When drummer Nate Morton was a student at Oakland Mills High School in the '80s, his dream was to one day play on stage at Columbia's Toby's Dinner Theatre.
Employed as a dishwasher at the venue, Morton recalls stealing glances at the performers through a crack in the kitchen doorway while he worked.
"I fantasized that one day, if I was lucky, I'd be fortunate enough to play there," Morton said.
Morton, 42, never made it on stage at Toby's, but he has done OK for himself. The Columbia native and graduate of Berklee College of Music has toured with Paul Stanley of the band KISS, was the regular drummer for Cher during a stint in Las Vegas and played with Madonna at the 2002 Grammy Awards.
For the past three years, Morton has served as house drummer for NBC's popular vocal competition show, "The Voice," which aired its season six finale on Tuesday night. (The show has seasons in the spring and fall.)
And while Morton's drumming career has taken him across the country, including multiple stops at Merriweather Post Pavilion, he'll never forget that it began in Columbia.
Morton cites a chance encounter with a fellow Oakland Mills student as the trigger for the series of events that led him to become a professional musician. Morton said he was practicing one day in the school's band room when he caught the ear of a fellow student, who approached Morton about coming to his house for a jam session that weekend.
Morton, who was primarily a pianist at the time, said he was caught off guard.
"I didn't know what that meant," he said about the invitation to jam. "I'd never played with anyone before. So that weekend my mom helped me pack my drums into her '78 Pontiac Firebird and we went to this guy's house."
Morton said there was an immediate connection, and that the pair played until Howard County police, responding to neighbor's complaints, told them to stop.
The fellow student was David Sitek, who went on to become a renowned music producer and founder of the band, TV on the Radio. Morton and Sitek would go on to form a garage band called Akamilli, which played shows around Columbia and Baltimore.
"It was the doorway, it was the outlet," Morton said of the band.
Morton credits one Akamilli performance, during an Oakland Mills High School talent show, as particularly impactful.
"The overwhelming amount of acceptance from my peers was really great," Morton said. "That talent show was a major turning point for me. That was really the catalyst for what I really wanted to do."
Morton credits Grant Menefee, a Catonsville-based music teacher, as one of the first people to give him the tools to "make a go of" a career in music.
Menefee recalls Morton as a natural drummer and quick learner.
"He was soaking it up like a sponge," Menefee said. "He really enjoyed playing music, and really worked hard. He enjoyed it to the point that I thought this is what's going to make him happy."
Morton also credits Irvin Madden, a local bassist who would call Morton to play gigs when he was first starting out in high school.
Madden, who also works at Custom Tailors of Columbia in the Columbia Mall, said Morton would come by the shop after school to pick his brain about music.
"Nate was a pain in the butt," Madden said, jokingly. "But I liked his spirit, so anything he wanted to know I told him."
Madden liked Morton's maturity, which is why he invited him to paying gigs around Baltimore.
"He has known what he was going to do from an early age," he said.
If you ask Morton's parents, Cornel and Regena, they'll tell you Nate's drumming dates back to when he was a toddler.
"Nathaniel was banging on pots and pans when he was just 2 year old," Cornel said.
Cornel said it was Regena's idea to get him into music, which started out with piano lessons.
"We thought we had the next Andre Watts," Cornel said. "Turns out we got a rock star."
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