By Colter Hettich, Features Editor
“Take your time, sit back and recline, relax your mind and order whenever you’re ready. This is Taco Bell. You may think outside the bun.”
This original jingle might be new to some, but for anyone who frequents Taco Bell on South 14th Street, it may ring a bell.
Donnie Lamar Harden, Taco Bell employee for more than a year, has serenaded drive-thru customers for the last seven months. Though born and raised in Abilene, Harden has received plenty of attention from other parts of the country.
His unique way of greeting customers gained the attention of local as well as national media. Harden has been featured in the Abilene Reporter-News, KTXS, CNN and the “Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
A dream came true for Harden when DeGeneres arranged and paid for him to spend a day in the studio with will.i.am, founder and front-man of three-time, Grammy awardwinning pop group Black Eyed Peas. Now back in Abilene with his girlfriend, 9-month-old daughter and “a whole bunch of family,” Harden continues to bring smiles to drive-thru faces.
-BIRTH OF A DREAM-
Good things come from Abilene. Harden, born on Oct. 8, 1984, has resided in Abilene, along with most of his family, since his birth. Harden’s love for music is nothing new. He said it began to take root at a young age.
“I started singing in church when I was just a kid,” Harden said. He also sang in the school choir and says the love for singing runs in the family.
“It ain’t even just me that can sing either. The opportunity just came to me, you know?” he said. “But I’ve always been about the music, even though I haven’t always been in studios like I am now.”
Harden did not begin to realize his potential as an artist until high school. As he grew into adolescence, he discovered his true talents and felt the need to document the ideas that constantly swam through his head.
“I started rapping when I was in high school. That’s when I started writing stuff down,” he said. He attended both Cooper High School and Abilene High School but in 2004, he dropped out during his junior year. Months passed, and he eventually found himself working the window at Taco Bell.
In November 2006, with no performance experience to speak of, Harden unknowingly stepped onto his first big stage: the drive-thru window.
The reason for Harden’s drive-thru singing is not as poetic as one might hope or imagine. The idea came one day, like many great ideas in history: a contest.
“What started all this- me singing at the drive through and everything- was a bet,” he said.
A co-worker bet Harden that he would not sing to the next person at the drive-thru. Harden, being the fun-loving guy that he is, readily accepted the challenge.
“So I started right then. That’s when I made up my little song,” he said.
Harden quickly composed a couple of lines of rhyme, improvised a little tune and followed his instincts.
The unsuspecting customer loved it, and everyone working with Harden thought it was hilarious. He continued entertaining his customers and co-workers by serving every following patron with a song, a smile and a “have a beautiful day.”
“I saw how everybody was reacting to it,” Harden said. “Everybody started liking it, so I kept doing it.”
Richard Garcia, Harden’s Taco Bell manager for the last 9 months, remembers well the spontaneity of the idea. “We were all joking around at first. We just wanted to see how many people we could get to notice,” Garcia said.
It did not take long for news of Harden’s drive-thru production to spread. He did not have to wonder if people enjoyed his singing.
“People started giving me compliments. They started calling in and saying stuff like ‘you need to give that guy a raise,'” Harden said.
Not every customer appreciated what he was trying to do. A handful of people complained.
“We only got a few complaints,” said Garcia. “Like maybe a male customer who didn’t appreciate Donnie giving his girl special attention.”
Harden knew how to handle “the haters.” He didn’t let a little negative reaction bring him down.
“Yeah, some people tried to tell me I don’t need to be here and stuff like that,” Harden said.
Overall, he felt like his routine did much more good than harm. Apparently, he’s not the only one who thought so.
-15 MINUTES OF FAME-
The Abilene Reporter-News featured Harden on Nov. 12. Later that day, KTXS-12 broadcast a video feature, hailing him as the “Taco Bell Troubadour.” All the local attention caught the eyes
of national producers. National news network CNN mentioned Harden on air, which pricked the ears of blue-collared workers and celebrities as well.
Television personality and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres and her producers saw Harden’s passion and thought the world ought to know more.
So later that same month, the “Ellen DeGeneres Show” flew Harden to Los Angeles for a televised interview. For a first timer in L. A., he definitely got the red carpet treatment.
During Harden’s first appearance on the show, DeGeneres, to his complete surprise, revealed that she had arranged for him to spend a day with will.i.am in his home studio. Harden could hardly believe it but made the most out of his short time with the popculture icon.
“I recorded a song I made up with him. I did the vocals. He produced it and made the beat,” Harden said. With four solo records, albums with both Interscope Records and Universal
Music Group and recordings with such artists as Justin Timberlake, Mary J. Blige and Carlos Santana, will.i.am has
earned a reputation in Hollywood. He also has the money to go with it.
“It was like MTV Cribs,” Harden said. “It was so big, I didn’t get to finish walking around the house.”
After recording, Harden returned to Ellen’s show to tell all about his experience. Harden was a huge hit with Ellen and her producers. So much, in fact, that as he waited for his flight home at LAX, the show called him on his cell phone and asked him to appear a third time before flying home. Harden readily agreed. After filming, he flew home the next weekend.
“Ellen was cool,” Harden said. “Cool like a pack of Kools.”
-BACK TO THE ROOTS-
Since returning, Harden has kept a level head and managed not to let the fame go to his head.
“It’s going really well right now,” he said. Now, most of his recording happens at TWC Mastermind Productions in Abilene. Mike, 26-year-old producer and founder of TWC, moved to Abilene from California 14 years ago. Under the street name “Katt Daddie a.k.a. the Mastermind,” Mike has a good relationship with local radio station 106.3 FM and has gotten air time for the last seven years. He met Harden more than a month ago, and the two have been laying down tracks together ever since.
Harden has two tracks finished, including his first single “Rockin a Day,” and hopes to get his record on store shelves as soon as he completes it. Harden wants to do much more with
his music than just “stack change,” as his lyrics mention. He knows the reality of being a high school dropout and wants to be an example that people can look up to.
“That’s where I set my example at,” Harden said. “Even if you’re a high school dropout or don’t graduate, you can still make it either way. That’s how I feel.”
He now spends part of his spare time studying for his GED certification.
“It’s real important to me. It’s important just like my music,” Harden said.
All of the support his peers and family gave him through this whole process made him want to pay it forward.
“A lot of people are giving me hope and the confidence to keep moving with myself,” Harden said. “I just want to make people happy. I want people to feel my music. I don’t want to cuss and all that stuff on my record, like 50 Cent or all them.”
Harden continues to keep his head up, looking for the good in things and people. Fame and fortune are not ultimately what Harden is after, but appreciating what he has and where he is.
“I’m not too good, I’m not too bad,” Harden said. “I’m doing just right.”