Shooting for the Pop

Tommy Anthony refuses to take the easy way out

Tommy Anthony doesn't look like a pop star. He has the rough-hewn features and stocky build of an ex-football player. (In fact, if you pry a bit he'll admit he played a little semi-pro ball with the Miami Storm.) The bandanna he frequently sports atop his head gives him a tough-guy edge. No meticulously set ringlets of hair cascade just so down his shoulders. He does not pout or primp. No matter how famous he becomes -- and he probably will become famous -- grown women will never faint at the sight of him. If he's good-looking, it's in that manly man sort of way best exemplified by Anthony's one-time idol Larry Csonka. Tommy Anthony couldn't be a poser if he wanted to.

Luckily, he doesn't want to. He meets your gaze straight on, shakes your hand firmly, and speaks with easy confidence. Dale Carnegie would be proud. The UM marketing grad converses in a can-do tone of voice and favors bold, declarative sentences. "Dennis Britt is the single greatest musical talent Miami has ever produced, bar none. Undiscovered or otherwise," he'll tell you when asked to assess the abilities of his one-time Beat Poets bandmate. "Greater than Gloria Estefan. Greater than the Mavericks. Greater than Jon Secada." Tommy Anthony (no relation to the author of this piece, despite the fact that the Miami Herald occasionally confused the two in its club listings when Goza first began playing gigs around town) does not beat around the bush, at least not when he talks.

Which is why it comes as such a surprise when you hear his music. You expect a guy who looks and gabs like Anthony to sing in a throaty, gritty macho baritone, like Robbie Robertson maybe, or Iggy Pop. Guess again. Simply put, the dude has the pipes of a pretty boy. Imagine Michael Bolton without the pretensions to soul manhood; Jon Secada by way of Kenny Loggins. Anthony wraps plaintive, willowy, ethereal vocals around exquisitely crafted but tame pop ditties with titles like "I Don't Know You Anymore," "Smile," and "Heaven's Where I Wanna Go."

"The pop tag isn't really given its due," Anthony contends. "The clubs down here all cater to alternative, progressive, or hard rock A anything you can name but pop. But I've always maintained that it's much harder to write a quality pop song that 100,000 people can be moved by than an alternative tune that's very personal, very deep, very abstract, maybe very profound, but that reaches an audience of maybe 30 and goes over most people's heads."

Nobody familiar with Anthony's body of work would accuse the 29-year-old aspiring popmeister of shooting for the deep-abstract-profound end of the songwriting spectrum. Although his influences run the gamut from Jane's Addiction to Anita Baker, Anthony has a lot more in common with ABBA than with, say, Guided By Voices. Anthony formed his band Goza (Afro-Cuban slang for the art of "living life to the fullest") in 1991, dedicated to the pursuit of pure pop. "If there's an angle, this is it: American pop with a Latin rhythm," the forthright front man avows. "I'm not sure we're much like Secada, but maybe we reach the same niche, pop with Latin rhythm. Another parallel, we both do bilingual songs. [Anthony, of Cuban-Italian heritage, records both English and Spanish versions of many of his tunes.] The Latin rhythm and percussion in our material is a lot more up front, and I think our stuff is a little edgier than his is."

Tommy Anthony and Goza recently pulled off a coup that even Secada never managed. They landed a single -- "I Don't Know You Anymore" -- on the playlist at Top-40 powerhouse radio station Y-100 without the backing of a major label. "It's only the second independent record ever played on Y-100," Anthony proudly claims. "The first was by Expose."

"Our station's geared toward playing name artists that people are familiar with," elaborates Al Chio, program director at Y-100. "We try to bring in local talent, but no one's really come out with anything that fits our format. I heard a few songs from the [Mondial] CD and I thought the single, 'I Don't Know You Anymore,' fit our sound. Pop music, hooks, lyrics people can identify with. He [Anthony] has a good voice; I thought of the ballad as sort of a Michael Bolton-Jon Secada deal. We played it for several weeks and it did pretty well."

Chio cites the album's fusion of pop, rock, and Latin influences as an appealing combination, but one that makes it difficult for a station specializing in only one of the three genres to work Goza into its mix. "I heard some other songs on the album that had some very attractive elements also, but they weren't quite right for us," the program director remembers. "I hope they'll catch on with someone who can really get behind them and develop and promote them."

Pop has held a special allure for Anthony since he put together his first band, the Tomboys, as a teenager in 1979. "I was just a kid, like fourteen," Anthony recalls. "We did back yard or high school parties, anywhere anyone would let us play." The Tomboys and their subsequent incarnation, power pop band the Basics, featured a bassist with a pretty fair singing voice of his own A a fellow named Raul Malo whose current band, the Mavericks, corralled country stardom in Nashville.

"We were kids, really," Anthony laughs. "Sneaking into clubs when we were fifteen or sixteen, not getting paid fairly but that was okay because the payment was really our musical education." After a fruitless decade fronting the Tomboys and the Basics -- "I think I single-handedly put the Maxell kids through college [making demo tapes that accomplished nothing]," the popster ruefully remembers -- Anthony hit the road with Britt and the Beat Poets for nine months before deciding to light out in another direction in late 1990.

"We're probably one of the lone true pop bands down here," the singer-songwriter contends. "I don't mind. It may work to our advantage in the long run."

But for the moment Goza is lonely at the pop. While they never pulled the capacity crowds that fellow bilingual local artist Nil Lara did, Goza drew respectable audiences to their performances at the recently deceased Stephen Talkhouse, which served as a sort of home base for the band. The fact that they were Talkhouse regulars aiming for crossover success with both Anglos and Latins elicited a few superficial comparisons to Lara's band, but to dismiss Tommy Anthony as a poor man's Nil would be like calling an apple a poor man's orange.

"Nil's a great story," Anthony nods. "He's earned every accolade. But now that the Talkhouse is gone the handful of places that offer live music on the Beach are blues, progressive, or alternative. There aren't a plethora of opportunities [in clubs] awaiting us." Thanks largely to the Y-100 exposure, Goza has kept busy supporting its recently released CD, Mondial, on local one-off label Celanova. The group has played in-store concerts at Burdines and Incredible Universe, sat still for an on-air interview and acoustic performance during morning drive time on Y-100, and performed at Calle Ocho in Little Havana and at the March of Dimes Walkathon in Fort Lauderdale. Anthony even sang the national anthem before the Miami Heat-Chicago Bulls basketball game on February 24 at the Miami Arena, and the Marlins have contacted him about reprising that rendition at Joe Robbie Stadium before one of their games. At this rate the Goza headliner may become Tommy Anthem-y.

Now in its third pressing, Mondial has sold more than 3500 copies since its January release. The album sails effortlessly on hook-laden cross-currents of airy melody and Latin spice. But while it floats like a butterfly, it doesn't sting like a bee. The lyrics owe more to Hall and Oates than to Dylan or Costello, and there's no mistaking Anthony's emotionally overwrought pleading for, say, Leonard Cohen's portentous nasal groan. You can understand Goza's appeal to a Top 40 station like Y-100, where fizzleless pop stars like Bolton, Whitney Houston, and Vanessa Williams regularly find airplay. Every Tommy Anthony and Goza song is painstakingly constructed and glossily produced. You cannot imagine any review of the disc that does not incorporate the word "slick."

While Anthony could heat things up by mixing more Latin picante into his salsa, Mondial's eleven songs effectively showcase Goza's accomplished musicianship and Anthony's fluid dexterity as a songwriter. The material is too studiously innocuous to bowl listeners over or to cut too deeply -- we're talking radio-ready soft pop, after all -- but Mondial immediately registers as the polished work of a gifted performer with unlimited commercial potential.

"I don't want to come across as some sorry-ass vanilla guy," Tommy Anthony emphasizes. "But I'd like to think that we might play a part in giving pop a little legitimacy down here. And I really believe it's only a matter of time till we get to the big show."

He may not sound like one when he sings, but Tommy Anthony still talks like a ballplayer. And the smart money is betting with him.

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