“They say I’m a smart guy. And I can write a song. They tell me that I’m funny. That’s all saved me for so long. But here on the inside I’m alone and I’m scared. Of all the things the future brings.”
– Scott Whitesell, “Questions”
Time lying in a hospital bed creeps by as slowly as a prisoner’s day.
Time singing in a recording studio, fingers dancing on a keyboard, flees as quickly as an escapee.
Time shadows Scott Whitesell.
The Charlotte musician has spent years fighting the AIDS that almost killed him. Now he’s got cancer and is fighting for time – much more time – to craft his musical legacy.
“Everything always emerges out of the ashes of some horrible thing,” Whitesell said. “Every time something bad happens, I become motivated to do more, to create more.’’
The cancer inspired his new song “Questions,” which he plans to put on his next CD. As he composes, he thinks about the people he sees in treatment: the shell-shocked newly diagnosed, the weary long-timers, the sad and resigned.
“I need to connect with other people dealing with this so that when they’re feeling lonely and terrified they can see someone else is going through this,” he said. “I guess that’s my call to action.’’
In Whitesell’s daydreams, he’s the thunderous lead voice in a sweeping musical. He jokes about the inspiring speech he’d give upon winning a Grammy award.
Now 42, he began his musical journey as a farm kid living near Greensboro. His dad sang, his mom played piano. He’d do his chores, then play the piano for hours.
His voice and piano won him competitions and a college scholarship. He graduated from UNC Greensboro, landed a job as a public school music teacher and discovered he didn’t like managing large groups of kids.
“Spawns of Satan,” he says, deadpan, of a few who made teaching especially challenging. He lasted half a year. He was happier giving private lessons, singing at weddings, working as a church pianist and performing in musical theater and operas.
In 2005 he met Tim Maness, a Charlotte CPA and financial executive. The musician and accountant fell in love, and a year later, Whitesell moved to Charlotte.
They were happy.
Then one night in 2008 after a series of terrible headaches, Whitesell collapsed at their south Charlotte home. He had developed a deadly case of meningitis. He learned he was HIV positive, in its advanced stages – AIDS.
His partner became his caretaker.
“That’s when I found out what true love is,” Whitesell said.
Maness knows the disease well. He’d lost a brother to AIDS in 1995, and in his lifetime, several close friends.
Doctors told him Whitesell might have only hours to live. Thirty days later, Whitesell was wheeled down to the hospital lobby and played “The Old Rugged Cross” on the baby grand piano.
“It was a very emotional moment,” Maness said.
Recovery was slow, and frightening setbacks occurred when his weakened immune system put Whitesell back in the hospital for weeks at a time. In between fear and tears came laughter.
“What I love about Scott is that he makes me laugh,” Maness said. “We’ve learned through all of his medical challenges that humor is our friend. …
“He’s determined to make all that he’s gone through mean something, and to do something for other people. I don’t know how you cannot admire that.”
Since 2010, Whitesell has been the pianist at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte.
The first time church member Dave Lauderbaugh heard Whitesell perform, he said, “I looked at my wife and said, ‘I’m going to play with that guy someday.’ ”
They remember their first musical collaboration as symbiotic. Whitesell handed Lauderbaugh the chords to his song; Lauderbaugh started playing it on his guitar “as if he went inside my head,” Whitesell said.
By appearance and experience, they seem an unlikely pair. Whitesell is classically trained with a voice you’d expect to hear on Broadway. Lauderbaugh is a ponytailed, raspy-voiced rocker who came of age in the 1960s. He’s a hippie, no “ex” required.
Whitesell describes Lauderbaugh, his wife, Kristie, and their daughter, Rachel, 8, as family.
In 2013 their collaboration resulted in the CD “Weight of the World.” They recorded it in the studio Lauderbaugh crafted in his Mint Hill home. In one song Rachel Lauderbaugh sings in the background; Kristie Lauderbaugh helps out in a few others.
The collection includes an array of Whitesell’s songs, about everything from annoying Facebook posts to a friend’s sudden death, to thanking his parents. There’s also a love song for Maness.
“He has absolutely been a rock,” Whitesell said. “I appreciate him every day and pray for him every night.”
Whitesell and Maness had been planning an October trip to Tahiti to celebrate their 10th anniversary. They had airline, hotel and restaurant reservations. They talked about getting married.
Then Whitesell got sick.
It felt like a pulled muscle in his chest. The diagnosis came back as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that has been linked to HIV/AIDS.
He’s been on a grueling course of chemotherapy. He has endured exhaustion, nausea, achy bones, dangerously high blood sugar – and particularly cruel for a singer – painful mouth sores.
But the treatment appears to be working. He’s scheduled to finish chemotherapy in February, and says doctors expect the cancer to go into remission.
He and Maness still plan to go to Tahiti.
“We can’t live our lives in fear of what might happen,” Maness said. “... The point is to enjoy the time you have and make the most of it.”
Whitesell has an ambitious to-do list. When he’s better, he wants to organize a big concert fundraiser, filled with talented musicians, to benefit HIV/AIDS and cancer patients. And start a scholarship for aspiring musicians struggling with illness.
He just needs time.
“Somehow I’ve managed to live through all of this and I need to figure out why.”