Barry Manilow, Jennifer Hudson & More Mourn Death of Singer & ‘American Idol’ Vocal Coach Debra Byrd

Debra Byrd, who had a long and varied career in music, mostly behind-the-scenes, died on Tuesday, March 5, in Los Angeles. She was 72. No cause of death was given.


Highlights of her career include a top 30 hit on the Billboard Hot 100; singing behind such stars as Barry Manilow, Bob Dylan and Mary J. Blige; and a long run as a vocal coach on such talent shows as American Idol and The Voice.

Byrd’s career is a reminder that someone can achieve sustained success in the music business even if they never quite attain stardom.

Byrd had a decades-long association and friendship with Manilow. She was a member of the female trio Lady Flash, which backed him in concert and on Broadway, bringing some sass and soulfulness to his show. A recording of his show Barry Manilow on Broadway in 1976-77 became his Billboard 200-topping album Barry Manilow Live! in 1977.  Byrd also backed Manilow on Barry Manilow at the Gershwin (1989) and on the primetime network special Arista Records’ 25th Anniversary Celebration (2000). In 1976, Manilow co-wrote and co-produced Lady Flash’s “Street Singin’,” which reached No. 27 on the Hot 100.

“This is one of the saddest days of my life,” Manilow wrote on X. “I just can’t wrap my mind around the fact that Debra is no longer with me. She was one of the most wonderful friends I’ve ever had. I will miss you forever, my love. -Barry Manilow”

Byrd may have achieved her most consistent success as a vocal coach on TV shows, sharing her decades of experience with the young contestants. Several of them saluted her on social media following her death.

“She encouraged and supported us from the very beginning,” Jennifer Hudson wrote on Instagram. “I am so grateful for everything she taught us. She will be dearly missed, but her legacy lives on through the music of countless artists she influenced during her lifetime. Rest in peace, Debra.” Hudson competed in Season 3 of American Idol, finishing in seventh place, and has gone on to become an EGOT.

“I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that no one was a better mentor, coach, teacher, or champion to us Idol contestants than Byrd was,” Clay Aiken shared via Deadline. Aiken placed second in season two of Idol. “No one spent more time with us. I’ll never forget her drilling into us how we needed to look right into the camera and connect with the audience at home. She was a light in so many lives. I am so lucky that I got to call her a friend.”

Elliott Yamin, who placed third in season five of Idol, also weighed in on Instagram. “Debra had this indelible spirit about her that radiated any room she occupied. Her passion for life, music and helping others traveled far beyond her own experiences in the business, and into the lives of so many young aspiring singers & hopefuls like me. She was our first vocal coach on the show and I never forgot the positive lasting impression she made on me. Always encouraging and supportive well after our season ended, and all throughout my career! Rest easy Debra Byrd. You are loved!”

Byrd was born on July 19, 1951, in Cleveland, Ohio, and attended Kent State University.

Byrd collaborated with Bob Dylan in Australia on his tour, Hard to Handle: Bob Dylan in Concert, where he played with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Byrd was credited as a backup vocalist on Dylan’s “Band of the Hand” (from the film of the same name), which he recorded with Petty and his band. Stevie Nicks also served as a backup vocalist on that track.

She was a vocal coach on the Oscar telecast in 2014. On the telecast four years later, she was a member the choir singing behind Mary J. Blige on her Oscar-nominated song “Mighty River.”

Byrd also lent her talents to film soundtracks, including The Lion King 1 1/2, The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride and Sister Act II.

NBC hired Byrd to oversee vocal production for their 2019 Super Bowl tribute to Prince, directed by Spike Lee.

Byrd had the starring role as Da Singer in the national touring company of Broadway’s Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk. Her theatrical credits also include The Human Comedy and André De Shields’ Haarlem Nocturne (both on Broadway in 2004) and the national tour of Ain’t Misbehavin.’ 

In the academic world, Byrd was chair of the vocal department at the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. She also served as an artist in residence at the Berklee College of Music.​​  

No information on survivors or memorial plans was immediately available.

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