Unsung Heroes

Who do you think of when you hear the song "Dude (Looks like a Lady)"? Regrettably enough, you probably think of Steven Tyler, the scrawny, fat-lipped lead singer of Aerosmith. If someone asked you who wrote the song, you'd probably assume Tyler. One thing's for sure: The name Desmond Child wouldn't leap to mind.

But the Miami Beach native did indeed co-write the song. Unbeknownst to the world, Child shares writing credits on a whole list of rock staples, including the Bon Jovi power ballad "Living on a Prayer," and hits by Cher, Joan Jett, and Alice Cooper.

Child is a professional songwriter, and as such is a nearly invisible force in the personality-driven world of music. It's not that he and other songwriters get a bum rap. In most instances they get no rap.

Rouge, the band Child fronted back in the Seventies, released two albums on Capitol, toured nationally, and even appeared as musical guests on Saturday Night Live. The band never broke big, though; it just broke up, in 1980. Child kept writing songs. By the late Eighties he had forged a solid reputation as a songwriter and producer.

In the summer of 1996 Child, who grew up in Miami Beach and has now returned here to live and work, served as a panelist at a songwriting workshop held at Criteria Studios. There he met two Miamians -- Ellen Moraskie, an executive at Warner/Chappell music publishers, and Chrystal Hartigan, a freelance special events coordinator and a member of the National Academy of Songwriters. The three got to talking about the local music scene. All of them lamented the difficulty that young artists, and particularly songwriters, had in getting their material heard. So they decided to do something to remedy the situation. With the help of some other music insiders, they launched Songwriters in the Round, a monthly get-together organized by and for songwriters.

The event takes place the first Tuesday of every month at Miami Beach's Park Central Hotel on Ocean Drive and allows aspiring and accomplished musicians to showcase songwriting in all genres. "So many people are unaware that the singer hasn't always written what he or she is singing," Hartigan says. "We wanted to create a forum for songwriters to get recognition, and maybe other good things would come of it."

The idea was not to create a pressurized environment in which local musicians could audition for industry scouts, but to provide a laid-back atmosphere that allowed amateurs to rub elbows and network with big-name talent.

"There's something fantastic and approachable about hearing a songwriter perform his work in the most basic way -- probably the way he wrote the song," Child says. "We have no great master plan. We aren't trying to do anything except meld the local music community with the national one. The schmooze factor is high here, and this is the only local event that has that kind of reach."

After eighteen months, the gatherings are healthier than ever. Moraskie, Child, and Hartigan take turns lining up national talent to perform. Recently some of the expenses, such as flying artists to Miami, have been assumed by sponsors like American Airlines and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). A five-dollar admission fee helps defray other costs.

The evenings are usually arranged around a theme; last month's was Red Hot Latin Night. The festivities always begin with 90 minutes of aspiring songwriters. Some of the two dozen amateurs on hand this Tuesday night have traveled from as far away Boca Raton. One by one they make their way through the scattering of tables and chairs toward the performance area, which features a stool, a few microphones, and a grand piano.

Dark-haired women with guitars warble earnest but not very memorable tunes. Fortysomething men pound out plaintive ballads on the piano. Twentysomething guys wail a bit too intensely. Some of these performers are trying to make a living as full-time members of bands. Most, however, hold down day jobs. For some, Songwriters in the Round is a rare opportunity to play in front of a live audience, one possibly peopled with music industry bigwigs.

Robert Bidney, age 42, an executive for Gold Coast Advertising, has written jingles for Swim 'N' Sport shops and the Sports Authority. His dream, though, is to make it as a country singer. For the past nine months he has attended the songwriters' gathering in hopes of being discovered. "That would be great," Bidney says. "There aren't enough songwriter events down here, and this one has such solid backing. You never know who could be listening."

Tonight he performs his contemporary country ballad "Daring to Dream" on the grand piano. With his close-cropped beard and lean build, Bidney somewhat resembles a country star of some years back, Lee Greenwood, and his voice has the same clear, yearning quality. His number receives spirited applause.

Unlike the crowds in many musical venues around town, this audience listens intently and claps enthusiastically for even the most bizarre composition. This supportive vibe extends even to the evening's stranger offerings.

Enter Seth Rottman. A short, clean-cut-looking twenty-year-old, Rottman has come from Boca Raton armed with an acoustic guitar and a four-song demo tape of original material. Very original material. He strums his guitar and shakes his hips as if he's trying to keep a hula hoop aloft. The lyrics that come out of his mouth are out of this world. The song "Alien" deals with space creatures. Not just being abducted by them but being molested as well; he finally exacts revenge by taking out a knife and "chopping off his alien balls."

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