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Tiny Desk Contest Contestant Bernie Dalton Dies After Battling ALS

May 7, 2019
Originally published on May 14, 2019 7:52 am

Songwriter Bernie Dalton, who, with his musical partners, created one of our most powerful and memorable Tiny Desk concerts, has died at 49 from complications of bulbar-onset ALS, an aggressive form of Lou Gehrig's disease. According to his band's singer, Essence Goldman, Bernie died May 2, surrounded by his family.

Bernie's story moves me to tears more than any other in my 30 years at NPR. It's also a story with a beautiful, uplifting message and one that culminated in a Tiny Desk concert that left everyone who witnessed it filled with both utter joy and sheer sadness.

Bernie Dalton Jr. was a singer, songwriter, a father and a surfer in his 40s. By day, he cleaned pools. But what he wanted most was to be a musician and to make an album. He found a voice teacher, Essence Goldman, through an ad — but shortly after they began working together, he lost his voice. He was eventually diagnosed with ALS. He lost the use of his hands and his ability to play guitar, but not his desire to make a record. With a prognosis of one to three years left to live, he asked his voice coach to now be his voice. It's his friendship with Essence that's at the heart of this remarkable, true-life story.

Bernie guided the music-making process as best he could through gestures and a dry-erase board. Essence gathered musicians, a co-producer and an engineer all dedicated to Bernie's dream. They worked on a new song every day. Essence eventually entered one of those songs, "Unusual Boy," into the 2018 Tiny Desk Contest. That's how I learned of Bernie and the Believers and this beautiful act of compassion.


Essence wrote me last night with the news of Bernie's death. "I feel Bernie was a messenger for our times about what matters most in life: human connection and following your dreams, no excuses. His ability to focus with such determination and brilliant creative vision despite his devastating diagnosis and rapid decline is astounding to me and an inspiration for everyone who knew him or knew of him. Witnessing Bernie's magic has moved me to my core, altered my relationship to music, and redefined what it means to live life to the fullest. It has redefined 'success.' "

There will be a feature film chronicling Bernie's story, which Essence calls "a final gift from Bernie to his family and supporters. The whole thing is absolutely life-altering. I'm still processing [it] and imagine I will be for a very long time. Meanwhile my heart is broken and I miss my friend. I miss his smile. I miss the twinkle in his eyes. I miss his honesty. I will never forget him and the great life lessons he taught me. I will forever be a Believer! I'm thankful Bernie is not in pain anymore. May his spirit soar!"

Bernie Dalton is survived by his daughter Nicole Dalton, father Bernie Dalton Sr. and his sisters Lena Dalton Sutcliffe and Lisa Wilson.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


We first heard Bernie Dalton last spring.

BERNIE DALTON: My name is Bernie Dalton. My lifelong dream was to record an album. A year ago, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of ALS. It was time to get my butt in gear. I could no longer speak or sing, so I asked my singing teacher, Essence, to become my voice. A thousand friends contributed.


That was the start of his entry in NPR Music's annual Tiny Desk Contest. He didn't win, but we still wanted to tell his story.

CHANG: At the time of his diagnosis, Bernie Dalton was a 40-something single dad living in Santa Cruz, Calif. His day job was cleaning pools, but his passion was songwriting. And as you just heard, his dream was to make an album.

SHAPIRO: In 2016, he had barely started singing lessons before he lost his voice. Soon after that, Dalton had difficulty swallowing, and then he started losing weight. That's when he discovered he had bulbar-onset ALS, an aggressive form of ALS.

CHANG: Still, Bernie Dalton had an album to make. He asked his singing teacher Essence Goldman, a working musician herself, to be his voice.

ESSENCE GOLDMAN: And at first, I said no. I didn't know how to do that. I'd never done anything like that. He wanted me to put melody and music to his words.

SHAPIRO: Bernie kept asking until no became yes. Together with the rest of her bandmates, they formed Bernie and the Believers. They raised money through donations for studio time and within a few months, they put out the album "Connection," made entirely of songs written by Bernie Dalton.


BERNIE AND THE BELIEVERS: (Singing) And only an unusual boy could know and understand me.

CHANG: By that time, Bernie was bedridden and eventually could only move his eyes. Nonetheless, Bernie and the Believers toured from the East Coast to Alaska, singing his songs. Last fall, the band performed at NPR's Tiny Desk. Bernie was watching via Skype.


BERNIE AND THE BELIEVERS: (Singing) You know that hardship is endured for a reason. You need to know it lasts so long so that we never, ever, ever, ever forget. Know...

SHAPIRO: Bernie Dalton died last week in his hospital room surrounded by loved ones. He was 49. His teacher, singing voice and friend Essence Goldman says a feature movie about his story is in the works. Whether or not that happens, Goldman says, Bernie Dalton's message is already out there.

GOLDMAN: (Reading) Know every situation, all probable outcomes hold love at the center of it all, hold love at the center of it all, hold love at the center of it all and you can never go wrong.


BERNIE AND THE BELIEVERS: (Singing) Never, never, never, never, never be wrong. My contrived echoes all lifted... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.