lieutenant, and won his first “singing cop” assignment. In March, 1996, Rodríguez sang the national anthem at the NYPD graduation ceremonies in Madison Square Garden, before 2,000 police officers.
Rodríguez’s career continued on the rise. First, he became a patrolman and vice officer, later a community relations officer. By now divorced, he met his second wife Gina through his lieutenant’s girlfriend, and proposed to her on stage during a Christmas benefit concert. The police department had assigned Rodríguez to its ceremonial unit (policemen who sing at official functions), where his trained voice and polished demeanor soon stood out.
“I make my own breaks,” he declares. “I go out there and I hustle it up.”
In time, Rudy Giuliani, then mayor, noticed Rodríguez and got him an audition at the Metropolitan Opera Company in the spring of 2001 - but a nervous Rodríguez bombed at the tryout. A few months later, circumstances intervened to change his life forever.
Rodríguez, on duty on Sept.11, saw both skyscrapers topple. Twelve days later, he would sing at an emotionally charged memorial at Yankee Stadium, where tenor Plácido Domingo also performed.
“When I heard him sing the national anthem, I already knew it was a quality voice,” Domingo told the Washington Post last spring. Domingo auditioned Rodríguez and offered to train him at his Washington Opera’s Vilar Young Artist Program.
Around the same time, the officer was chosen to sing on the Emmy Awards telecast (later cancelled). During rehearsals, he met jazz saxophonist Tom Scott, the show’s musical director. Scott became his producer, landing him a three-album contract with Manhattan/EMI records. “I’ve worked with plenty of singers before,” says Scott, “but Daniel is by far the most compassionate, the most down-home. He’s a good-hearted and funny guy, and a major talent.”
Rodríguez’s first CD, God Bless America, debuted last winter, quickly followed by The Spirit of America. His next release was released in February, featuring romantic songs in English and Spanish. “It’s going to have Júrame in it,” says an enthused Rodríguez, who is writing some of the songs and has commissioned other originals.
Remarkably, God Bless America earned $50,000 for NYC’s Twin Towers Fund - as much as Rodríguez’s yearly salary as a policeman.
“Cops develop something special that becomes a part of them. Even now, I see accidents and I pull over and make phone calls.” Recently, when a stranger threatened to break his car windows during a Washington visit, “I wanted to get out of the car and arrest him. I wanted to hold him for the state police. My manager wouldn’t let me!”
Daniel Rodríguez now wears his uniform only in performances related to Sept.11 or to the NYPD. “People will always know me as the singing cop, but I want them to recognize me as a singer,” he says. “I want them to know that I wasn’t a cop who started singing; I was a singer who became a cop.”
He believes that his image is starting to change. “People actually ask me if I’m still a police officer. America’s Tenor is the title they’re using more.” Rodríguez, who calls himself “a ham,” has adjusted happily to the spotlight. “I like that people come up to me and introduce themselves and tell me they’ve been touched by what I do. That’s how I want to be known.”
The drawbacks are loss of privacy (“it bothers me a little; now I have to make my own privacy”) and a grueling concert schedule which had him flying from state to state almost daily this summer.
Domingo’s operatic training was also hard on Rodríguez, who favors Broadway tunes. “The most difficult thing was memorizing Italian and re-learning how to sing, almost. And everyone there was a lot younger––in their 20’s––with a lot more experience in opera.”
Still, Domingo hopes that some day Rodríguez can debut with the Washington Opera. “I owe him that, after all he’s done for me,” says Rodríguez. “Plácido is as sweet as his voice is great.” But the former singing-cop will not limit himself to one genre: “I want to sing opera, I want to sing Broadway. I’m pursuing music for the sake of music, enjoying the ride. As long as God keeps my voice strong, I’ll make a joyful noise. And when it’s over, it’s over.”
Following is a recent interview heard on The Bill Miller Show.
Miller: I’ve looked forward to this for some time. After the September 11th tragedy, you became know around the nation when Mayor Giuliani introduced you at a Yankee Stadium performance.
Rodriguez: Well, actually, the first time I sang after 9/11 was at the Prayer For America service right after the tragedy, which was arranged by The Cardinal and leaders of other denominations. I’m a 25-year overnight sensation. I’ve been singing since I was 12, and I performed my first recital at Carnegie Hall when I was 17. I’ve been a singer long before I was anything else. Music is my life.
After Prayer For America I was asked to perform at memorial services for many of the fallen police officers and firefighters. The media picked up on that and more people wanted to know about me. It kind of re-invigorated my musical career.
Miller: You have left the NYPD. When did that happen?
Rodriguez: Oh no! I’m still a New York City police officer. This month I will have to decide if I should remain on the force or retire. I’m going to request a year of leave.
Miller: I want to read a quote about you; it’s a neat quote. “Life can be wonderful especially when I bestows a natural talent upon an individual and also endows that person with the perseverance to see a dream come true. Daniel Rodriguez was born with a beautiful tenor voice. His success is a source of great joy to me because he truly deserves it.”
That’s a quote from Placido Domingo, a pretty fair tenor himself.
Rodriguez: Yes. He is a good singer and a great guy. Placido and I have been working in Washington D.C. since early last year. He’s been an unselfish source of information and experience. He’s truly a gentleman. I’m blessed to have become his friend.
Miller: You’re performing soon at the Wringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey circus at Madison Square Garden Soon. Is that the sort of thing you do often?
Rodriguez: I do a lot of work with the community mayors in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. It’s a group that organizes events for handicapped children. We have several events where we take the children to zoos, aquariums, circuses, and theme parks. We had about 3,000 handicapped children at the circus. But our biggest event is Operation Santa. It’s held in a hangar at JFK Airport. The highlight is when Santa and his elves arrive by private jet and taxis right into the hangar.
Miller: Do you consider yourself a role model?
Rodriguez: Yes. I think people can take a lesson from my life and what I’ve experiences. You’re never too old to have a dream, and as long as you do something because you love to do it, and it comes from your heart, then you’re already a success. A lot of people think of success as being rich or famous, but success comes from within. I’m successful because I have a beautiful wife and wonderful kids, and I share the gift of music that God gave me. Even when I was a full-time police officer, only singing on weekends and at night, I still considered myself a success because I was doing what I loved to do.
Miller: The Singing Policeman; that’s the title you’ve got - whether you want it or not.
Rodriguez: It’s not a bad title. The police department did so many wonderful things to help me.
Miller: A lot of hard work goes into success doesn’t it?
Rodriguez: Yes. So many people have worked hard at their craft, performing for years in little out-of-the way places, developing the natural talent that God bestowed upon them. When the time comes you have to be ready. It took me 25 years of preparation before God found the right time for me to be the most useful to Him. It was wonderful that after 9/11 I was able to help so many people, making my career stand for something positive and more important than just fame and fortune. I’m proud of that.
Miller: You’ve been all over the country lately, haven’t you?
Rodriguez: Yes I have. I’ve performed with symphony orchestras and various appearances, mostly doing our Spirit of America tour, promoting good will and a feeling of wellness in the country. I’m hoping to continue these projects. Maybe I’ll do a USO tour.
Miller: It’s been wonderful having you on the show. We appreciate all the wonderful things you have done to lift everyone’s spirits. Your new album is a continuation of your good works. I know you’re an inspiration to many people.
“People will always know me as the singing cop, but I want them to recognize me as a singer,” he says. “I want them to know that I wasn’t a cop who started singing; I was a singer who became a cop.”