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.