He wrecked his truck, got stabbed, run over, and lost a finger. His wife ran off with his best friend. He got shot, chased by large crowds of angry people, then thrown in jail. And that was in just one day.
So goes the Rex Neilson-penned tune "Thank God I Quit Drinkin'" as sung by Stephen Lone Wolf, a 49-year-old anthropology professor who had been homeless for thirteen months when he cut the track for last year's Voice of the Homeless. Neilson spearheaded the CD for his fledgling MAG label, helping with the making of the music and, as important, with the recruitment of the homeless people who performed it. (He found them in San Diego, though many had arrived from cities such as Houston and Chicago.) Neilson and his talent coordinator, David Chenoweth, have achieved such success with the album that a sequel is in the works. They will be in Miami at the end of the month, searching the streets and shelters for major label talent.
Yes, major label. After the record came out last summer, a prime-time network TV news show aired a report about it. Richard Palmese, the president of MCA, happened to see the show. "He called us the next day," Chenoweth recalls. "And he wanted to be involved. He wouldn't take no for an answer." MCA arranged distribution, with a re-release on December 6. The label also will handle the new project.
Based in San Diego, Neilson owned a car dealership before forming MAG (the initials are those of his children's first names) and releasing an album of piano music by Jeanne Sutherland. Working with former Little River Band member Wayne Nelson, songwriter Joe Wasyl, Sutherland, and others, including 27 homeless musicians, Neilson crafted a palatable album that truly showcases the fine singing of his street-living talent. "It was real difficult at first," he says of marketing the end result. "These young, hip store managers are more interested in Snoop or Reba or whatever. They think, 'This homeless record can't possibly be any good because it's by homeless people.'"
Leo Porter, a 50-year-old 'Nam vet from Chicago, shoots down that theory. Porter's crafty phrasing and strong voice carry the story-song "Catman Jim" on the first album. "I found Leo playing in a park for change," Neilson says. "And then I got to see him at Carnegie Hall getting a standing ovation." (Porter appeared at the famed venue during the First New York Singer-Songwriter Festival.) Porter, along with 24 of the other 26 artists who appear on the first album, is no longer homeless. All royalties go to the artists.
Neilson and Chenoweth will visit local shelters, distribute flyers, and then conduct an audition with a panel of judges that likely will include Gloria Estefan. "If we do our work well," Chenoweth says, "we should audition about 75 people A singers, songwriters, poets A at a shelter. These auditions tend to be pretty dynamic. We learned last time that all these artists outperform the record live." He says they'll take "as many as are good enough" from Miami, although they try to select a mix of styles.
Despite the clear and tangible rewards, Neilson admits that the undertaking is an "uphill swim. First of all, the general public rates homeless people based on what they see. They look at a guy on the street, he's homeless, that's what all homeless are like. It's like judging a race of people based on the actions of a few. 'Those street people yelling, screaming, asking for money' -- well, only five or six percent of the homeless population fits that description. You run into them everyday and don't even know sometimes. They don't wear a badge saying they're homeless. If you don't meet them and talk to them, you don't know. I got deeper in the homeless community, and the majority were not what I had perceived them to be."
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