A head for business, heart in ‘Great Gig in the Sky’

BERKELEY — Sheri Showalter never meant to become a human-resources professional, much less to manage HR operations for one of the nation’s leading law schools.

Sheri Showalter

Then again, she never meant to be part of a Pink Floyd tribute band, either, performing in packed clubs and music halls from Yoshi’s San Francisco to Petaluma’s Mystic Theater.

Those are just some of the places her love for music — and head for business — have taken her.

Originally drawn to UC Berkeley for its location — working six nights a week as a singer, she needed a day job closer to home — Showalter now boasts a résumé that epitomizes what HR pros call a career path of increasing responsibility. And notwithstanding her choral and classical training, she rocks — rocks, people — “The Great Gig in the Sky.”

Neither one of her earthly gigs — HR director at Berkeley Law, or her nights-and-weekends immersion in moody 1970s-era musical psychedelia — was part of the plan growing up in Great Falls, Mont. Or even, for that matter, after her move to California, where she studied with legendary vocal coach (and Berkeley alum) Judy Davis and earned a living as a restaurant worker and cover-band singer.

“I make jokes about being the Rich Little of music,” she says, reflecting on her chameleon-like ability to mimic the vocals on top-40 hits, regardless of genre or gender.

Her various bands’ repertoires, however, did not include the spacey, long-form, darkly poetic prog rock beloved by Floyd fans the world over. Nor did those fans include Showalter.

Showalter at work

“I wasn’t really that into Pink Floyd,” admits Showalter, an omnivorous listener who admires the vocal technique of singers as disparate as Aretha Franklin, Cecilia Bartoli, Lady Gaga and Karen Carpenter. Today, as one of two singers for House of Floyd, the Berkeley veteran could deliver a dissertation on the British band’s three major epochs, which took it from Top of the Pops in 1967 through complex, mindbending concept albums like The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975) and The Wall (1979).

It was her husband who “sucked me in,” she says. “The rat.”

She’s laughing when she says that. In fact, the whole work-life balance thing seems to be working out fine for Showalter. She shares her musical world not just with her husband — multi-instrumentalist Mark Showalter, who toured with Gregg Allman as a sax player before laying the cornerstone for House of Floyd in 2005 — but with their teenage daughter, who earns her allowance selling the group’s merchandise at shows. (She used to join her parents onstage for “Another Brick in the Wall,” a caustic riff on English schooling for which Floyd enlisted a chorus of children.)

The couple had teamed up before, both in bands and as a duo. But Showalter resisted her husband’s initial pleas to help him capture the sound and vibe of an all-male band she’d never much cared for. He tried to entice her with “Great Gig in the Sky,” the original recording of which featured a stem-winding, wordless-wail turn so essential that the hired studio singer, Clare Torry, waged a successful legal fight for a songwriting credit.

Showalter’s response: no.

“I told him, ‘There’s no place for me in this project. I’m a lead vocalist,’ ” she recalls. “‘Go get some backup vocalists, do your thing.’ ” So he did. Then the more accomplished of two backup singers moved East before the fledgling band’s maiden show, and Showalter agreed to rehearse the other. One thing led to another, and soon she’d taken the first singer’s place.

Floyd, too, won her over.

Learning to love Pink Floyd

“Here’s my problem with Pink Floyd music,” she explains, taking a break at a Berkeley coffee house. “When I listen to the recordings, I don’t really like it. But the moment we go into rehearsal and I hear it live, all of a sudden I go, Oh, now I get it. Now I see why people love this. When you hear it live, it hits you in a very visceral way. I just don’t get that from the recordings.

“Once I started doing it I realized, Oh my god, there’s so much there. There’s jazz, there’s blues, there’s R&B, there’s classical. Everything’s there.”

But while “my song is the one that gets standing O’s,” she still views House of Floyd as her husband’s band. “I’m a backup vocalist in this group, I’m not the focal point.”

Somehow, though, the spotlight seems to find Showalter, whether she’s onstage or not. Within months of moving to California she was managing a restaurant in Oakland, then was quickly lured away to manage food services for a big San Francisco financial firm. But she was also singing six nights a week, often getting home just hours before she needed to start work on the other side of the bay. To cut her commute time, a friend suggested she find a job on campus.

She worked in a series of administrative jobs before joining Cal Performances, where she rose to director of business services under Robert Cole. “It was a wonderful way for me to learn the other side of the business,” Showalter says. “I’d always come in as an artist, and didn’t really know what was on the other side of it.”

She left Cal Performances to help create what grew up to be Career Compass, but was recruited to move to the law school as its first HR director. Now at the helm of a 10-person department, she views personnel management as “a little like playing chess, where you have to look several moves ahead. It challenges a part of my brain that allows me to be creative.”

She’s typically in her Boalt Hall office four long days a week, with Fridays reserved for traveling to gigs. But technology, plus downtime backstage and on the road, means she’s never too far from campus.

“Even when we were on tour in India — I actually took a vacation for that, probably the first vacation I’ve taken, ever — I was still able to stay connected,” she says.

Which, combined with a holistic approach to her campus and musical lives — she brings her own brand of head and heart to both — makes moving between the two relatively seamless.

“I do kind of blend the concepts between my two worlds,” Showalter says. “When there’s conflict, whether it’s at work or in the band, I think I’m pretty good at going, OK, what voice, what message, what idea can I infuse into the conversation or into the dynamic that’s going to bring the temperature level down, so that people drop their defense shields a bit, hear each other, and don’t take things so personally?”

The music, of course, is deeply personal.

“I’m not a songwriter, but I’m a storyteller,” says Showalter. “I think that’s what vocalists do. Your job as a vocalist is to describe, with emotion and words and texture, what the writer of that song was hoping to evoke in the people hearing it.

“Once I get comfortable with a song, it comes from inside of me. That emotion comes from inside.”

If you doubt that, check out her vocal on “Great Gig in the Sky.”


For more on the band, including a list of upcoming Bay Area appearances, visit the House of Floyd website.


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