SAN DIEGO — The grass was moist, and the sun kept hiding behind a misty veil of gray clouds. But that didn't stop several hundred San Diegans from gathering in Old Town Plaza on Sunday afternoon for the local portion of one of Southern California's biggest songwriting competitions.
The free four-hour concert was the second of three in the Club Songwriters Celebrations series, which organizers say is intended to spotlight undiscovered Southern California songwriters. It's sponsored by the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase (LASS), one of the nation's oldest and largest songwriter support organizations.
Earlier this summer, LASS selected two groups of 20 semi-finalists from more than 700 Southern California entrants.
The first group, consisting of songwriters from Los Angeles and northern Orange counties, was pared to eight finalists at the Club Songwriters Celebrations' opening concert last month in Long Beach.
Sunday, it was the second group's turn. Ten semi-finalists from San Diego and southern Orange counties performed 13 original compositions in four categories: country, pop, rhythm-and-blues and rock.
Some sang their own tunes, accompanied by either a live band or a recorded instrumental track. Others had someone else do the singing.
When it was all over, a panel of judges that included representatives from Arista Records and BMI, the international music licensing agency, picked two winners from each category to go on to the competition's grand finale next Sunday at the Starlight Amphitheater in Burbank.
There, the eight local finalists will join the eight chosen last month in Long Beach to compete for cash prizes totaling more than $3,500.
But to the local winners, the cash is secondary to an even more cherished prize: exposure.
"More than anything else, this kind of thing helps us meet the right people: the publishers, the record companies, even the acts themselves," said Dean Smith, a versatile 38-year-old musician who topped the pop category with his upbeat "Real Kind of Love."
"And I can't tell you how happy I am to finally be able to go up to Los Angeles and have a real good chance at getting someone to pick up something I've written."
Since he began writing songs for a living 10 years ago, Smith said, many of his compositions have been published, but only a handful have been recorded.
But now his chances for future success are greatly increased.
"Like too many other songwriters, my biggest obstacle has always been a lack of exposure," Smith said. "For too long, I've been stuck in the studio, recording and sending out demonstration tapes on my own.
"But winning this sort of thing is better than sending out 5 million tapes. In terms of getting exposure and getting the right people to hear your songs, you just can't beat it."
Beverly Bremers, whose "Like Cream to a Cat" placed second in the country division, agrees.
"I'm thrilled with it," said the 35-year-old Bremers, a regular with the San Diego Repertory Theatre, who broke into music in the late 1960s as a cast member of the Broadway musical "Hair."
"Now, if I send my song to, say, Marie Osmond, I can mention that it made the semifinals of this contest and expect to get a lot more attention than I would otherwise."
Len Chandler, the buoyant 51-year-old head of LASS, said he hopes to make the Club Songwriters Celebrations--held for the first time this year--an annual event.
"We've been thinking of having a contest like this for many years," Chandler said, "but it's always been impossible for us to do so because of the expense.
"Fortunately, this year we were able to attract the attention of the Club cocktails company, and thanks to their support we were even able to keep the whole thing free, both to the public and to the entrants."
Along with partner John Braheny, Chandler founded LASS 15 years ago and has watched its membership grow to more than 1,500 songwriters around the state.
Aside from the Club Songwriters Celebrations, Chandler said, the nonprofit organization holds weekly meetings at Gio's nightclub in Hollywood. There, he said, members spend about three hours critiquing each other's material, listening to talks by music industry professionals, and showcasing their works before an audience of music publishers, record company executives and artists in need of material.
"Those meetings are the most successful things we do," Chandler said. "We've helped our members place songs with hundreds of recording artists, from Cher to Sister Sledge, from George Benson to Barbra Streisand.
"Sometimes, surprising things happen. In the early 1970s, Janis Ian came to one of our meetings and in one night, performed three songs that would later become hits: 'Stars,' for Cher; 'Jesse,' for Roberta Flack, and 'At Seventeen,' which Janis recorded herself.
"You really never know when something like that is going to happen again. There's always that chance, because our whole purpose is to get songwriters connected with the right people.
"And the right people are the ones who make it a point to come out to our meetings, week after week."