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.

A multi-instrumentalist and songwriter as well as a singer of bottomless ability, Mann began receiving some serious recognition in 1990. Somebody heard a live show and requested a tape, which the person apparently played for an associate of Suzanne Vega, just before the folkster appeared at Clark University outside Boston. Mann was given the opportunity to open that concert. He was invited by Bill Jolly (known as the Quincy Jones of Philly) to perform at the Philadelphia Music Awards. After that he zipped back out to California to play at the Gavin Convention. He arrived in Miami a year ago.

Here in SoHo by the Sea, or whatever they're calling it these days, Mann has kept separate his day job as a classified-advertising salesman at New Times, his R&B recording with Freeman, and his singing and playing at benefits and jams as an acoustic act. "I've kept quiet. I mean, I'm no superstar, so don't imply that I'm hiding something really big from people. I've mostly kept quiet just because I work, I like to focus, and not be satiated by success in the small picture. I want to keep myself directed toward working with Rob on formulating our package."

It's difficult to imagine Mann keeping his talents, not to mention his dual life, under wraps for too long. His voice demands not only attention, but stupefaction. In it you hear the sweet, warm glow of gospel, the growling ferocity of street R&B, the spine-tingling beauty of soul, and, yes, it must be said that his vocals sound essentially blacklike. "Yeah," Mann says with resignation, "the white guy who sounds like a black guy. I don't think so. I'm not trying to sound like anyone but myself."

That should be enough, and for Rob Freeman, it's plenty. "It's so easy for a producer when you have that kind of talent to work with," he says of Mann's singing. "If people [in the industry] say they don't know what to do with him, then the world must be filled with idiots. He's a singer of songs. I tell [potential clients] to give me a rendition of a song as if you were hearing the ultimate version of that song on the radio. I ask an artist, `What can you do?' And they say they can do anything. I say, `No. What do you do?' Billy can do a number of things. Sometime in his career I see him doing a just-acoustic album. Recording music is about capturing moments. You put the ego away and put your heart into that. He does that, and he can get it on tape."

The launching of a high-visibility career is reliant upon the six-song demo tape Freeman and Mann have created. These are strong tunes, particularly the originals "The Morning After," a smokey and grooving romantic ballad, and "Carousel," a whirling, flashing harmony fest. Freeman has backed the vocals with a variety of sparkling arrangements, lush layers of vocals in some spots, pulsing piano in others, razoring guitar progressions and juicy funk runs - it sounds like a ready-to-release major-label LP. But the two decided going in that it would definitely not be released.

"We have a game plan, a process," Freeman explains. "Each step takes as long as it takes. We're shopping the tape and awaiting reaction, but I expect an album to be out this year or early next year. You can't predict how long this will take, though. We've gotten to where we wanted to be at this time. We've been hammering away at this quietly. This is a promo demo, which is not meant to cover it up. We're proud of what we've done. But we also want to leave the doors open to make a different record. We had it in mind to do it this way. The whole thing is a big chance, but we're hedging our bets."

While Freeman is speaking, Mann can barely sit still. He wants to put his guitar down and go to the other side of the apartment where the recording gear is set up, so he can play piano accompaniment on an electronic keyboard. He wants to sing some more, right now, and says only this about the pursuit of a recording deal: "I want to make an R&B record with musicians. Nowadays a lot of acts are about putting together a drum machine and a Nautilus machine."

One contemporary act that's not about cheap beats and big pecs is saxophone master Grover Washington, Jr., who contributes scintillating sax to the demo on "The Morning After." Mann met Philly's favorite jazz son and they became friends. "He was an idol," Mann says. "I got to deal with an idol on a personal level and now he's like a human being. I was so used to experiencing him musically, he's such a big figure in Philly, that I got used to him as two-dimensional through photos, TV, and records. I met him andjust fell in love with his whole family." Mann typically refers to the sax man as "G," and fondly recalls hanging out at the Washington home, shooting pool and talking music.

"I played on his demo for a lot of reasons," Washington, currently completing his own new album, Next Exit, says by phone from Philadelphia. "When I first heard Billy, it was at a musical presentation, and his voice struck me. I met him through my son, who has a studio, and was working with him. I found out he writes, too. I realized he's more than a one-dimensional guy. When he came to our house, I got to know him, and I realized he's a great guy away from the bandstand. And another reason is that I always look for ways to learn from different people, even if they're younger than me. I like to do different kinds of things, not just for the sake of being different, but to enhance what is going on and to learn. Plus I can beat him shooting pool."

Billy Mann is at the keyboards now, singing a song. It's a rich and gorgeous song full of smart lyrics about teen angst, about remembering youth's green glories. It shoots shivers through the two people listening. A Jackson Browne song this grand could not be so obscure as to be unrecognizable. It's not a Springsteen piece, or Boz Scaggs. It must've been a hit, at least an A.O.R. hit, for somebody sometime. Mann is asked the title. "It doesn't really have one," he says. "It's just something I wrote when I was about sixteen."

Have mercy. "The exuberance of youth," says Freeman with a smile. "He has a great energy, and I don't want to knock that out of him. I want to capture that energy on record." Mann chimes in, "I'm just a kid." Maybe, but he's a kid with a voice that's going to knock music lovers across the land right on their futons.

"Neither of us believed the other - everybody's a singer, everybody's a producer - but a week later we were recording.

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Greg Baker