The Voice of Mann

The big guy was selling futon furniture and the little guy was a customer. They got to talking, the big guy said something about how the little guy looked like he was involved in music. Maybe it was the hair.

"I'm a producer," the little guy finally admitted.
Yeah, right, thought the salesman. "I'm a singer," he said.
Yeah, right, thought the customer. Nonetheless he accepted the alleged singer's phone number, and even went so far as to give him a call with a job offer. "I needed someone to sing background on a demo," the customer recalls, "and I figured, Why not Billy?"

The customer turned out to be Rob Freeman. He is, in fact, a record producer. Is he ever.

In various capacities, he's had a hand in albums by the Go-Go's, Twisted Sister, KISS, Abba, the Ramones, and Blondie, to name a few. He's worked with Paul McCartney, the Bee Gees, and Diana Ross. The wall of his Miami Beach condo is lined with gold and platinum albums. He was selected by Pro Sound News as engineer of the year in 1982, when Billboard also recognized his work by naming him among the top fifteen producers in pop.

And, as it turns out, Billy Mann is probably the best singer living in Miami right now. "When I called him," Freeman remembers, "I said, `How am I going to audition you?' He starts singing over the phone. My jaw dropped and I told him to come over that day. Neither of us believed the other - everybody's a singer, everybody's a producer - but a week later we were recording."

The resultant demo tape, six songs of unbound vocal force, is strictly bait for the captains of the music industry. Virtually no one outside that select group has heard the cassette, or will. Its only purpose is to land Mann a major-label recording contract. "This is the hottest tape out of Miami," the low-key Freeman says calmly. "It's hypey to say that, but I'll say it anyway." It might be hype, and it might embarrass, or even disgust, Mann to hear such high praise, but it's absolutely true. His high notes sear the sky, the low chase the thunder back to God, and everything in between is the sort of powerhouse soul/R&B only the chosen can handle. This ain't Hall and Oates, sports fans, this is the real deal, straight outta Philly.

Billy Mann was born in the City of Brotherly Love in 1968, spent a little time in diapers, and then began his singing life, belting out juvenile doo-wop on the streets of Soul City, becoming sort of the kindergarten set's answer to Dion. By age twelve, Mann was ready for network television, performing on CBS's Kidsworld. Successful in academics as well, Mann enrolled in the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where he studied singing with a "a big white guy from Jersey who would drive his Cadillac into the projects every day." The man's name is David King and his other students included the members of current Grammy nominee Boyz II Men, as well as Pieces of a Dream and Marc Nelson. "He taught everybody how to do it right," notes Mann.

It took only three years for Mann to graduate from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and in 1989 he went to London, where he played guitar and sang in pubs, hitting the underground acoustic circuit, and even gigging at Camden Palace. Then he traveled to New York City for more of the same. "That's when I started getting into electric R&B," the singer recalls, "because I was in an electric atmosphere."

After that, he stopped back by Philly, revisited the scene there for a while, packed his stuff in an old Datsun, and hit the road. "I was headed out to San Francisco," Mann says, "and en route I played shows everywhere, from Asheville, North Carolina, to Auburn, Alabama - there's a scary thought - to L.A. I hit the San Fran scene pretty hard. That was great, I got a great reception there. And I got to play all over the Northwest. I was in Chicago at one point, and Cheyenne, Wyoming. Anywhere I could go, I went. And if I couldn't play a club, I'd play outside. Music is everywhere, and there's always people to listen to it. There was a time when I was playing for my rent on the streets of San Francisco. I got some dirt under my nails, that's for sure."

The voice honed over the years and through the travels is a remarkable instrument, a tool of overwhelming strength and fascinating diversity. Mann's control and phrasing are savvy - sitting in Rob Freeman's living room with an acoustic guitar, Mann weaves a spell with "The Morning After" by building its momentum, holding the notes longer as the song grows stronger, that big voice soon filling the room to the point where you think the walls will burst. If a mid-career Stevie Wonder harmonized with Al Green and Aretha Franklin and a few others, they might be able to achieve what Mann does alone and seemingly with ease.

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Greg Baker