A Man Out of Time

Repeatedly sideswiped by fame, singer-songwriter Dennis Britt braces for one last lunge at the big time

"Who wants to make it overnight?" Dennis Britt laughs in a sonorous, raspy, bigger-than-life voice, the kind of voice that is at once infectious and sad, buoyant and battle-scarred -- chummy, ingratiating, but with an edge that suggests a dark side to match the haunted look that occasionally flashes across Britt's weathered face. Something about the songwriter's voice just commands your attention, whether amplified by the acoustics of the living room of the spacious two-story Miami Beach house he shares with his wife, Beth, and his nine-year-old daughter, Briton, or compacted into the tinny receiver of a cheap telephone. Imagine Sixties counterculture icon Wavy Gravy with a Philadelphia accent, comedian David Brenner with a head cold, or former Band member Robbie Robertson after swallowing gravel. Get Britt rolling on a subject he feels passionately about (which could be anything from current world events to Purvis Young, the Liberty City artist whose primitivist paintings adorn the walls of Britt's home, to the existence -- and Britt's personal sighting -- of UFOs) and the voice draws you in. It makes him an excellent storyteller; even when the stories are so-so, the delivery is spellbinding.

That quality, while diluted a bit by the exigencies of staying in key, carries over to his singing. Dennis Britt is not blessed with a versatile singing voice, but it fairly reeks of hard-won wisdom. Britt knows the limits of his low-end baritone and always stays within them. If you had to name a sound-alike, you could do worse than Gordon Lightfoot meets the Crash Test Dummies A in a really cavernous room.

The voice is usually the first thing people notice about Britt. He's a handsome guy, too, in a dissipated former golden-boy way. He has the Seventies-vintage emaciated rock star's frame to complement an impossibly boyish mop of feathery brown hair that's flecked with wisps of blond and gray. Bangs so thick they nearly obscure his eyebrows. His hair isn't just full, it's plush.

People who have only seen him from a distance or met him in a darkened nightclub cannot realize that Dennis Britt's deep-set eyes change color, chameleonlike, to reflect their surroundings. Under the fluorescent lights of a muted beige office, for instance, they take on a drab olive hue; as midafternoon sunlight bounces off his yellow and black shirt, the irises assume an ocher cast; in a bright restaurant festooned with wood trim, they turn hazel; and they become brown as cola when day fades into evening and the shadows lengthen.

Many of those who know him best speculate that this capacity to adapt to outside influences applies to Britt's musical career as well -- and that might not be a good thing. At various times, Britt has fronted bands that have run the gamut from mellow, Sade-like jazz to calypso to reggae to pop rock to acid rock to folk to his current laid-back, island-inflected, acoustic rock. In 1984 the Miami Herald threw in the towel in its efforts to peg Britt and began using a name the singer and his band Watchdog had coined to describe their sound -- "troparock." Herald music writer Tom Moon cited "a mixture of reggae and calypso, British-influenced power pop, and light jazz." By 1989 Britt turned up the power pop and tuned out the islands with the band Next. One year later, he and yet another new lineup, the Beat Poets, waded knee-deep into psychedelia and an alternative rock sound founded on feedback-drenched guitars and distorted vocals. Britt's current outfit, West Indian, features spare, uncluttered guitar-based arrangements of tunes whose cross-cultural beats suggest the solo work of Paul Simon or David Byrne.

His ability to glide from one musical genre to another -- sometimes on the same demo tape -- has endeared Britt to his peers even as it has exasperated record-label talent scouts. "Dennis's biggest enemy is his own talent," declares friend and former bandmate Doc Wiley, who played bass for a while in Watchdog. "If you wanted a salsa tune, he'd write one and it would be great. You wanted a reggae tune, he'd write one. Dance. Pop. Alternative rock. Dennis was doing grunge before they called it grunge. I've got some stuff [on tape] that goes from hard-edged R&B to this Robbie Robertson-type vibe to reggae. You'd never recognize it was the same guy."

"I know that [versatility] has probably hurt me," Britt admits. "This actually happened to me with Capitol Records. The president of the label heard my stuff and loved it. The first cut on the tape is pop rock. So he gives it to the pop-rock department. But the second cut is reggae. Guy in pop rock says, 'Hey, I love the first song, but I can't do anything with reggae.' He sends it to the reggae department. But the third song is a jazz-fusion thing. They ship it off to that section. Winds up back on the president's desk with all the VPs saying, 'I like it but I don't know what to do with it.' President calls me back and says, 'Dennis, we don't know what to do with it.'

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