Sandra Kilman, known professionally as Sandra Starks, is only a fourth-year music history student, but she has already had a decades-long successful music career.
She has toured with Lou Rawls and Robert Guillaume as a jazz singer, belting out the lyrics of duets like “The Wedding Song” on stages worldwide from Las Vegas to Kingston, Jamaica. She appeared in Rawls’ 1987 album “Family Reunion” as a background vocalist. She has stayed at the historic Watergate Hotel to meet and perform for former President Ronald Reagan.
Now, she sits in lecture halls, walks Bruin Walk and goes to office hours. Her goal: to complete the college education she postponed for more than 40 years.
Starks said her affinity for music started at an early age, when she listened to Motown and R&B; while growing up in St. Louis. With the help of her multi-instrumentalist mother and father and a used Wurlitzer piano her mother bought her, Starks honed her musical abilities. She joined choir and tried her hand at playing instruments such as piano and violin; however, she said nothing for her compared to singing.
“It just seems that I have (sung) as long as I can remember,” Starks said. “I sing every day no matter what happens. (Singing) is a natural expression for me.”
Starks said she attended UCLA in 1967 after hearing of its program for vocalists. However, after more than one year at UCLA, Starks left her studies to start a family in Orange County with her partner at the time, intending to one day return to finish her education.
“I started a family at a young age and had a daughter, and my (first) marriage didn’t work out,” Starks said. “I had to be the sole support for (my daughter) and I didn’t know exactly how to do that and build a singing career because usually with singers, there are times when you’re working and making money and times when you’re not.”
While raising her daughter, Starks looked for a way to break into the music industry by working various jobs, including working as a secretary for actor and musician Clifton Davis, known for writing Jackson 5′s hit song “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Despite the financial instability of jobs in the entertainment industry, Starks continued to pursue becoming a singer.
“I believe we all have something adept at doing but also a call to do,” Starks said. “(Singing) is not just something I wanted to do. … To not (sing) would be repressive and unhealthy.”
In 1984, Starks got her first big gig after auditioning for a traveling stage show put together by stage actor Robert Guillaume, who is best known for voicing Rafiki in “The Lion King.” Starks’ daughter’s college graduation allowed her to go on the road as a full-time singer.
From 1984 to 1986, Starks sang duets with Guillaume on tour. Along with three background singers, the production performed in cities such as Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Washington, D.C., and Starks’ hometown of St. Louis.
After two years of touring with the Guillaume production, Starks started a new journey touring worldwide with three-time Grammy Award-winning jazz singer Lou Rawls in 1986.
While touring, Starks said she developed as a vocalist and performer. She said Rawls, who would skillfully keep any illness hidden from the audience during performances, taught her how to overcome challenges in any performances, including having to improvise a song.
“To be able to sing a duet with (Rawls), someone you know and respected and admired as a teenager when you were (growing) up, was a fun experience,” Starks said.
Starks met her current partner, Dennis Kilman, during the tour with Lou Rawls. Soon after leaving the tour to take care of their daughter, the duo started a band in 1989 called Sirius Magic to further express their musical interests, with Kilman composing musical arrangements and Starks writing lyrics, Kilman said. But four years ago, she put the band on hold to focus on her education.
In 2013, Starks received her associate’s degree in music at Pierce College and then transferred back to UCLA to study music from the Motown and R&B; era of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
“I tried going back to college a few times and managed to get back to college here and there doing night classes, but that wasn’t what I really wanted to do,” Starks said. “I wanted to finish where I started at UCLA.”
As a Bruin last year, Starks said she noticed a difference in the college culture compared to when she last attended UCLA in the 1960s. She said her classmates, most of whom are younger than her, have given her insights on current pop culture that she would not have learned from her family and friends.
“Coming back to school and being a non-traditional student I think has broadened my view of what’s going on in my culture,” Starks said. “It has given me some insight on how younger people are thinking.”
Assistant professor of musicology Elizabeth Upton said she thinks Starks, despite having postponed her education for more than 40 years, is making the most of her education.
“(Starks) models for (traditional students) a delight in learning that is so easy to forget when you’ve been so competitive through high school and worrying what career you’ll have,” Upton said.
In addition to graduate school, Starks said she hopes to coach singers, write a novel about the music of her father’s era in the 1920s and continue her journey as a vocalist in the future.
“I don’t plan to stop singing ever,” Starks said. “As far as I (can) tell, I’ll never stop singing until (people) say, ‘Bye-bye.’”