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Student composer writes tribute to cycling champ Lance Armstrong

Melissa Mitchell, U. of I. News Bureau arts writer


Wes Alexander
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross
Wes Alexander has written “Mr. Armstrong” as “a tribute song – not only to Lance [Armstrong] as a cancer survivor, or as a cyclist, but also as a human being.” The message, underscored in the song’s chorus, is simple, he said: “We need a hero in these times.”

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As Lance Armstrong pedals on in pursuit of his seventh consecutive Tour de France championship title, Wes Alexander is cheering on the celebrated cyclist/cancer survivor with a title of his own: a song title, that is.

And so far, the song – called “Mr. Armstrong” – is taking the 22-year-old college student/composer from Wilmette, Ill., for the ride of his life.

A senior majoring in music composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Alexander describes “Mr. Armstrong” as “a tribute song – not only to Lance as a cancer survivor, or as a cyclist, but also as a human being.” The message, underscored in the song’s chorus, is simple, he said: “We need a hero in these times.”

And while the main theme may be simple, the songwriter said he hopes his lyrics also will reveal some “hidden messages” for listeners as well. For instance, “Instead of trying to glorify Lance Armstrong, I wanted to bring him down to a human level. And I wanted to emphasize how he leads by example, but also tries to show people how to be their own heroes.”

The respect demonstrated in the song’s title is no accident, he added. “I wanted to say that if anyone should have respect, it’s him; not just because he’s a celebrity-athlete, but because of his many roles, as a father, as a cancer survivor and organizer.”

Alexander wrote his song last summer. This summer, it will be heard by the thousands of participants in the 2005 Chicago Bike to Fight Cancer event Sunday (July 24), organized by the Chicago Peloton of the Lance Armstrong Foundation. The Chicago Peloton is one of several regional fund-raising organizations associated with the foundation; the French word “peloton” is a cycling term for a dense pack of riders.

That event, which benefits the foundation and the Carley Cancer Research Core Facility at Northwestern University’s Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, begins and ends at Soldier Field and also includes a “spin-a-thon” for stationary-bike riders, which will take place at gyms throughout the city and in front of NBC’s Studio 5 at 401 N. Michigan Ave.

Along with raising funds for cancer research, participants will be among the first members of the general public to road test “Mr. Armstrong.”

“The song will be played at various booths along the bike route, and if people like it, they’ll be able to buy CDs at all these places,” Alexander said.

A more private debut took place last October, when the song was played during a dinner hosted by the Chicago LAF Peloton for Mr. Armstrong himself. Alexander’s academic schedule prevented him from attending the event; nonetheless, he was encouraged by second-hand reports of the guests’ reactions.

“People freaked out when they heard it,” he said. “I guess it was the right karma, or something, because I was told people were crying, and Lance Armstrong started clapping.”

Since then, LAF officials have continued to express interest in Alexander’s efforts, he said.

Still, plenty of heavy lifting remains for the young composer, who is learning first-hand what it takes to move a recording project along through multiple stages of development – from conception to the marketplace.

He credits his father, Michael Alexander, for the first major assist on that path.

“I was playing gigs all over the Chicago area last summer in a band I helped develop – in bars, coffee shops, farmer’s markets, beach parties, everywhere we could get an audience. My dad saw that we had zero following, so as time went along, he told me, ‘Your strength is songwriting, not performing; you should write about a current issue where you have an opportunity to communicate a positive message.”

And that wasn’t the only tip offered by Alexander the elder.

“My dad worships Lance Armstrong,” he said. “So every day, he kept bugging me to write a song about him.” The son finally took the father’s bait, then sat down at the piano and played the resulting piece for his dad.

“At first he didn’t talk,” Alexander said. “Then he just started flipping out. “He said, ‘That’s it! That’s the song!’ ”

Unable to contain his excitement, the proud dad played the song for everyone who would listen, including Chris Carley, chairman of the Chicago LAF Peloton. Carley told the Alexanders that if they had the song produced, he would play it for Armstrong.

So, that’s what they did, with assistance from Chicago-based jazz pianist and producer Jim Trompeter. Alexander said Trompeter brought in “top people” to produce the demo, which features vocalist Cheryl Wilson, who is known in recording circles for her work as a background vocalist and advertising-jingle singer.

The next stop on Alexander’s uphill ride to his own personal finish line is to shop the demo around and hopefully grab the interest of a major recording artist who shares his altruistic goals of recording the song and donating a percentage of any profits to the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

In the meantime, Alexander – who graduates from the U. of I. in August – is looking forward to his first post-graduation gig: an internship with Jim Tullio, a nationally known composer/lyricist/producer who maintains a home base in Alexander’s hometown. Tullio co-produced the W.C. Handy Award-winning album “Have a Little Faith” (Alligator) with Mavis Staples and co-wrote the title track, which was named Blues Song of the Year for 2005 by the Blues Foundation.

Alexander likes that his commute to Tullio’s studio, just a few miles from his home, will be an easy one – by bicycle.