The Swan Song Of A Teenage Ukulele Master

Mr. KILLIAN MANSFIELD (Singer): (Singing) You don't have to be beautiful to turn me on.

RAZ: A young, ukulele-playing prodigy by the name of Killian Mansfield is the voice you're hearing. He's singing the classic Prince song, "Kiss." It's off his debut record called "Somewhere Else," and sadly, it was Killian Mansfield's last album, as well.

Last August, at age 16, Killian Mansfield succumbed to a rare form of cancer he'd been battling since the age of 11. But about six months beforehand, he decided to fulfill one final wish: to record an album with his musical heroes. And the result is an eclectic collection of folk blues and rock songs performed by musicians like John Sebastian, from the Lovin' Spoonful; Dr. John and the B-52's Kate Pierson.

Killian's mom, Barbara Mansfield, helped wrangle many of those artists, including Laurel Masse, one of the founders of the Manhattan Transfer. She met Killian a few years earlier when he attended a music camp in the Catskills. I spoke with the two women a few days ago about the project, and Barbara began by describing the kind of kid Killian was.

Ms. BARBARA MANSFIELD: He was a funny guy and a very artistic person and someone who was mortified that he would ever be defined by the disease that so preoccupied everyone else about him for the last five years of his life.

RAZ: Laurel Masse, how did you come across Killian and his mother, Barbara Mansfield, the Mansfield family?

Ms. MASSE: I'm one of the instructors at Jay Ungar and Molly Mason's Swing Music Camp. And Killian first showed up three years ago. I mean, he was clearly already ill, and he was not stopped by that at all. And because he was not stopped by that at all, the people around him were not stopped by that at all.

RAZ: Tell me about where the idea for this record, "Somewhere Else," came from. How did it come about?

Ms. MANSFIELD: Killian had spent a horrendous hospitalization, during which time we thought that he would not be coming home from the hospital.

RAZ: This is back in 2008.

Ms. MANSFIELD: Yeah - October of 2008. And during that hospitalization, I clearly remember him playing his ukulele for a lot of patients there and having a little bit more fun than I think he was supposed to after he recovered.
Unfortunately, after that, he went right into hospice. So somewhere between recovering and knowing that he was going into hospice, he was doing a lot of music around the hospital, and he said, I want to do it. I'm just going to play the cancer card here. I want to do an album. I want to get a lot of famous people. I want it to benefit the integrative therapies that have so helped me, and I just - I want to do it fast.

RAZ: You've talked about this term - and you use this term, the cancer card. And he actually would use this in a sort of a tongue-in-cheek way.

Ms. MANSFIELD: Mm-hmm. And sometimes he would even go...
(Soundbite of coughing)
(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASSE: Poor Killian. Poor Killian.

Ms. MANSFIELD: He was very naughty.

RAZ: When you look at the liner notes to this record, it describes how all these songs relate to different parts of Killian's life.

Ms. MANSFIELD: Well, more specifically, in his plan, it was all about weaving it into integrative medicine. The field of integrative medicine is about incorporating things like acupuncture, massage therapy, nutrition, into the whole care.
So, for instance, he has his song that he picked out, "Fishin' Blues," and we didn't even know at the time that John Sebastian did a version of that - had done so a long time ago with the Lovin' Spoonful - and his idea was to use that as an explanation for what it feels like to get acupuncture. It kind of feels like an electrical impulse in the muscles when it begins to work, and he said he always thought that felt like going fishing.
(Soundbite of song, "Fishin' Blues")

Mr. JOHN SEBASTIAN (Singer): (Singing) Come on, baby, come on down. I'm goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin', and you can come fishin' too.

RAZ: Laurel Masse, I want to talk about the song that you recorded with Killian on the album, Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies."
(Soundbite of song, "Blue Skies")

Ms. MASSE: (Singing) Blue skies smiling at me, nothing but blue skies do I see.

RAZ: And of course, that's Killian's ukulele in the background. Laurel Masse, what do you remember about the recording sessions with Killian?

Ms. MASSE: The session? It was just easy. I'd already known him for a little while so I felt really comfortable with him at all times. It was a remarkable quality that he had.

RAZ: Barbara Mansfield, I can only imagine how sort of difficult it must have been emotionally during those recording sessions, I mean, the sort of the highs and lows of that period of time. What was the - sort of the mood and the atmosphere during that period?

Ms. MANSFIELD: Well, Killian set a really high bar. And it was a bar that was clearly defined by determination. And one of the later - the last recording session was Levon Helm's studio. That was a difficult day because Killian was so excited, and Levon was so warm and wonderful.
But Killian was in a lot of pain, and he barely got through playing the ukulele. There was a lot of weighing in my mind of how much morphine to administer so that he could still be present for the experience but to mitigate the pain, and that was hard.
(Soundbite of song, "Fire in My Pocket")
Unidentified Man #1 (Singer): (Singing) If I had money in my pocket.
Unidentified People: (Singing) Oh, yeah.
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Some money in pocket.
Unidentified People: Oh, yeah.
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) If I had money in my pocket, money in my pocket, I could buy her love tonight.

RAZ: And that's "Fire In My Pocket" on the record. At that point, you all knew that he might not make it. I mean, there was a kind of a sense of urgency in getting this finished.

Ms. MANSFIELD: Oh, yeah.

RAZ: Were you ever worried that you wouldn't actually finish it in time?

Ms. MANSFIELD: Yeah. I thought that there was a good chance that it wouldn't be finished. And it was actually sort of miraculous that he got to hear and touch the album before he died.

RAZ: Barbara Mansfield, why did Killian call this record "Somewhere Else"?

Ms. MANSFIELD: He wanted to have a group of songs that were transporting to anyone who listened and were not about being in a bad place or not expressing what it was like to be in a bad place but about, you know, being somewhere else.
When that came about, I immediately had an idea about the title song, and I asked him if he would let me write one. And he said, as long as it's one of your blues songs, because I don't like the other ones.
(Soundbite of song, "Somewhere Else")
Unidentified Woman #1 (Singer): (Singing) I'm going fishing on Jupiter. The air is ever so clean and clear. I love the way that the morning (unintelligible). I am somewhere else.

Ms. MANSFIELD: The lyrics, I'm going fishing on Jupiter, was a story that he and I liked a lot. There was a film star, Lash La Rue, and when Lash was, I think fading in his final years, somebody asked him: what do you want to do, Lash? And he said: I want to go fishing on Jupiter.

RAZ: The last track on the record is the other track where Killian sang lead vocals, and he originally didn't want his voice on this.
(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MANSFIELD: No. He was such a pain in the ass about that.
(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASSE: Can we say that on the radio?

Ms. MANSFIELD: He sort of just had gotten over the point where his voice was changing. And I think he was a little self-conscious about the way his voice sounded.

RAZ: It was changing because of the tumors in his throat.

Ms. MANSFIELD: Well, there was that, but he just got over puberty.

RAZ: Oh, yeah.

Ms. MANSFIELD: So, you know, there was the changes that happen to every young man. And there was substantial obstacles in terms of the growth of the tumors in his mouth and his throat, and that made it, you know, difficult. But I think it was his perception of his voice that he struggled with.
(Soundbite of song, "If I Can Dream")

Mr. MANSFIELD: (Singing) If I can dream of a better land where all my brothers walk hand in hand, why, oh why, oh why can't my dreams come true.

RAZ: It's a song that was written by Walter Earl Brown but made famous, of course, by Elvis Presley. And it's probably appropriate that we're going to end the show today with this song because it's inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. Can you tell us about how Killian became a fan of this song, "If I Can Dream"?

Ms. MANSFIELD: He was playing this when he was told he was told he was going to be entering hospice care during that terrible hospitalization in October of 2008. And he was screaming this song at the top of his lungs. And when we talked about it, he was attracted because he said, Elvis sounds so wrecked and barely there in it, and yet it's such a strong song.
(Soundbite of song, "If I Can Dream")

RAZ: That's Barbara Mansfield and Laurel Masse, speaking about the record "Somewhere Else," a project put together by musician Killian Mansfield, who died last August.
Barbara Mansfield, Laurel Masse, thank you so much.

Ms. MANSFIELD: Thank you.

Ms. MASSE: And thank you.
(Soundbite of song, "If I Can Dream")

Mr. MANSFIELD: (Singing) But as long as a man has the faith to dream, he can receive his soul and can fly.

RAZ: You can hear full versions of several songs off the album and learn more about the Killian Mansfield Foundation at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song, "If I Can Dream")

Mr. MANSFIELD: (Singing) Still I am sure that the answer, answer's gonna come somehow. Out there in the dark there's a beckoning candle, yeah. And while I can think...

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for listening and have a great week.