Singer, guitarist, songwriter
Tall and ruggedly handsome, Florida native Billy Dean falls squarely into the romantic balladeer category within country music. A string of contemporary, country-flavored singles have charted Dean as a solid performer, and his most successful song, 1991’s “Somewhere in My Broken Heart,” have garnered him a Grammy nomination as well as a nomination for the coveted Country Music Association’s Horizon Award. In the years since, Dean has built on this success as both a songwriter and vocalist.
William Harold Dean was born April 2, 1962, in Quincy, Florida. He inherited both his name and his musical talent from his father who, in addition to being an auto mechanic, led his own local band, the Country Rock. Dean learned to play the guitar while still in elementary school and made his first appearance on stage in his father’s band when he was only eight years old. Telling his guitar-playing son that pickers were “a dime a dozen,” Billy’s father encouraged his son to develop his natural talent as a vocalist instead. “They used to stick a guitar in my hand that wouldn’t have the volume turned up, and that ticked me off…,” Dean recalled to Parry Gettelman of the Orlando Sentinel. “I got old enough to play finally, and they found out I was a pretty good player after a while and let me turn it up a little louder.”
By the time he was fifteen, Dean was performing gigs along Florida’s Gulf Coast, where he developed a regional following. Dean Sr. continued to support his son’s desire to become a musician. “Son, it won’t surprise me if you make it, but it will surprise me if you don’t,” he once told Billy Jr. Unfortunately, the elder Dean would not have the chance to witness his son’s national success—he passed away in 1983, when Billy was twenty-one.
The 6’4” Dean let go of his musical dreams for a short while when he attended college in Mississippi on a basketball scholarship. But after a year his attention wandered off the court and back toward music. Dean left school and toured with his own band, entering the 1982 Wrangler Star Search competition when he was nineteen. Despite the competition, Dean became a national finalist, placing tenth. Looking out from the Grand Ole Opry Stage during the finalist performances was inspiring for the young performer. And the encouragement he received from members of the panel of country music professionals assembled there as judges inspired Dean to move to Nashville to live out his dream.
For the Record…
Born William Harold Dean, April 2, 962, in Quincy, FL; son of William and Odean Dean; married Cathy Massey, 1990; children: William Eli, Hannah Catherine. Education: Attended.
Began performing professionally c. 1980; songwriter and backup singer, Nashville, TN, beginning 1983; signed with EMI (music publisher), c. 1988; signed with Liberty/SBK Records, 1989; recorded debut, Young Man, 1990; has appeared in commercials and on television series, including Lois & Clark.
Awards: Best New Male Vocalist and Song of the Year awards, both Academy of Country Music, both 1992; Grammy award nomination, best male performance—country, 1992, for “Somewhere in My Broken Heart”; TNN Songwriter award, 1993, for “Billy the Kid”; Rising Star award, Country Music Television Awards, 1993; Grammy Award (with others), best country gospel album, 1996, for Amazing Grace; several BMI certificates and awards.
Addresses: Record company —Capitol Nashville, 3322 West End Ave., Nashville, TN 37203.
Once he’d made the move to Music City USA, Dean began networking and soon found work as a vocalist, both as a commercial jingle-singer and as a backup singer for other artists. At the same time, he fell in with a new crowd of music professionals—songwriters. “I didn’t really consider myself a writer, but it seems like the first people I met were writers,” Dean told Vernell Hackett in America Songwriter. “… and most of the musicians who were gigging at night were writingduring the day. That was a pattern the people I met were in, so I fell into that pattern too.” He began to develop his own songwriting skills, maturing his talent and gaining the professionalism that would ultimately give him the break that he needed. Artists like the Oakridge Boys, Ronnie Milsap, Les Taylor of the band Exile, and Shelley West recorded his compositions, and efforts at co-writing were also successful—Earl Thomas Conley recorded “Brotherly Love,” which Dean helped to write. His contract to write for publisher EMI would be his first step to a recording contract.
Music City Connections Lead to Recording Contract After several years in Nashville, Dean’s track record as a songwriter was established. Then new traditionalist Randy Travis took a look at “Somewhere in My Broken Heart,” a song Dean had co-written with Richard Leigh, and liked what he saw. In 1989, while Travis was still considering the song for a single on his No Holding. Backalbum, Dean signed a contract with Capitol Nashville/SBK and recorded the song himself. It would appear on his 1990 debut, Young Man. Two of the album’s singles—“Somewhere in My Broken Heart” and “Only Here for a Little While”—went to the top of the country and adult contemporary charts, boosting the album to gold. Dean’s musical career was in gear and rolling.
The following year would find Dean walking away with best new male vocalist honors at the 1992 Academy of Country Music Awards presentation, the first of many awards the singer-songwriter would win during his career. Meanwhile, his second album, simply titled Billy Dean, was equally popular with fans. “You Don’t Count the Cost” and “Only the Wind” soon sailed into the top five, while “Billy the Kid” made a rapid climb to the number one spot after the album’s 1991 release. Billy Dean eventually went platinum.
Dean co-wrote five songs on his second album—songs that showed him to be a keen observer of life and love. His gift for storytelling rings true in ballads like “Billy the Kid,” which is both touchingly nostalgic and deeply introspective, and “If There Hadn’t Been You,” an ode to love. Billy believes that today’s country audience is looking for a more sophisticated slant to lyrics, although he believes country songs are not usually hailed for their depth. His own songs tend to be what he terms “a little vague, like pop music in the ’70s, when songs could be interpreted in several different ways. In country, for the most part, you have to spell it out.” While Dean’s own taste in songs runs to those that have lyrical depth and a sophisticated structure, he will be the first to admit that the songs he records have to fit the country radio format. Although Dean began his career as a vocals, after six albums, songwriting would become his main creative outlet. “I will always be a songwriter first and foremost,” he told Hackett in 1996— “my passion is inventing the music, and that’s what I love the most.”
Dean’s songwriting efforts were rewards by more than just his fans when “Somewhere in My Broken Heart” won the Academy of Country Music award for best song in 1992—the same yearthat Dean himself walked away with best new male vocalist honors.
The years following the release of Billy Dean have found the musician on the road with such country superstars as the Judds, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, and Merle Haggard. Along the way, he has also picked up a family—Dean married former sales executive Cathy Massey Dean in 1990 and became a father when young William Eli Dean appeared on the scene in mid-1993. A daughter, Hannah, was born to the Deans in 1995.
Meanwhile, he put in a full schedule in the recording studio. Dean’s third album, Fire in the Dark, also contained several original compositions, including the title track, which he co-authored with collaborator Tim Nichols. The 1993 release also featured several tunes that were, well, slightly out of character. “I’ve had a lot of ballads out because those are the kinds [of songs] I love to write,” Dean told Bob Paxman in Country Song Roundup. “But I always wondered how people would perceive another side of me, and I also wanted to start writing more about grow-up situations.” Together with Tim Nichols, Dean wrote his first cheating song, the title cut, which was embraced by radio and country fans alike.
Men’ll Be Boys, which Dean recorded in 1994, didn’t exactly wow the critics. While the album contained several ballads—Dean’s specialty—including one— “I Can’t Find the Words to Say Goodbye”—co-written with David Gates, former lead singer of the 1970s pop group Bread, the album had limited successes on the charts. As Dean would later tell Billboard, “The music wasn’t right…. And quite honestly, I was feeling burned out.” Dean’s active touring schedule had taken a toll as well, keeping him from songwriting and draining his creative energies.
The pressures of staying on top in the music business were taking their toll on Dean’s family as well, and after the release of Men’ll Be Boys, the singer-songwriter took a break from his music to spend time with his young son and wife Cathy, then pregnant with the couple’s second child. “It seemed like the time to let the dust settle,” Dean explained to Susanna Scott in Country Song Roundup. “We had a baby,… the record label was changing from Liberty to Capitol Nashville, and I’d been having voice problems. As a result of the time off, I’ve fallen in love with writing and performing again. I couldn’t have experienced this renewed enthusiasm if I hadn’t taken time to step back.”
During his year off, Dean did some acoustic gigs that began to renew his passion for songwriting and for performing. He came back strong in 1996, with a new album and a new burst energy. It’s What I Do showcases a more mature talent, not only in terms of musical experience but in terms of life experience as well. “I didn’t really plan to target [the 30-something] audience, but so many people are going through the same things I go through,” Dean told Deborah Evans Price in Billboards “I really put my heart on my sleeve with this album. I’m singing from a different placenow…. I noticed a change from where I was drawing my inspiration from, and it was coming from much deeper within me.” Dean co-wrote several cuts on the album, including the retro “Play Something We Can Dance To,” and incorporated several ballads from other top Nashville songwriters. The title cut, the Tom Shapiro-Chuck Jones penned “It’s What I Do,” is especially reflective of Dean’s new outlook: it’s the story of a man totally focused on his career to the exclusion of everything else in his life, until he learns to look beyond business for life’s true meaning. And singer Linda Davis joins Dean on another single, the poignant “Leavin’ Line.” Dean accompanied his return to recording with a return to touring, accompanying country superstar Reba McEntire on tour in the spring of 1996.
Because of the highs and lows that are part of a music career, Dean is looking ahead to broadening his creative horizons to include acting. He signed with Creative Artist Agency in the early 1990s and has appeared in commercials and on The Tonight Show and Good Morning America, as a host on several television awards shows, and, more recently, on such national television series as Lois & Clark. In addition to his own albums, Dean has also recorded material on the compilation albums Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles (1994) and the Grammy Award-winning Amazing Grace (1996);on the soundtrack album 8 Seconds (1994);and with Dolly Parton, on her 1993 recording Slow Dancin’ with the Moon.
Young Man, Liberty, 1990.
Billy Dean, Liberty, 1991.
Fire in the Dark, Liberty, 1992.
Greatest Hits, Liberty, 1994.
Men’ll Be Boys, Liberty, 1994.
It’s What I Do, Capitol Nashville, 1996.
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