Keva Skog, 67, of Spokane, suffers from diabetes. She has had two strokes. She can walk slowly around her South Hill home with a cane.
Maybe life has lost a little of its sharp focus in recent years, yet two of her most precious possessions remain clear enough: her memories and her voice.
That voice - a coloratura soprano, once spanning 3-1/2 octaves - provides the soundtrack to many of her memories, both the thrilling ones and the tragic ones.
The voice has soared through London’s famous Wigmore Hall. It has wafted through a recital hall in The Hague, Netherlands. Yet it has also floated, not so happily, over the psychiatric wards of Eastern State Hospital.
Today, the voice still rings out on Mondays and Wednesdays during the sing-alongs at the adult day care she attends.
“They have a pianist there,” she said. “I can still sing, but not quite the same range. Oh, we have quite a time.”
Caption to a New York Times photo, Sept. 1947: “Two years ago, Keva Goff, now 18, was singing in a high school choir at Spokane, Wash. Tonight at the Wigmore Hall in London, she was singing in her first recital in England. Miss Goff, who is hailed in the States as the new Deanna Durbin, turned down a screen test to come to London.”
Excerpt from London’s The Star newspaper, Sept. 1947:
“Her home town, Spokane, Washington, has already given one star to the screen - Bing Crosby - but Miss Goff decided she could wait a little before following Mr. Crosby to Hollywood.
‘I want to make my name as a concert singer first,’ she said.”
Excerpt from a London review of the Wigmore Hall concert (newspaper unknown), reprinted in The Spokesman-Review, Sept. 1947:
“In a voice of natural purity, possessing a good quality even in the lower register, she not only captivated the audience with various excerpts from Italian opera, but she sang Mozart’s ‘Alleluia’ impressively, showing flexibility and good control. All the other songs were well interpreted and once her voice has fully matured, this young artist should go far.”
How far did this young artist’s career go?
One concert further.
Two weeks after that review, her international concert career was essentially over even though it took years for the realization to set in.
But what a remarkable beginning.
Keva Goff, now Keva Skog, came by her love of music naturally.
Her mother was a concert pianist. Keva never cared much for the piano, but a succession of choral teachers spurred her interest in singing. At Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, her singing earned her a prestigious prize.
“One teacher there put me in for the National Music Camp, at Interlochen, Mich.,” she said.
She won the audition in 1944, attended the camp and never came back to Lewis and Clark (although she eventually earned a G.E.D.). Instead, Keva went to New York, where she studied under Dr. William P. Herman, well known at the time as the teacher of another singing star from Spokane, Patrice Munsel.
Keva was accompanied by her mother, Frankie Robinson, who by now was doing everything she could to advance Keva’s career. Her husband, Keva’s stepfather, was financing the trips and the lessons.
“Everything they did was geared around her career,” said Keva’s oldest son, Steve. “They were the driving force behind it. Once she got it going, it kind of steamrolled.”
When Keva turned 18 in 1947, she embarked on her debut concert tour with her mother as accompanist. Keva toured several U.S. cities and was scheduled for a Hollywood screen test. But her mother fell ill; Keva had to cancel the screen test.
When her mother recovered, they were off to London, the first stop in an extensive tour of Europe.
“It was quite a thrill,” said Keva. “It was fun to drive down to London and see those billboards with my picture on them.”
She went to a theater premiere attended by Prime Minister Clement Atlee. She met Mae West at the Savoy Hotel.
A New York Times photographer in London took her picture with Mae West, captioning it as “The old and the new.” West was in London producing “Diamond Lil.”
Pictures and stories about Keva appeared in The Times of London and the Daily Express. She even made news in the London papers when she slipped while crossing a street and cut her knee (“Girl Soprano Injures Knee” read one headline). The cut was not serious.
The concert at Wigmore Hall was well-received. In fact, the BBC immediately asked her to sing for a broadcast, but she had to turn down the invitation because she was on her way to The Netherlands.
Her recital at The Hague on Oct. 1, 1947, turned out to be the final concert of the tour and the final major one of her life.
“Mom got sick again, and we had to leave and come home,” said Keva. “We came home on the Queen Mary.”
Her mother was ill on and off from a variety of ailments (although she did not die until about two years ago), but at the time, everybody felt that this would be only a temporary setback in her European tour.
“I was hoping to go back, but …,” said Keva, letting the thought linger.
When asked what happened, she gives this answer: “I made the bad mistake of getting married out of spite.”
Her mother had ordered her not to get married; to concentrate on her career at all costs. It was the wrong thing to say to Keva.
“They had a real love-hate relationship,” said Steve. “Oil and water. Anything my grandmother would say, she would do the opposite.”
She had known her future husband, John Harold Skog, in school in Spokane, but it wasn’t until he was living in Lynnwood that the romance began to ripen. She was singing in a Philharmonic Orchestra and Choral Society concert at Meany Hall at the University of Washington, and he saw her picture in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He called her up, she left him a ticket, and they met after the concert.
They were married the next year, 1950, at the First Baptist Church in Spokane.
Her mother may have been right, in this case. The marriage spelled the end of Keva’s professional concert career, but she didn’t realize it until later.
“The original plan was that he was going to be my manager,” said Keva. “But the day we got married (on the drive home) he said, ‘I got news for you: Your music comes second and your marriage comes first.’ He said he didn’t like being called ‘Keva’s husband.’ So I gave up my career to be a mother.”
Within six years, she had five babies. Her marriage was already foundering.
The marriage lasted 12 years, but her husband had left long before the divorce became official.
Her friends were already convinced that she was a “magnet for bad luck.” And then came the most difficult and wrenching time of her entire life.
“I had to put my kids in an orphanage for a while, and I ended up out at Eastern State Hospital,” she said.
“A breakdown,” she said. “It was rough, to go from being on top of the world to a mental institution.”
The pressures in her life had simply become too heavy to handle. Her bad marriage was only one of the causes.
“There was also a lot of pressure on her from my grandmother,” said Steve, a second-grader at the time. “Plus, we were five very active children.
“Being a single, divorced parent was not very accepted. And we were on welfare, which was another strike against us. People were cruel.”
“You can’t take a person’s art, a gift like she had, away from a person without really affecting her psychologically,” said Barbara Top Rockwood, her accompanist for many years and the longtime organist at Manito Presbyterian Church.
In any case, she was voluntarily admitted to Eastern State.
Her ex-husband was, by this time, “out of the picture,” said Steve. Keva’s mother felt that having five little kids “would have cramped her lifestyle completely,” he said. So all five children ended up in the St. Joseph’s Children’s Home in Spokane. In a life with a number of hard knocks, this was the hardest. Yet in the hospital Keva turned to an old comfort to see her through - her voice.
“I was real, real lucky, because out there I had a volunteer worker who was working with the entertainment,” she said. “And she got me singing out there. So we would go out to all of the wards and sing.”
“The other patients - they were in awe,” said Steve.
After a year of counseling and respite, she was able to leave the hospital and get her children back. She did not resume anything like a professional concert career, yet she could not stop singing.
“Those are what I call her honky-tonkin’ days,” said Steve, now an employee of the city of Spokane Water Department. “She and four or five other people would gather around a piano (in a local restaurant-lounge) and sing old standards or whatever anybody requested. They’d spend the night around that old piano and sing all night long.
“That was one of the highlights of her life with us.”
“She’d sing whatever she knew the words to,” said Dee Howard (formerly Dee Garrett), the piano player. “She’d even sing ‘Roll Out the Barrel.”’
Keva also sang regularly in the Manito Presbyterian Church Choir.
“She had a large voice, a brilliant voice,” said Rockwood, who made many tapes of Keva’s singing.
“You could hear her above everybody,” said Steve. “She had a voice that carried above that whole choir.”
“She sang at an awful lot of weddings and funerals,” said Kevin Skog, her youngest son.
In fact, she was at her happiest when standing in front of a crowd, a piano at her side.
“You’d get her in front of a microphone and she was this dominant, amazing person who could blow the doors off a room,” said her daughter, Cheryl Gustafson of Bingen, Wash.
She successfully raised all five children, often on welfare, but her struggles were not over.
For a time later in her life, Keva became a virtual shut-in. She hardly ever stepped foot out of her home, the same one she was raised in.
“I don’t know if it was a state of depression or what, but she spent most of her time in the kitchen,” said Steve. “I hate to say it, but that house was like a tomb for her.”
All of her children tried to talk her into getting back into singing.
“But she never pursued it, which was really a shame,” said Steve. “She would have been a whole lot better off emotionally.”
And then came the strokes.
She spent some time in rehabilitation after the last one, but now, mostly recovered, she sees only the bright side.
“After this last stroke, I came to realize how fortunate I am,” she said. “I can walk. I can reason. I can talk and carry on a conversation.
“A lot of those people up there (at her adult day care) - they have had strokes that have affected their minds.”
Her middle son, Jim, a trucker, came from Texas to move in with her, which allows her to stay at home and stay independent. And the two of them even go out on weekend adventures.
“Jim and I bought an old beat-up motor home,” she said, beaming. “We went to see the fireworks at Grand Coulee Dam. We just get in that little beat-up motor home and away we go.”
And sometimes, as she did recently at an old friend’s birthday, she even gets dressed up, stands next to a piano, and lets that soprano voice soar once again.
She even toys with the idea of getting seriously back into singing. She says she would like to concentrate on sacred music. She draws comfort from those songs of spiritual strength.
In fact, today Keva seems to be at peace with life.
Yet when looking through her scrapbook, she still has some regrets about the places her career could have taken her. She still remembers the missed screen test in Hollywood, the missed auditions on Broadway.
“I could have had a real good career in musical comedy,” she said. “I was just getting started.”
“I have no doubt in my mind that she could have succeeded,” said Steve. “She had the talent, that’s for sure.”
“Her voice came right from God,” said Cheryl.
Recently, her old friend Barbara Rockwood heard something that made her think once more of her old friend; it made her think back to that glorious gift that Keva once possessed.
“I heard (opera superstar) Kathleen Battle singing Mozart’s ‘Alleluia,”’ said Rockwood. “All I could think of was, ‘Keva should be singing that.”’
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 photos (1 color)
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