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With a Song in My Court

Tall and solidly built, attorney Richard Friedman is informally attired in an indigo denim shirt, stonewashed jeans, and white leather sneakers. A sliver of white undershirt peeks out from his open collar, bespeaking lawyerly propriety. The midfiftyish Friedman has spent the day moving from his Dadeland Towers office in Kendall to a smaller setup across U.S. 1. Stark white walls embellished with gray squiggles are half-covered with diplomas and certificates. Several more sit waiting to be hung, neatly stacked in two rows on a side table. A pair of chairs are placed squarely in front of his enormous wooden desk. Behind them, barely noticeable, a tiny table rests against a wall; it holds a telephone and one of those push-button gadgets for processing credit card payments.

Credit card payments? Money and lawyers have always been a natural pair in crime-happy Dade. But charging legal fees to a credit card seems a bit extreme, even by Miami standards. Does Friedman actually intend to collect his fees via plastic? Actually, no. In this case the contraption will be put to an even more unexpected use: taking phone orders and processing payments for Friedman's compact disc. Friedman, you see, is no ordinary lawyer. He is the "Singing Attorney," an appellation he hopes to trademark soon.

Friedman may be the Singing Attorney, but he is by no means the only singing attorney in town. Far from it. Indeed, South Florida plays host to a small but vocal group of lawyer/entertainers who balance the practice of law with the performance of music.

Why would successful professionals -- lawyers, no less -- want to endure the frustrations of the music biz? Have too many years of living in flashy Miami convinced them that they might be the next big thing? Or does competing in a county surfeited with more than 10,000 attorneys make scoring a Grammy seem easy by comparison?

Friedman reclines in a high-backed burgundy leather chair. Piles of folders occupy his desk top, as do his feet. "I enjoy practicing law," he says. "Ever since I was eleven, I wanted to be a lawyer, but I've eased out of practicing to a great degree. For me music is a passion. I love it. It provides immediate gratification. People show their enjoyment and pleasure instantly. There's a lot of love when you share your inner self through your interpretation of lyrics and music. You can communicate the song to the public and it gets to them. And you can kind of turn on their spirit and make them feel good, make them feel excited. I like to get people excited when I sing. They're never bored."

A graduate of the University of Miami Law School and a practicing attorney for the past 30 years, Friedman remembers first exhibiting a flair for performing at age four: "I used to walk down the street singing at the top of my lungs." Over the years, however, music took a back seat to his career as a securities attorney. While Friedman kept his pipes in shape over the years by performing at various charity events, only recently did he decide to take his music more seriously.

On July 4, 1996, Friedman executive-produced and released For Love of Country, on his own All-Star Music label. The fifteen-track disc consists entirely of American patriotic songs. A sort of jurist Jim Nabors -- although he would rather be compared with Broadway boomer Howard Keel -- Friedman has a robust voice that he likes to note has been heard by millions.

While For Love of Country didn't exactly light up the charts or spur a world tour, Friedman has played a number of stadiums. He frequently belts out the national anthem at local sporting events -- some nationally televised -- including a Florida Panthers game and several Miami Dolphins games.

Unfortunately, even performing the stadium circuit doesn't guarantee the monetary rewards that most performers hope for. Sometimes cleaving to the dream of playing music means more anguish than self-actualization.

According to Charlie Pickett, frontman for a number of rock bands he characterizes as "small famous" ("known by thousands and unknown by millions") in the early to mid-Eighties and now a securities lawyer at Boose, Casey, Ciklin in Palm Beach, the music business is not so quick to recognize toil.

"The work of law is very, very hard, but at least I know that the harder I work, the more I make. In music, we worked incredibly hard for so long," says the 44-year-old Pickett, who still performs occasionally at Churchill's Hideaway. "We were almost at the same level for six years. We could tour clubs, make records, hang out with famous people -- I jammed with R.E.M. at least half a dozen times. While that was a great lift, a great boost, we did everything but make money, and that was frustrating. If I could have had just a small hit, I would have been so much happier as a musician."

Henk Milne, age 44, a partner in the downtown Miami firm of Aballi, Milne, Kalil & Garrigo, is the lead singer and songwriter for the Volunteers. (The band, which plays rock with a folky Irish bent, includes one-time Maverick guitar player Ben Peeler.) "I started out first as a rock and roll guitarist, purely for the joy of it," Milne says. "The main thing was to be in a band and to have a good time and create music."

Despite his legal schedule, Milne finds time to indulge his muse. "I'm a lawyer and I still play music," notes Milne. "I don't think they're antithetical in any way. You're performing in either arena." Courtroom drama, however, tends to involve less heavy lifting. "In music, there's a definite correlation between how much the equipment weighs and how much fun you get out of the night. If you're moving a lot of your own heavy gear, it's a good workout, but it's kind of a sweaty beginning and a sweaty end."

One attorney who probably won't be moving any of his own gear if and when he decides to play live dates is Jose Latour. An immigration attorney based in Miami Beach, the Cuban-born Latour has just released his first album Oceano, a sort of bouncy bilingual concept album about the immigrant experience. The record is on Latour's own label, Paradise Records, and he has secured a distribution deal with Sony Discos.

Diminutive and compact, the aspiring pop star sits on the roof of the Sony building on a recent sunny morning. His eyes are shaded by black wraparound sunglasses with mirrored blue lenses. His unlined face bears vestiges of baby fat in his cheeks. As the wind blows through his dark hair, the former American diplomatic consul to Mexico and Equatorial Guinea looks more like a recent college grad than a successful 36-year-old lawyer. High above the city, he expounds on the dilemma of being a lawyer and a musician.

"I started writing music when I was fourteen or fifteen, and I was a lead singer in about four different bands. But I'm a nice, Cuban boy. I was raised with certain fundamental things, and one of them was you had a career," he explains earnestly. "About two years ago the music started gnawing at me again. In 1995 I wrote a nice, sentimental, cheesy song about the rafters. Polygram liked it, and they were pulling together an album of old Cuban classics. I sang my song "Navegue con Amor," and they put it on the record and named the compilation after it. It's really funny because I'm some schmo with the first song, and then the second song is by Celia Cruz and another song is by Beny More. So it was undeservedly cool. It sold a little bit, not a lot."

With a major distribution deal for his record, Latour seems to have the best chance of getting his music heard beyond Miami. The question remains whether his songs can transcend the South Florida market and engage others. "I have a decent singing voice, but my music is about the message. Lyrically, there is a lot of integrity. It's all from the heart. I think if my record ever does anything, it's because intelligent people are listening to the message, analyzing it, and having a lot of fun with it," he says. (A sample of Latour's poetic sang-froid: "Well, lookit how things go ... my children are gringos/My language is Spanglish, but things are okay.")

"Jose is not your typical attorney," says associate Lorenzo Lleras. "For a person of such talent as a lawyer, he's very informal and approachable, and he maintains that in both careers. I don't know if being a musician helps him professionally, but it sure enriches him personally. Dealing with immigration, he has a lot to draw upon."

Record sales are not the primary goal for Latour. "The masses are all that matters to me," he says. "I would rather have music that makes people grin across the board, that critics write off as pure schlock and that doesn't make any money."

His attraction to music -- versus the legal profession -- is simple: cultural power. "I love having the power to move people, to make them dance and to make them smile," he stresses. "Except for witnessing childbirth, there is nothing else like it. I remember playing with a band at a gig during college, and I was singing and watching about 300 people bobbing up and down, dancing, grinning, laughing, just having a ball. And I thought: 'I have never been this powerful.' I was singing to them and they were dancing. To me that was mind-boggling."

Oddly enough for a bunch as cynical as lawyers, Latour and his musical brethren seem to maintain a surprisingly optimistic and ingenuous outlook. Perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for all these briefcase-toting would-be stars is 41-year-old Joe Imperato. An attorney with the Dade County Public Defender's Office, he has dealt with major felony cases on a daily basis for the past fifteen years.

A lifelong musician, Imperato best explains the allure of the artistic life: "It's about getting a message out. It's about making a very small difference in the pop culture, in the pop consciousness of America. I think you can make more of a difference with one line of one song to influence people than most lawyers do in a lifetime of work. A writer or an artist or a poet can make more of a difference than a lawyer ever can.

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