You cannot miss Marvin Parks. First impressions are of an exuberant, joyous, booming personality – and that’s before he sings! For the last two years his soulful voice has filled the corridors of various Parisian metro stations touching hundreds of commuters.
Born and raised in Baltimore in the tradition of the American gospel choir singers, Marvin started singing at the age of five. “Our whole family was raised in the church. I lived with my grandmother and my mom. We went to church every Sunday and I sang on the choir. Going to choir practice every Saturday for years was my version of soccer practice.” His mother was a big fan of Motown, gospel and soul music and, yes, she named him after Marvin Gaye. Marvin grew up listening to his mother’s music collections and he knew all the entertainers, but he had a revelation when he saw a documentary on Nat King Cole: “Here I am, fifteen years old, on my grandmother’s sofa, seeing him singing ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ on television, in a suit. Tall dapper, debonair… I didn’t say ‘I want to be a famous singer’, I said ‘I have to learn those songs, I want to be like him.’ He left such an impression on me. His voice was absolutely flawless, like I’d never heard before.”
In high school Marvin took part in a competition called ACT-SO. “It’s like an educational and cultural Olympics. That was the first time I’d ever sung in public outside of church. I did that and I won first place singing ‘Nature Boy’. After that I just knew that I wanted to be a Jazz singer.”
He went on to win many other competitions and in 2007 he moved to New York to sing backing for Jazz cabaret singer Natalie Douglas. “I was always singing, but when you’re trying to get by you have jobs, and I’ve had plenty of them!” After one particularly frustrating job experience Marvin decided to take a vacation and he came to Paris.
He originally planned to stay three weeks, but two weeks into his stay he decided he wouldn’t be going back “Instinctively it just felt like this was where I needed to be.” The first time he sang in the metro was when an ATM swallowed his debit card and he had no money. “I thought, the only thing I know how to do is sing. So I took a bowl and I went to the metro and I started singing ‘Smile’ over and over again. I wasn’t really trying to make money I was just trying to get five euros to buy myself some pasta for dinner.” People would stop to talk to him and ask him questions about himself and about the songs. For Marvin it was much more than just performing, “I saw it as an opportunity to reach out to people.”
Following that experience, Marvin decided to audition for a permit to sing in the metro on a regular basis. “ If you can sing in the metro you can do it anywhere.” One of his regular haunts is the station La Motte-Picquet-Grenelle where he likes the hallways’ acoustics. “I’ve been here so often I have a relation with a lot of the people who pass through; people going to work, going to school, even the controllers know me by name now and the guy who cleans the hallway at night. Sometimes I wear a suit and tie, and that confuses people!”
Today, despite singing in clubs, and even having signed a record deal with an Italian label, he admits he still enjoys the metro experience. “I get to reach out to everyday people. It’s not making me rich, but it is making me a name. I wish I could package that moment when someone stops and turns around. When I get to shake hands with people, look them in the eye, introduce myself to them and make a one on one appeal to them to follow me on social media…They won’t forget me.”
If your paths don’t cross in the metro, and you would like to hear Marvin, from April he will be holding monthly jam sessions at the Sunset Sunside Jazz Club in Paris’ first arrondissement and on April 25th he will be performing “A Celebration of the American Song Book” on the Peniche Marcounet.