With a richly soulful voice and a songwriting sensibility straight out of Motown’s heyday, singersongwriter Billy Mann sounds like an artist from a bygone era. But, while his music may evoke memories of radio staples from days of yore, the Philadelphia native has only been a force on the national music scene since the mid-1990s, when he released his first record. A relative newcomer, Mann has carved out a niche for himself by attempting to mix his influences with more modern sounds, crafting catchy pop songs rooted in soul.
Like many musicians-to-be, Mann was introduced to music as a child. He started to play the piano at the age of five, and soon thereafter took up bass, flute, and guitar as well. Majoring in vocal music and creative writing at his hometown’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts, Mann wrote songs, sang in a gospel choir and played in local bands. A precocious young talent, Mann slipped surreptitiously into nightclubs to listen to professional performers at work. He reportedly hid inside the legendary Sigma Sound studio during a recording session with Patti LaBelle until he was discovered and promptly kicked out.
Following a performance in honor of songwriter Linda Creed at the Philadelphia Music Awards, the 20 year old Mann met the famed jazz and R&B saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., a Grammy-winner and Philadelphia session musician who was impressed with Mann’s vocal prowess. “Grover gave me no choice but to be inspired to keep on with it [music], even when I ran out of confidence… which I did… a lot,” Mann was quoted as saying of the encounter.
Even as a novice performer, Mann seemed determined to make a living making music. Harking back to his days singing R&B tunes on street corners as a 12-year-old, an early twentysomething Mann branched out to street performances in cities like San Francisco, New York, Miami, and London. During those globe-trotting days, he also frequented nightspots with open microphones.
His love for an aspiring actress (immortalized under the fictional name of “Daisy” in “Killed by a Flower,” a single from Mann’s debut album) took him to New York at the age of 23. While the romance eventually faltered, the move enabled Mann’s career to blossom—thanks to a chance encounter with star producer Ric Wake in the stairwell of an apartment building in Manhattan. Wake, who has worked with the likes of Mariah Carey and Hall and Oates, heard Mann singing and was struck by his musical talent. Mann soon found himself cutting a demo with Wake’s help in a professional studio. It was also Wake who brought Mann to the office of A&M label head Al Cafaro, where Mann’s performance led him to be the first musician signed to Wake’s DV 8 label, a division of A&M. As Mann recalled of the experience to Nathan Brackett in Musician, “‘I was terrified. I did one of those Bruce Springsteen auditions where you go into the president’s office with your guitar…. You can’t hide at that point.”
As it turned out, Mann didn’t have to. Although he has been criticized by some for being a bit derivative, his self-titled first album, released on April 2, 1996, got a number of positive notices, with critics likening his sound to the 1960s and 1970s pop-soul of Stevie Wonder, the Spinners, and Hall and Oates, among others. In Entertainment Weekly, Tony Scherman echoed a sentiment expressed by other rock writers when he praised Mann’s “beautifully supple voice.” Reviewing the record for the Chicago Sun Times, Jae-Ha Kim called Mann a “pensive writer” whose songs “are a potent blend of folky melancholy and stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll.”
To generate interest in the record, Mann’s label sent him out on the road, as is typically done with musicians who have new releases in stores. However, one leg of the tour was a bit unique: In 1996, Mann played a series of Borders book and music store acoustic shows around the country, opening up for fellow singer-songwriters Patty Griffin and headliner Jann Arden. Larry Weintraud, vice-president of artist development/artist relations for
Born c. 1970 in Pennysylvania.
Invited to sing at Philadephia Music Awards ceremony c. 1990; discovered by producer Ric Wake in New York; first artist signed to Wake’s DV8 label (a division of A&M) c. 1995; released debut album Billy Mann, 1996; released Earthbound, 1998.
Addresses: Record company —DV8/A&M Records, 1600 Broadway, Suite 512, New York, NY 10019.
A&M, told Bradley Bambarger of Billboard that the bookstore tour was part of a development plan the label had for the artists.
Mann’s emerging success on the music scene came at a time when his personal life was dealt a sharp blow. Shortly after completing his debut album in 1995, his girlfriend, Rema (to whom he had already proposed) was diagnosed with cancer. They married soon thereafter but she died within a year. The experience inspired the content and tone of Earthbound, Mann’s second record, released in May of 1998. As Mann observed in his record company biography, “Earthbound came from the up-and-down life juggling that I’ve been through…. In my own way, sharing my experience helps me honor Rema, and that feels good to me.”
Recorded with well-known producer David Kershenbaum (Tracy Chapman, Joe Jackson) in only three days, Earthbound teamed Mann with a group of childhood musician pals from Philadelphia, including bassist Adam Dorn, background vocalist Brett “Dig” Laurence, guitarist Paul Pimsler, and drummer Steve Wolf. The fact that they performed in a band together when they were 12-year-olds made the recording process easier—and more enjoyable. “After recording, we were all so wired nobody could sleep,” Mann said in his biography. “What was mind-boggling was that it got to tape so naturally. Knowing each other so well, I think, made it all come together.”
The record not only teamed Mann with old friends, but also allowed him to work with newer acquaintances, perhaps most notably, the renowned singer-songwriter Carole King. King added back up vocals to the songs “Mary on My Mind” and “Numb Heart,” as well as piano and vocals to “What Have I Got to Lose?”, which she cowrote with Mann and Mark Hudson. “Having Carole as a mentor has taught me many lessons, but mostly to rely more on a song’s emotional impact and less on the production,” says Mann.
While Mann has made a host of inroads for himself as a solo artist, he has continued to focus on songwriting and collaborations with others as well. His credits include penning tunes for the likes of Diana King and Chaka Khan, and he co-wrote the song “Treat Her Like a Lady,” which appeared on Celine Dion’s 1997 album, Let’s Talk About Love. As he told Brackett, “If I could say anything to anybody trying to make music their business, I’d say write songs. You can have the voice and the act and you can have the vibe, but ultimately, you have to have those songs.”
Billy Mann, DV8/A&M, 1996.
Earthbound, DV8/A&M, 1998.
Audio, July 1996, p. 81.
Billboard, June 8, 1996, p. 8.
Chicago Sun Times, March 31, 1996.
Entertainment Weekly, April 5, 1996, p. 80.
Glamour, June 1996.
Musician, November 1995.
Philadelphia Daily News, April 2, 1996.
Time Out New York, May 8, 1996.
Additional information provided by A&M Records publicity materials, 1997 and 1998.
—K. Michelle Moran
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