A Man Out of Time

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

"I always loved music, as far back as I can remember. Dad loved music. He brought me up on Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jolson, John Philip Sousa, all the Broadway musicals, Sinatra [he does a scary chorus of "Love and Marriage" to illustrate his point]. Dino. When I came to Miami I had all that in my head, plus Elvis, plus the Afro-Cuban beat, the bakatu-bakatu."

After graduating from high school, Britt put music on hold and moved to Boston to study TV and radio production. He dropped in on classes at Emerson College and later officially enrolled in a series of production-related electives at a Boston junior college, all with no intention of graduating. "They had a good production studio on campus," he says. "That was all I cared about." After three years, he returned to Miami looking for production work, and like so many eager communications students before and since, wound up in sales.

Britt landed a job selling airtime at the Spanish-language Channel 23, where he flourished as an account executive. Within a couple of years he was living the dream of so many young American males: Porsche, a house full of expensive antiques in Coral Gables, hobnobbing with the top executives at his station, and joining some of them and their powerful friends -- such as alleged HMO scam artist and international fugitive Miguel Recarey -- for weekend domino games.

As the youngest player at these games, Britt was eager to cement his status as a rising star, so he began to pitch them an idea he had been working on since college. "I thought it would be funny to do this story about these Cubans living in Miami, and the grandfather can't speak English, and the girl is totally Americanized." he recalls. "They're cracking up while I'm spinning out this potential sitcom in Spanish."

But despite his material wealth and his hot job, Britt's life began falling apart. "I'd always had this vision that one day I was gonna be on Johnny Carson," Britt confides. "I remember lying in my Louis XVI bed thinking 'What happened to [my being on] Johnny Carson?' Something as stupid as that. I got so angry at myself for getting so far away from what I loved, which was music. I developed ulcers. Woman problems. I was trying to sell my mentor at the station on this idea I had for a sitcom, but he wouldn't buy it. And I got so frustrated that I just quit. Walked away.

"Fast-forward about a year," he continues. "I'm living on Biscayne Boulevard, close to the water in a hotel room by myself with just wine, walnuts, and a little tape recorder. In a way I'm very happy because I'm back to my bohemian ways. I have a beard down to my chest; I look like Rasputin. One day one of the guys from the domino games sees me. 'Dennis! Dennis!' he yells. 'They're doing the show!' So he takes me out to the Sonesta on Key Biscayne A I look like a sheepdog -- I don't wanna be there. I get all cleaned up, I meet with these guys, the next thing I know I'm back in TV working on this show."

The show would become the immensely popular and widely syndicated ®Que Pasa, U.S.A.? In addition to formulating the original concept for the show, Britt came up with the title and the theme song, for which he was paid just enough money to purchase a Fender Rhodes piano. Britt was hired on as part of the show's staff but quit after the first episode as a result of -- you guessed it -- creative differences. Britt thought the show should aim for Norman Lear-style humor with some sociopolitical impact; his superiors opted instead for simpler yuks and lots of slapstick.

A spate of jobs at Channel 23 and Channel 51, another Spanish-language station, ensued. Britt provided voice-overs, ran cameras and sound equipment, and even found himself anchoring the news in Spanish. After Britt produced seventeen episodes of a musical-variety show featuring Willy Chirino (and probably partially because of his exposure to Chirino), the music bug bit Dennis again. He chucked TV for the second time, packed up his Fender Rhodes, and moved to Philadelphia.

Ensconced in a garage recording studio in the City of Brotherly Love, Britt honed his chops, practicing religiously and recording anybody who could play, regardless of their ability to pay. "We ran into some brothers downtown, they were the shit," Britt recollects. "We recorded everything -- punk, jazz, reggae. It was a real community recording studio. Guys would walk in, no equipment. There was this little kid, he was stuttering. Little brother didn't know from theory. Every instrument he picked up -- you'd give him a Casio or a guitar -- he was incredible. Or you'd see some of the brothers slappin' that bass, you would never forget it."

Through the studio Britt met jazz flutist-saxophonist Marc Berner, and keyboardist Michael Richards, who, along with Britt's percussionist brother-in-law, Tavo Muller, formed the band that eventually would become Watchdog. "The band name was Raza Mundo. World Race," Britt elaborates. "We had Muslims, Rastas, Jewish cats, Italian guys, two Cubans, and an African-American guy who claimed to be a Native American tribesman.

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