Grammy nominee trades stardom for spiritual life as synagogue’s cantor

ILLUSTRATION ERIC RADDATZ/ FLORIDA WEEKLY/ PHOTO BY VANDY MAJOR ILLUSTRATION ERIC RADDATZ/ FLORIDA WEEKLY/ PHOTO BY VANDY MAJOR The idea that a musician can be cool, have A-list celebrities like Madonna and Gloria Estefan for friends and be a devout Jewish man is not hard to imagine for Lawrence Dermer. It’s his life.

Brawny and soft-spoken, the music producer for pop sensations Madonna, Ms. Estefan, Jennifer Lopez and Diana Ross is a humble family man whose favorite thing to do is sing as a cantor in a small but growing synagogue in Fort Myers.

A man of diverse interests and loves, he seems to have no trouble tying it all together.

Mr. Dermer, who has spent time on “The Late Show with

David Letterman” and been whisked about in limos with Madonna, sings Jewish melodies and songs at Temple Beth El during Friday night services. There are no flashing lights, bodyguards or screaming fans. But the spiritual lift and support of the congregation is perhaps a wilder experience than his days and nights in the Miami fast lane.

Left: Cantor Lawrence Dermer has written or produced hits for artists such as Cher and Jennifer Lopez. VANDY MAJOR/ FLORIDA WEEKLY Left: Cantor Lawrence Dermer has written or produced hits for artists such as Cher and Jennifer Lopez. VANDY MAJOR/ FLORIDA WEEKLY “I love it,” he says. “I look forward to it every Friday night. After the service is done, I feel high.”

He’s been a cantor for the temple for only a few weeks. “He’s fun, he’s energetic, he’s inspiring,” says Rabbi Jeremy Barras, who invited Mr. Dermer to be the cantor at Temple Beth El. Rabbi Barras first saw and heard Mr. Dermer perform in Israel a few years go.

Mr. Dermer says he never expected to become a cantor, one who helps bring emotion, feeling and expression to Jewish services through music and song.

“I was completely surprised and honored,” he says about the invitation from Rabbi Barras.

Below: Congregants at Temple Beth El in Fort Myers Rather unconventional in his role, Rabbi Barras sees the value in putting a hip, musical and spiritual man in place as the temple’s cantor. The young, energetic clergyman wants to draw more young families to the temple.

But aside from musical talent, Rabbi Barras spotted something else in Mr. Dermer.

“Lawrence is a very spiritual guy,” he says. “This is perhaps in many ways where he’s meant to be.”

Mr. Dermer morphed back into his Jewish roots while in the middle of a rocking songwriter/producer career in Miami. A Grammy-nominated, BMI Award-winning producer, he left that life behind to lead a more spiritually fulfilling one in Fort Myers.

He and his wife Robin, his childhood sweetheart, hit a rough patch years ago, when their youngest daughter Alliya, 10, suffered some serious health problems. It made the couple search their souls and look for guidance outside of the limelight and bling.

“The show business life is hectic,” Mr. Dermer says. “It’s a pretty wacky lifestyle.”

While working full-time as a producer, he witnessed much dysfunction and sadness in the lives of the stars. Substance abuse and domestic problems all too often ruled the inner lives of celebrities who to the world seemed happy and fulfilled.

So for the man who helped write and produce such hits as Miami Sound Machine’s “Bad Boy,” which went platinum, and the group’s “Let it Loose” album, for which he received a Grammy nomination, Mr. Dermer was still missing something essential in his life.

His spiritual roots called to him.

He answered the call when he moved to Fort Myers and started writing, producing and singing Jewish music. He and his wife and their sons, Jaxson and Harrison, formed the band Third House Rising and produced their debut self-titled CD in 2007. “We Are Strong,” their second CD, was produced to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary two years ago. The lead song, a tribute to faith, peace and freedom, is bubbly, high-energy and arousing. Israeli singer Shlomo Gronich does English lyrics and backing vocals.

In addition to his work with Third House Rising, these days Mr. Dermer is also helping two teen boys produce a CD in Miami. These projects are part of his dream to integrate Jewish music and song into a more accessible way — the way he spent the 1980s working to assimilate Latin and Cuban music into the mainstream.

He sees his works as a cantor as a path he must take to bring about positive change for the Jewish people while fulfilling his own sense of purpose.

“It’s a blessing,” he says. “God puts things in your life. I always had a gift of music to bring joy into the world.” 

in the know

>> Among the hit albums containing compositions written and/or produced by Lawrence Dermer are:
• “On the Six,” Jennifer Lopez
• “Arrasando,” Thalia
• “The Essential,” Gloria Estefan
• “When Disaster Strikes,” Busta Rhymes
• “Evita” soundtrack, Madonna
• “Heart, Soul and a Voice,” Jon Secada
• “Feels So Good,” Lina Santiago
• “King of the Blues,” B.B. King
• “Swing Street,” Barry Manilow
• “Private Waters in the Great Divide,” Kid
Creole and the Coconuts
• “25th Anniversary Edition,” K.C. and the
Sunshine Band
• “Little Miss Dangerous,” Ted Nugent

Apr 21, 2008 –

Top US Songwriter Tunes-Up For Israel’s 60th Anniversary

It’s a familiar position for the 46-year-old, Florida-based Dermer, one of America’s most successful songwriters and producers. But instead of working on one of his Latin-pop mélanges for Gloria Estefan, Jennifer Lopez or Madonna that have won him Grammy nominations and Gold records, Dermer is arranging the verses for a song that’s part of his new CD, Israel@60 – We Are Strong.
Due to be released in time for the state’s 60th birthday celebrations next month, Israel@60 consists of songs Dermer co-wrote with his BMI award-winning songwriter wife, Robin, and features a collaboration with Gronich, as well as the voices of various groups of Israeli youth whom the Dermers recorded at sites throughout the country on a recent 10-day visit. The finished CD, supported by the Jewish Agency, Israir Airlines and the Daniel Hotels, will be available on iTunes and Amazon, with proceeds earmarked for several Israeli charities. w

Today, Dermer and Gronich are working out the vocal arrangements for “See Our Voice,” a song they composed together, while Robin is ensconced in a side room on her laptop, trying to write last-minute lyrics for another verse for the song.

Dermer moves into the soundproof recording booth and lays down a “scratch vocal,” meant to be a guide for harmonies and counter vocals, but he gives such a powerful performance on the bubbly, uplifting tune that he threatens to blow the windows out of the room.

Gronich barely controls himself by the mixing board, dancing in his seat and adding improvised harmonies to the vocal melody coming through the speakers.

“That was great, Lawrence… Do you think I should come in here, and do this line in Hebrew?” asks Gronich when Dermer steps out of the booth, and the two go back to scan the lyric sheet. All the while, every move is being documented by a videographer and still-photographer brought over by the Dermers from Florida for a DVD that will be released on an enhanced CD.

“The whole project began when I woke up one morning in December and had this sudden inspiration,” explained Robin, as the Dermers took a half-hour break from the recording process.

“I felt I wanted to write something to enable children of all backgrounds, regardless of where they’re from, to celebrate Israel. Lawrence said, ‘What a great idea – Israel is going to be 60, let’s write something.’ He sat at the piano for an hour, and out came ‘We Are Strong,’ and I wrote the lyrics just as quickly.”

The Dermers had the song, and knew they wanted to record it with Israeli children, but they didn’t know how to go about it. They turned to a friend, who contacted a Jewish Agency official, who fell in love with the project and pledged his cooperation.

“It snowballed from there – it went from one song to now a whole commemorative CD,” Robin said, adding that the goal of the record was to raise awareness of and create a positive opinion of Israel.
With their pop sensibilities, dancing beats and studio sheen, the songs possess a radio friendliness that Lawrence also sees as meant for another natural goal – airplay. “The songs aren’t esoteric, they’re accessible to all ages and walks of life,” he said.

And he should know. For the last three decades, Dermer has written and produced records for a who’s who of pop royalty, including Estefan, Lopez, Madonna, Lenny Kravitz and Barry Manilow, as well as producing two “pre-wardrobe malfunction” Super Bowl halftime shows.

“I began playing piano at six and joined my first garage band at 11,” he recalled. “For me, there was no distinction between a hobby and a career. It was always so much part of me. It was never a designation between a hobby and career – I did it for love. Then when I found out you could make money from it, it just made life so much easier.”

Dermer’s big break was meeting Estefan and her husband, Emilio, when they were still struggling musicians, performing at weddings and bar mitzvas in the early 1980s. Dermer, who was working as a session musician in Miami, played them some of his compositions, and had an integral role on the Miami Sound Machine CDs that launched Estefan’s success.

“That marriage of the roots of Cuban music and my American pop sensibilities was very successful. Those hits by Gloria opened a lot of doors for me, and I was able to approach other artists,” he said.
Dermer’s been in demand ever since, with Robin easing in over the years to take over writing the lyrics to his infectious melodies.

“Music flows out of me naturally, while lyrics are very laborintensive for me, but Robin’s words always echo my sentiment. So I can come up with some abstract music, and she’ll come up with beautiful lyrics – exactly what I wanted to say, except I can’t say it as well,” he said.
While Dermer’s Orthodox father was involved with smuggling weapons from New York to the Irgun during the British Mandate and Robin spent a high school semester in Hod Hasharon, the Jewish/Israeli content of their songs had remained ormant throughout their songwriting career. It was awakened by the rabbi of their congregation in Ft.Meyers, Florida.

“We had just returned from our first trip together as a family to Israel in 2006, and our rabbi who knew we were a musical family asked Lawrence to perform at a fund-raiser café night,” said Robin. “But we realized we didn’t have any Jewish-themed songs.”

They ended up writing and performing a batch of songs with names like “Neshama,” “Souls Live On” and “The Maker” along with their musically inclined teenage sons, Jaxson, 18, and Harrison, 16 – a project that was so well received that the family decided to develop it into Dermer’s first solo album, Third House Rising, which was released last year.

“We went home and looked at each other and said, we have the talent and the capability and the home recording studio. Let’s take this to the next level and let’s make a project that’s all of our musical styles – Hispanic, American, with Jewish values and roots,” said Lawrence, adding with a laugh, “We’re the new Partridge Family.”

That change in the mindset of their songwriting created the atmosphere and inspiration to enable We Are Strong to get off the ground, the Dermers agreed. And the serendipitous manner in which they found things falling into place leads them to believe they’re on the right path – like meeting up with Gronich.