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Pop's Jimmy Stewart Is Bowling Them Over

June 21, 1987|DENNIS HUNT

DENVER — A gorgeous young blonde in a revealing outfit, weaving drunkenly, leered at Bruce Hornsby.

Though she was petite, she stood out in the small crowd of locals gathered backstage after the show at the Red Rocks Amphitheater, which is just outside of Denver. They were all telling Hornsby, who was casually dressed in worn shirt and jeans, how much they had loved the show.

As he chatted with other fans, the blonde moved in, put her arm around him and wouldn't let go. Though Hornsby didn't know her, he was very polite and friendly to her. But her aggressive behavior was obviously embarrassing him.

Dealing with groupies is still a strange experience for Hornsby, 32, who's new to stardom. He was the surprise new star of 1986--even winning the best new artist Grammy. His mellow, introspective singles, "The Way It Is" and "Mandolin Rain," were big hits. His first album, "The Way It Is"--on RCA Records--has sold more than 2 million copies. He and his four-piece band, Range, have been touring since last August.

Hornsby is so personable and ingratiating that you at first figure it's an act. Nobody can be that nice. But it's no act. You could see that by the way he dealt with those fans. Hornsby yakked on and on, making these strangers feel like his best friends. Any star will tell you that making small talk with adoring fans quickly drains the patience. Hornsby, however, seemed to have an endless supply of patience.

He wasn't even cross with that blonde. Many artists would have summoned the security guards to cart her away. Others would have behaved like lechers and made plans with her for later. But, as he chatted with others, Hornsby tolerated her attentions while firmly keeping her from getting too personal.

Hornsby is tall (6 feet 4) and gangly, coming across like a young James Stewart, bowling you over with that small-town (Williamsburg, Va.) charm.

"He looks so innocent and wholesome," a woman said to her female companion after talking briefly with Hornsby. "You just want to cuddle him."

Apparently that's what the blonde had in mind.

"Is that his wife?" a woman asked her male companion as she watched the pesky blonde clutching Hornsby's arm. "I don't think so," he replied.

A small entourage--including Range members Peter Harris (guitar), John Molo (drums), Joe Puerta (bass) and George Marinelli (guitar)--was waiting for Hornsby. They came to the amphitheater in a van with him and were eager to go back to the hotel. They waited impatiently as he talked to the fans. He probably would have talked for another hour if his friends hadn't badgered him into leaving. First he ducked away from the blonde, who was getting woozier by the minute. Then he slipped away from the crowd.

In the van, Hornsby said: 'I was embarrassed for that poor woman (the blonde). That kind of thing happens to me very rarely. I'm no sex symbol. I'm not like David Lee Roth or guys like that. I'm not trying to be a superstud. I'm happily married."

The van eased down a hill just outside the backstage entrance, weaving though scattered groups of people. Off to the right, that blonde staggered slowly down the hill, alone.

"I hope she'll be all right," Hornsby said as he watched her.

Then he added: 'Stuff like that--that's the bad part about this thing."

The next morning, in his cluttered hotel room, Hornsby, looking disheveled and only half-awake, sat on his bed watching an NBA playoff game on TV. As he talked he munched on a giant cinnamon bun.

While keeping one eye on the game, he was trying to explain his popularity: "It still baffles me. It's not my singing. I'm not a great singer--OK, but not great, like a lot of singer-songwriters. I can name a few dozen people who sing better than me.

"I'd been trying for all these years to get something going since I graduated from college (the University of Miami in 1977). I was playing clubs and writing songs. It seemed like nobody would ever want what I was writing."

Hornsby was discovered working in a club in Virginia by Michael McDonald, who was then with the Doobie Brothers. Inspired by McDonald, Hornsby moved to Los Angeles, seeking work as a songwriter.

He worked uneventfully as a staff composer and also spent two years as a sideman for Sheena Easton. Then frustration set in, which turned out to be a liberating experience.

"I was going nowhere fast," he recalled. "I was writing these formula pop songs. It wasn't what I wanted to do. I decided to stop trying for these pop hits and write something I liked."

So he and his collaborator, his brother, John, worked on some songs that seemed right for the New Age market. Windham Hill Records--which specializes in New Age music, wanted to sign him. But he then found out that major pop labels were interested too.

"I thought no big companies would care about this kind of music," he said. "But they found out about the tape and thought there might be a commercial market for it."

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