A Burning Passion To Perform

Flame hopes to change the world through music – and with seven years, three albums and hundreds of performances under their belts, the 11 members of the soft rock cover band have gone a long way toward changing perceptions about people with mental and physical handicaps. The music has drastically changed the band members’ lives as well.

When you put on a Flame album and hear the band soulfully sing their way through classic rock, country and blues songs from the past five decades you wouldn’t know that every member of the band has a developmental or physical disability.

Flame was founded in 2003 after frontwoman Michelle King entered the annual talent show at the Lexington Center, a nonprofit organization in Gloversville, N.Y. that supports people with developmental disabilities and their families.

King sang The Carpenter’s “Rainy Days and Mondays,” which Lexington public relations director Tim Fiori told Metroland “just blew everyone away.”

Her performance was so good that the director was inspired to help put together a band at Lexington. Fioro recruited David LaGrange, a mentally challenged and blind individual who handles the drums and backup vocals, and auditions were held for the additional spots in the band.

One of the custodians taught King how to play guitar and “within two weeks, the whole band was formed,” Fiori told the paper. The band’s name was dreamed up by LaGrange as a nod to the Special Olympics torch.

King, who’s in charge of lead vocals and guitar, is mentally challenged and has autism. According to the Times Union, when King was five years old, a doctor told her mother Mary that she was “completely retarded.” Although at the time she only talked by repeating words spoken to her, she had been singing since she was three years old.

In a November 2009 segment on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Mary King said that Flame has been a lifesaver for her daughter.

The band has helped Michelle, who lives with her mother, take care of many tasks for herself including cooking, doing her own laundry and taking public transportation.

“They have done, I just don’t know how to explain, so much that they have done for her. Brought her out so much, her speech and being able to cope with other people,” Mary told “Good Morning America.”

The Times Union notes that Flame has also given King the confidence to interact with the crowd during shows. When the band first started the recreation director was forced to announce each song while King stood in the background.

“I think her place is the stage,” Mary told the Times Union. “I think she’s reached her place in the world where she wants to be.”

“Good Morning America” says that LaGrange, who loves rocking out to bands like Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC, “credits the band with giving him a kind of family he never hand.”

Shawn Lehr, who has Down Syndrome, shares percussion duties in the band with Paul Zuckerwar. Lehr’s mother told the Times Union that despite years of attending special schools and speech therapy, he had never uttered a complete sentence that was understandable until he had been playing in the band for a few years. The first sentence she understood was Lehr saying, “Mom, the band is playing in New Jersey.”

Flame also includes band members with other disabilities including cerebral palsy, paralysis and mental retardation.

After initially booking gigs around town, Flame averages more than 90 paid performances per year. There’s no gig too big or small for the band, from giving back to the community by playing libraries and nursing homes to performing at May 28’s Apollo Theatre Awards Event at the famed venue in Harlem.

In late 2008 Flame played at the International Conference on Disability Legislation in Athens, Greece. Last year King was invited to sing two songs at Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s private wake, drawing praise from an audience that included Oprah Winfrey.

Flame currently has gigs booked through a December 10 performance at Amsterdam Festival of Trees in Amsterdam, N.Y.

Additional shows include the United Way Fundraiser at Gloversville High School in N.Y. (April 23), the James L Maher Center at Fort Adam Park in Newport, R.I. (June 25), ADA Celebration with Liberty Resources at Independence Hall & Liberty Park in Philadelphia (July 26) the Schoharie County Sunshine Fair in Cobleskill, N.Y. (Aug. 4) and Dream Ride at the Farmington Club in Connecticut (Aug. 22).