When Elvis came on stage to sing “If I Can Dream,” it was the exclamation point on his 1968 comeback television concert. Now Thad Holloway and Michael Slatton will sing it as a duet for the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival— a fitting song since music, they said, was their comeback after returning home from Vietnam.
Holloway, a Marine Corps Veteran, has been part of the creative arts festival since 1994; Slatton, an Army Veteran, since 1997.
Singing together is nothing new for these two. They both met through the music therapy program at the Hines VA in Chicago, Illinois, and have been singing together for 20 years. They’re part of a duet group, The Nostalgics, and they sing as part of The Drifters. Though they aren’t a part of the original singers from that super group, they make sure the music lives on. They hope to pass the saving grace of music onto others.
“If not for the VA, we wouldn’t be in this position. We’d be on the streets or dead,” said Slatton. Both served their country and came home to find nobody really cared.
“Man, it was hard. No job, nothing,” said Holloway. “The country didn’t understand Vietnam. We didn’t understand Vietnam. We were just kids, and it was a lot to deal with.”
When ignoring it and self-medicating didn’t work, the two found themselves in a VA hospital in the 1990s. “The music saved my life,” Slatton said. “I had lost myself. I try to keep a song in my heart, but it wasn’t there. I was just out of it.
“It was one music therapist who saved my life. Jessie Herndon would come up to my room twice a week. And I would cuss her out and call her every name, and she knew I would call her names and argue before she even got up there. But she kept pushing me, she never gave up. She wanted me to try singing before she even heard me sing a note.”
He finally gave in. And that’s when he met his future singing partner. “I couldn’t stand him back then!” Slatton said. “He was always so bossy. He was the teacher’s pet. Now he’s my brother. If not for him, I wouldn’t be here. Thad keeps me straight.”
“He says that,” Holloway replied, “but I wouldn’t be here without him. He’s the one who takes care of the music and keeps things together.” Their original music therapist, Herndon, is long retired.
“I visit her every so often. She has dementia, so sometimes she remembers me,” Holloway said. While she may not always remember, both said she is someone they’ll never forget.
“If I Can Dream” is the perfect song, they said, because it represents hope that things will always get better, and can provide hope for others. But don’t look for an Elvis version of an Elvis song. Holloway and Slatton are doing it their way.
“It’s a good song with a good message, but we want to make it our own,” Slatton said.
That’s what they do most of the year, whether it’s performing professionally or volunteering their time at their VA or others across the country.
But nothing takes precedence over this. They cancel events to come to this festival every year.
“This is the priority,” Slatton said. “We’re always telling Veterans if they have any kind of talent, to try it out. “You never know if something you did is going to help someone. This is our way of paying it forward. Somebody helped us, and maybe we can help someone else.”