Remember Louie Louie? The 19-year-old singing and dancing dynamo featured in the video for Madonna's song "Borderline" in 1984? Who went on to a major-label release ("The State I'm In") and a Top 20 hit of his own ("Sittin' in the Lap of Luxury") in 1990? Who collaborated with Prince and George Michael on his follow-up LP, "Let's Get Started" in 1992?
The handsome entertainer was creating a stir back then. But his career sputtered, and Louie Louie all but disappeared from the scene.
His latest release, last year's "Louie Cordero" (his real name), was an overproduced, disappointing collection of ballads and upbeat dance tunes sung in English and Spanish. It has been one of the worst-selling albums in Trauma Records' history: According to Soundscan, a scant 600 copies were purchased.
Now, Cordero spends his Thursdays doing two sets a night at Carmelo's, a restaurant in Corona del Mar. Next week, he starts a monthlong engagement at the new Sunset Station casino in Las Vegas--a city often regarded as the graveyard of pop integrity. Has Louie Louie resigned himself to cashing in his creative chips?
No way. During a recent phone conversation from his home in Sherman Oaks, Cordero, 32, sounded anything but defeated. He spoke excitedly and optimistically about material he has recorded for a new album, and he views his shows in Vegas--just like those at Carmelo's--as opportunities for rejuvenating and honing his skills.
"Fans at Carmelo's have come up to me and asked, 'Man, what are you doing here?' But the intimate atmosphere there inspires me," he said. "I need to play somewhere every week, so as I write new songs I can test them on an audience. You can sense when the vibe is good in a room, and the immediate feedback helps me a lot.
"I really don't know how long I'll hang in Vegas," continued Cordero, a graduate of El Toro High and a former Santa Ana resident. He'd like to take his show on the road after his next record comes out, "which I hope will be this summer."
The seeds for the forthcoming album were planted six months ago when Cordero attended a Latin music convention in Miami. He met a trio of young record producers there, collectively known as SLI, and before he flew back home they had collaborated on a new ballad called "Lonely Won't Stay Out of My Life."
Cordero returned to Miami in March and co-wrote five more songs with SLI (individually known by their first names only: Star, Lia and Gish). "One of the new tracks is dark but soulful and vulnerable," Cordero said. "It's called 'You Told Me Without Telling Me.' He played some of the new numbers for executives at Trauma and they liked what they heard. "We were very impressed with the quality," said Rob Kahane, the label's co-president. "Louie's got tremendous drive, a great voice, and the lyrics were very good. "You know, it just takes one spark, and then your career is off to the races."
Cordero hopes to capture more of himself on the new album (to be called "Press Play"). He thinks that much of his heart and soul were lost in the pulsating mix of drum machines, synthesizers and other "so-called production enhancements" of his earlier recordings.
"My last record was more of an experimental thing, and to be honest, I don't hear me when I listen to it now. It's almost a blessing that it didn't do well, because I probably would have continued in that direction.
"I think as an artist, sometimes other people can get in your way without meaning to. I mean, I was marketed to have hair like Milli Vanilli, dress like Prince and sound like Stevie Wonder. I've learned that you can only be yourself and pray your music finds its way into the right hands."
He thinks that he and SLI are a perfect fit. "It's all coming together nicely. I just sound like me . . . and no one else. SLI has set me free. Most of the vocals were done in one take, and the songs just flowed out of me. We wrote and recorded five songs in just eight days."
Instead of techno, funk and ballads, his focus now is on soul and R&B, with a dash of hip-hop beats. "It's what I've always wanted to do, but my labels [CBS and Reprise] steered me away from it. They said, 'You're not black, so you can't sound too black.' " (Cordero is part Puerto Rican, part Irish.)
"Louie still has a shot at stardom, but it's gonna take a great record," said Jerry Greenberg, Cordero's early mentor at CBS Records who now runs Michael Jackson's label, MJJ/Sony Music. "He has all the talent and ambition. We came very close, but sometimes it just takes time and you have to persevere. I think he has a good feel for today's music, and I still believe in him."
Cordero, meanwhile, says he has learned from mistakes, considers any setbacks to be "just missteps, not failures" and continues to see things "with big eyes. I always have and always will," he said. "Even as a kid, I imagined myself singing on the Johnny Carson show someday. I really believe when you stop dreaming, a part of you stops living.
"I'm writing and performing because it makes me feel wonderful and alive. I won't be thrilled if my next record doesn't explode, but whatever happens, no one can ever take Louie Louie away from me."
* Louie Cordero sings Thursday at Carmelo's Ristorante, 3520 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar. 9:30 p.m. $5. (714) 675-1922.