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The Great Catch In Hornsby's Voice

September 23, 1986|STEVE HOCHMAN

"Huey Lewis and I were playing golf one time and we had a little bet going," recalled pop musician Bruce Hornsby. "If he won, he got three bucks. If I won, he had to listen to my tape. . . . I won."

It's not exactly a tale of discovery to rival the spotting of Lana Turner at the soda fountain, but Hornsby's victory on the links over rock star Lewis has proved nearly as auspicious.

The two became acquainted a few years ago when Lewis was interested in recording one of Hornsby's songs. But it was the "golf tape" that led Lewis to help secure a record contract for Hornsby and produce three songs on his debut album, "The Way It Is."

The LP and its title single are climbing the charts, and Hornsby will be at the Roxy tonight and Wednesday with his band, the Range, as part of his first national tour.

Hornsby's music is an update of the '70s singer-songwriter approach with contemporary perspectives on economic and emotional survival. Though the songs are built around Hornsby's often jazzy keyboards, it's his voice--which brings to mind Jackson Browne and former Procol Harum singer Gary Brooker--that tends to catch people first. Hornsby said he thinks those comparisons are fair.

"The good news is we don't always get compared to the same guy," said Hornsby, a Williamsburg, Va., native, who, at 6 feet 4, resembles a thinner version of actor Randy Quaid.

"Jackson and Gary Brooker are the two most common (comparisons), but we get some left-field things like (Bruce) Springsteen and Bruce Cockburn. Everybody needs a frame of reference. I'm just glad I get compared to people whose records I own, whom I like."

The Springsteen notion probably has to do with the topical subject matter of many Hornsby songs, most of which he co-wrote with younger brother John. "The Way It Is" is an indictment of President Reagan's "safety net" in dealing with the jobless and homeless. Another pointed Hornsby song, "Jacob's Ladder," can be found on Lewis' latest album.

"That's our comment on evangelists," said Hornsby, who grew up surrounded by religious fundamentalism. "Jerry Falwell's from Lynchburg, Va., and Pat Robertson's from Virginia Beach. Everything we write has something to do with our upbringing, and that's no different."

Hornsby and his brother are writing songs for a second album on which he intends to expand the Southern topicality in the manner of Randy Newman's "Good Old Boys."

That he can even think about a second album is a happy surprise for Hornsby, who at 31 spent a long time aiming for his first release. "I kicked around for a few years and all the record companies turned me down," he said. "I always had friends in high musical places, but getting the big corporate guys to go for it was my cross to bear."

Hornsby, who grew up in a musical family, got his first good taste of both formal musical knowledge and the realities of a music career while studying at the University of Miami in Florida.

"I pretty much put myself through college playing the Miami bar mitzvah circuit and in lounges with gay Spanish singers," he said, chuckling.

"I was making a living at it, but it wasn't until I got out of school and went back to Virginia that I was actually making a career out of it rather than just making a buck playing 'Hava Nagila' all night."

Six years ago, he and his brother moved to Los Angeles to take positions as staff songwriters for 20th Century Fox Records. "John and I both found we were neither very good nor interested in that," he said. "We just bailed on that situation."

His brother eventually returned to Virginia to study law, but Hornsby stayed in Los Angeles, playing keyboards for two years in Sheena Easton's band before finally getting his own deal with RCA last year.

Though Hornsby's break in the traditionally youthful rock world came relatively late, the singer is neither bitter nor discouraged.

"It's encouraging to us older guys to see how many of us are doing things," he said, naming Mark Knopfler, Phil Collins and Lewis as other examples of performers whose careers didn't really take off until they were well into adulthood.

"Maybe that 'typical pop star' thing is fading," he said, noting that, like the above-mentioned performers, his appearance is hardly that of a glamorous pop idol. "That's a good thing for bands like us. They sure didn't sign us for our looks."

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