|"I'll taste every moment and live it out loud/I know this is the time, this is the time to be |
More than a name or a face in the crowd/I know this is the time, this is the time of my life."
Regie Hamm was living the dream. A preacher's kid with musical talent to spare and a way with words, he found his way to Nashville and spent most of the '90s experiencing remarkable songwriting success. Grammy nominations. Dove Awards. Regie was even named SESAC's Songwriter of the Year four times. Little did he know that soon his world would contain all the dramatic twists and turns of a Hollywood movie…
In the mid to late '90s you had more than 20 No. 1 hits for a who's who in Christian music. What were some of those songs?
The first No. 1 song I had was "I Surrender All" for Clay Crosse. And then "Gather at the River" and "You Are the Answer" for Point of Grace; "Un Lugar Celestial" for Jaci Velasquez; "The Glory" for Avalon; "Every Moment" for Joy Williams. "Mighty Love" for Bob Carlisle. I had a few No. 1's with Clay. I actually produced Clay from '97 on.
A lot of artists would've been content to just keep riding that train. You weren't. In 2002, you stepped away to pursue a solo career. And that led to a trip to China that would change everything for you.
Yeah, I left writing Christian music for other people in 2002, and got a record deal with Universal Records as a pop artist—a self-produced, self-written record. I basically brought it to them and they signed it on the spot as is, which is very cool. And from that record was a single that was climbing the charts. My record dropped March 18th, 2003. Three days later, Yolanda and I were on a plane to China to adopt our first little girl. When I got on that plane, my single was at 15 on the Pop AC charts, and still going up. People were telling me how everything was going to be amazing. My agent had told me at my listening party, "When you get home, get a nanny because you are going to be on tour for the next two months." They had me hooked up with different rock bands, and there was a European tour in the works. Everything looked great.
So, what happened when you arrived in China?
About two weeks later we were in China, and they handed me a little girl with one of the rarest genetic disorders on planet earth. Her name is Isabella, and she's missing a piece of her 15th maternal chromosome. So she's got a deletion in her genetic code. They didn't know it. We didn't know it. She certainly didn't know it. Something called Angelman Syndrome. And we wouldn't know that for five years, which is how long it took to get the diagnosis.
What did that mean to you as a family, once you realized that?
Well, it really means everything. Angelman Syndrome is an all-encompassing job for care-givers, for the family. She doesn't have speech, and she won't, barring some sort of miracle. A lot of Angelman kids don't walk, have severe delays in motor skills, sleep disorders, seizure disorders, expressive disorders. She might be feeling bad but you won't know it until she's having a seizure on the floor with a 106-degree temperature. And then you'll realize she's got strep throat. It keeps you in the emergency room a lot.
This really impacted you financially as a family too, didn't it?
Yeah, when we got back from China, I was informed that, in the three weeks I had been there, my single had died. It dropped off the charts. And all the tour dates had cancelled, because those are all predicated on you having a hit, and I didn't have a hit anymore. So I lost everything in terms of an artist's career. Meanwhile, I'd walked away from the writing career, and those doors weren't open to me as they had been in the past. I was caught in a real strange predicament. I didn't know what to do, how to make a living. I did find a publishing contract that kept food on the table, and my wife went to work, God bless her, to provide health insurance, because they had dropped Isabella from our private insurance policy. All of our savings went to medical bills. We were cleaned out, financially, due to that. It was a perfect storm of trouble: Career gone, money gone, special needs child, not real sure what to do. And that went on for five years.
Then in 2008, Yolanda said, "Reggie, why don't you write a song for American Idol?"
Yeah. I really didn't have anything going on, and I didn't know what to do. In March of 2008 my wife asked me to write a song for the American Idol songwriting contest, which I thought was a little silly, cuz I'd been writing songs for 30 years and didn't even know how to enter a contest. But I wrote a song and entered it for her. I tried to write a song that was about, y'know, "everything's going to be ok if you only believe." But I just didn't feel that. It did not ring true to me. So I wanted to write something about the moment that you live in now. It's not a moment on the way to something. I wanted to talk about the people I loved, and the fact that everything you need is as close as the beat of your heart. And for me, that's God. God is love. And I wanted to say that in the confines of this finale song. So I did that, turned it in with my $10 entry fee the day of the deadline, and then I kinda forgot about it. After all, 40,000-plus entries … I knew what the odds were. But I had said my piece, I had done what my wife had asked me to do, and I just turned it in.
Not only did "The Time of My Life" win the contest, but the single spent four months at No. 1 for David Cook. That song doesn't happen without the trials you described, does it?
No. I think you're right. Ya know, young writers always ask me, "How do you write?" and I say, "Well, you live." That song was born out of living. And I wouldn't have written that song had everything been exactly the way I wanted it to be in my life. I literally sat in my office and cried while I was writing because it was autobiographical.
So what happened next? Because I read somewhere that Oprah referred to the song as the theme of the 2008 Olympics. Am I jumping way ahead here?
Well I'll tell you what happened. When we were in Beijing adopting my little girl, we got these little hats that said 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. And this was in 2003. They had just gotten the bid for the Olympics, and we decided then and there that we were gonna go back. We were gonna take Isabella back and introduce her to China at the Olympics. So that was on our to-do list. Of course, we got home and had the rug pulled out from under us, so there was no way we could do that. But as the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics closed, my wife came down to get me out of the office, and she goes, "Come here, you gotta see this!" So I went up, and she had DVR'd it. They closed the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games to "The Time of My Life," the song I had written about one of China's daughters.
And you didn't know that was going to happen ahead of time.
I had no idea. No one had given me a heads up. It ended up getting used seven more times over the course of the two weeks of the games. So when David Cook came out to perform it on the Oprah Olympic Special, she announced "David Cook singing the theme song of the Beijing Olympic Games, 'The Time of My Life.'" No one told me that was going to happen either.
God is good, isn't He?
He's amazing. But you know what, I had a lot to be thankful for before all of this happened. I walk in my house and see my wife, and I see my daughter, and I see my son, and everybody's healthy and happy. I love my kids and my wife so much. Without hit songs, money, success, fame and all of that, I still have an amazing life. And you do too. Sometimes we just overlook these mundane moments. We think, "Well we're putting up the Christmas tree." Hey, ya know what, this is the time to cherish that. That's a great moment. You're going to get snapshots in your brain. That's worth everything. I think the story behind that song and what it became, with the Olympics and all, was God kinda pulling back the curtain for me and saying, "Everything is beautiful back here, and you have no idea. You just leave it to Me and I'll show you how beautiful it is."
How has life with Isabella allowed you to minister to other special-needs families?
We live it every day. My daughter is literally a full-time care-giving job. By that I mean she has to have someone with her all the time. As I sit here and speak to you, my mother is taking care of her. And there are people on speed dial if need be. She can't be left alone, not for a moment. We're in that every day. We've cleaned the messed up room, changed the diapers, been to the therapy sessions. We've been to the emergency room on Christmas Day. Because we've done all of that stuff, it gives us a chance to put our arms around people who are in that situation. We don't say anything to them other than, "We know exactly what you're going through. We're here for you if you need to call and talk to us. We love ya."
Regie and Yolanda Hamm's full story is chronicled in Regie's book Angels and Idols: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of a Would-Be Pop Star. Also, Regie's own version of "The Time of My Life" is available on his album Set It on Fire.
Published February 2011