Sully Erna’s “Unforgettable” School of Rock
Godsmack is one of rock’s most successful and enduring bands and its frontman has Granite State roots. Here’s how founder Sully Erna rose from student in the school of hard knocks to tenured professor in the school of rock
Photos by Renée Deal and Grant Jensen
The video begins with a question: “What is music to you?” Then a line of students files into a school auditorium. The stage is dim, holding only a solitary person, an American flag and a wooden stool. When the room is full, the figure on stage, wiry and intense, raises a microphone. He looks small as he paces within the huge proscenium, but when he begins to speak his words ring with authority.
“Having music in your life is something that is extremely powerful and should never be taken for granted,” says Sully Erna. “So, embrace this gift you have. Whether you listen to it or you create it, it is truly a universal miracle.”
Erna’s dark eyes soften as they survey his audience. It took some miracles for him to be where he is today, looking down on this colorful, disheveled mass of youth looking up to him. Erna grew up as a hard-luck kid in nearby Lawrence, Massachusetts, taking every wrong direction he could — drugs, liquor, gangs, crime — but he speaks now with the prestige we grant to our cultural heroes. He’s been the founder, front man and songwriter for mega-rock-band Godsmack for more than two decades.
Erna points a finger and sweeps his tattooed arm toward the crowd of attentive faces. “And I’m going to show you how powerful it can be when we do it together,” he says with a grin, then pounces off the stage and strolls toward the students to offer some high-fives and lead them into their big adventure.
Suddenly a drumbeat begins, building to a bone-throbbing pulse as scenes of the students practicing and joking with members of Godsmack appear on screen. It’s clear that what’s unfolding is both a documentary and a rock music video when Sully Erna’s voice, plaintive and arresting, soars over a swirling storm of guitar chords and bass notes:
Another change is coming
A separation from defiant
(To self-reliant baby)
I feel the weather breaking
It’s turning rain into fire
The saga of Godsmack’s No. 1 single “Unforgettable,” and the viral video (nearly two million views) it spawned, took root in that auditorium at the Gilbert H. Hood Middle School in Derry, where music teacher Kate Boisvert works. Boisvert says that she and colleague Blake Leister, from neighboring West Running Brook Middle School, had been contacted by Sue Centner, the director of Community Alliance for Teen Safety who had worked with Sully Erna on other projects. Neither teacher was exactly a Godsmack fan at the time, but the proposal was compelling. Erna had written a song for his band’s new album, but it wasn’t hitting the right emotional chords. He had reached out in search of a choir of young voices to accompany the band. Centner told Erna that the Derry schools had dedicated music departments and would “eat this up.”
“We each selected 10 students to be part of it,” says Boisvert, who teaches at Gilbert H. Hood. “They wanted kids who really had some sort of emotional connection,” she says, “not only talented but really caring about music.” She found a mix of boys and girls, while Leister had only girls in his contingent. Boisvert notes that middle school choruses are often lacking male voices. The chosen 20 were about to be taken on a musical field trip that they would never forget. And that trip turned out to be just the beginning.
Boisvert recalls how it unfolded. “We pulled up to an undisclosed location,” she says. “It looked like a loading dock with an unmarked door. That door led into the most beautiful space, a lounge area and kitchen for the band, and this amazing recording studio.” There were gold records and years of Godsmack memorabilia on the walls and the band’s collection of equipment set up to play. “For the kids it was like a tour of a miniature Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. They all had eyes like dinner plates.”
The kids met with Erna and the other band members and talked about the instruments used and the recording process. After some pointers from Erna on vocal recording, the kids laid down their background vocals. All were paid as performers and, when Erna told them their names would all appear on the album, “they were over the moon,” recalls Boisvert. “They were recording artists.”
At the release party for the album, titled “When Legends Rise,” the students were invited to attend with the band and crew and member of the music press. “They all got swag including signed copies of the album,” says Boisvert. “And when Sully told the kids he was bringing them out for the New Hampshire leg of the tour, the kids were just freaking out.”
True to his word, in late August 2018, Erna greeted the students once more, this time at the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion in Gilford where Godsmack was preparing for a sound check. “They got to go through security and got the celebrity treatment,” she says, including catering, volleyball and swimming before the show. “They felt like absolute rock stars for the day.” She notes that most of the time “they didn’t even have their cell phones out.”
That night, the kids waited offstage for their cue as the concert unfolded with Godsmack taking their fans aloft on the wings of loud, passion-filled rock. When the 20 students took the stage for the band’s performance of “Unforgettable,” Erna, proud as a papa, called into the microphone, “OK if we play a new one for you?” The cheers increased by decibels as he shouted, “New Hampshire, let us hear you!” Then the drum began its driving pulse and 20 voices united. Just as they had practiced and practiced, the sound of power poured out, the miraculous energy of music burst from 20 young hearts and souls as the kids joined the band in every emotional crescendo.
Bana Berhane had just recently moved across the country from the state of Washington when the opportunity to perform with Godsmack appeared. New in a new school and shy by nature, it was Boisvert who had gotten her into the chorus. “She always told me I was talented,” says Berhane. “She taught me to have more confidence in my voice and in myself as a person. If it wasn’t for her, I’d probably still be the shy girl, scared to do anything.”
Last year she competed in the New England Music Festival and won first place in her age group along with other awards.
She says she was so nervous that she had wanted to just leave as soon as she arrived, but her confidence was quickly boosted. During her evaluation performances, where the judges give tips to competitors, her rendition of Sia’s “Titanium” made one judge cry. She went on to try out for NH All-State Chorus, something she would never have attempted, and made it in on her first audition. But among her successes, the time she spent performing with Godsmack stands out. “I’ve never had an experience like that,” she says. “To be able to sing on an album and hear my voice played back, to sing at a concert for a huge bunch of people. It made me really happy.”
Boisvert says that while Berhane has a special talent, she hears this kind of story of how music changes lives quite a lot. “We can’t underestimate the impact, the benefits that children get through an arts education,” she says. “For so many kids, this is the only place they find success and these little successes mean they have a place to belong in school and in life.”
Adam Carvalho had already racked up some achievements when he took the musical field trip to Erna’s secret recording studio. He’s been doing mixed martial arts since he was 6, now practicing Muay Thai, kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at a dojo where he also works part time. “I don’t plan to get famous with music,” he says, “but I don’t think it will ever leave my life. It gives me energy and a place to let go.” Carvalho says he bonded with Erna and, while their upbringings were completely different, he understood the lessons Erna was imparting. “The biggest thing Sully taught me about music was the importance of what it makes you feel and what it means to you. He talked about how music brought him up from a dark, deep hole and saved him. It made me look into my life story and recognize how much a part of my life it is. When things get hard, I can plug my phone into my speakers, listen and sing along.”
Boisvert says that Erna has kept in touch with many of the original 20 performers, remaining supportive and inviting them into interviews. When Erna learned that Carvalho couldn’t return to the dojo to practice during the coronavirus lockdown, he had one of his crew drop off a martial arts punching bag at his house.
For all of the posturing and dramatics that seem to come with being a world-famous rock star, Boisvert says that Erna is, in a word: genuine. “He’s very easy to talk to, not elusive. He’s not a mysterious guy. His heart is on his sleeve.”
When Erna reconnected with Boisvert early this year, he needed her help again. The song he’d recorded and performed with the kids had been his choice as the first single from “When Legends Rise,” but three other songs had already risen to No. 1 on the rock charts. That was a career first for the band, but Erna still had hopes for “Unforgettable” and was ready to produce a video to help launch it. He had booked the state’s largest indoor concert venue, the SNHU Arena in Manchester, brought in a film crew from Immortal Cinema International in Los Angeles, along with award-winning Director, Noah Berlow, and was planning something epic.
“He wanted to know how to get as many kids as possible to be a part of this,” says Boisvert. Between the music departments of Gilbert H. Hood and West Running Brook, they were able to round up 400 music students and bus them to the arena. The original 20 chorus kids, now in high school, were there and all the students had been primed, she says, knowing they might be interviewed about the importance of music in their lives. “They were excited to share their stories,” says Boisvert, “not just with the video journalists, but with each other from two schools and three different grades.” It was also a mix of cliques. “Chorus and band kids don’t always get together,” she notes.
After a pep talk from Erna, the instrumentalists from the schools got to work with the band, learning not just notes, but attitude and style. “They basically all got private lessons on how to play this music, how to hold the bass to alleviate wrist cramp, how the whole group could play that cadence,” Boisvert says.
When Berlow’s crew began filming, the kids seemed electrified, she says. “Cameras everywhere and drones flying around, they were singing and playing their hearts out. You can see it in their faces. They really learned what kind of energy you need to perform. It was so monumental and the largeness of it was not lost on them.”
Apparently, it was not lost on the fans either. The video continues to be one of the band’s most-watched and the song has become Godsmack’s fourth No. 1 single from “When Legend’s Rise.”
Erna says that the event was just as important to him, getting to see kids come alive by becoming part of something larger than themselves. “I was most impressed with their mature responses to the question ‘What is music’ and what it means to them,” he says. “It’s fascinating to me how deeply music touches these kids and maybe how parents should pay more attention to how important it is and how much it means to them.”
Did he have any doubts about pulling off such a major feat, organizing 400 kids who are going through some of their toughest years, emotionally and behaviorally? “It doesn’t surprise me at all,” says Erna. “I’m just a giant kid myself. I actually assumed we were going to have a great time together. This is a vacation for them versus what they do in school.”
Erna says that Boisvert’s influence was felt throughout the yearslong undertaking. “She’s an incredible music teacher and one of the hidden heroes behind making all of this happen. From working with the kids to organizing everything with me to make sure it went as painlessly and smoothly as possible. She was an absolute dream to work with.”
He and the band taught the students so much in those sessions, so what was the takeaway for him? “That doing good things selflessly creates good energy and amazing results,” says Erna. “This video should be a lesson to everyone starting trouble around the country that good will always win over evil.”
My river’s overflowing
Into an endless sea of changes
(And rearranges baby)
I wanna break it open
I’m gonna take it to define it
(And realign it baby)
— From “Unforgettable” by Sully Erna and Godsmack