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UP FRONT: LATIN GRAMMY AWARDS | POP MUSIC

Confessions of a somebody

Obie Bermudez is nominated for three Latin Grammys, competing with big-name performers.

November 03, 2005|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

SINGER-songwriter Obie Bermudez is sitting alone at a patio table outside City Wok, a favorite restaurant near his Studio City apartment. He's hard to miss, with his tinted glasses, rakish corduroy beret and pair of rosaries hanging from his neck.

Although Bermudez is up for three awards in tonight's sixth annual Latin Grammys at the Shrine Auditorium, nobody recognizes him among the hip young crowd of lunchgoers and coffee-sippers, all waiting to be discovered themselves. Nobody but a humble Latino busboy who later hands him a note about some songs the worker has written.

Bermudez knows what it's like being a nobody who dreams of becoming a star. The 28-year-old Puerto Rican from New Jersey has been there -- twice -- in a career that's seen its share of successes and disappointments.

In last year's Latin Grammys, he was nominated as best new artist for his much praised and publicized album "Confesiones," which chronicles his observations while working at a laundromat in the Bronx during lean years. The award went instead to Brazilian singer Maria Rita.

"I wasn't a happy camper," Bermudez confesses over his shrimp in black bean sauce. "I thought it was mine. But that's just how life is. Awards shows are great and I appreciate them very much, but I don't go by that. I feel like I'm a winner already, with the academy nominating me three times. That is telling me, 'Hey, Obie, you're doing a good job. Keep on working.' And that to me is good enough."

The singer's latest work, "Todo El Ano" (All Year Long), is nominated in two top categories, best album, produced by Sebastian Krys and Joel Someillan, and best song for the wistful title track, co-written with Elsten C. Torres.

Surprisingly, those are not the categories that mean the most to Bermudez. The one he considers major is best male pop vocal. That's where he's competing with veterans such as fellow Puerto Rican Marc Anthony, the salsa singer he looked up to when Bermudez was a teenager.

"They're like amazing stars I used to watch on TV and now I'm, like, going up against them," Bermudez says with a smile. "I feel like I'm a middle junior weight and I always go against heavyweights."

Bermudez, christened with the biblical name Obed, was born in Aibonito, a small mountain town in Puerto Rico. He learned guitar from his father, a huge Beatles fan, and learned his roots from his mother, a huge salsa fan. Today, his music reflects that marriage, layers of pop over a traditional base.

Bermudez was about 10 when the family moved to New Jersey and 16 when Marc Anthony released his first solo album that rocked the New York salsa scene. That's when the teen realized he could make it in music too.

Before graduating from high school, Bermudez made a demo of some songs he had written. From a CD, he got the name and address of Marc Anthony's manager at the time, David Maldonado, and mailed his music across the river to New York, a place he had never even visited, thanks to a beloved but overprotective mother.

TO his amazement, he got a call back the same week. By 1998, when Marc Anthony was about to blow up as a crossover star, Bermudez got his first record deal with BMG. He was 21. His first CD, "Locales," soon followed and so did concerts, autograph sessions and feature stories in the media.

But when the salsa album didn't sell, Bermudez was dropped by the label.

"I cried because I felt, like, what does it mean?" Bermudez recalls. "So, I'm no good?"

His mourning lasted like some people's fame, about 15 minutes. The artist pretends to sniffle and wipe a tear from his cheek with a macho flick, recalling his drive to get over it.

"I always say it's OK to cry and it's OK to feel down, but only for a moment," he says, liberally mixing Spanish and English with a Jersey accent. "Then you've got to get up y seguir [and go on]. Because if you don't, the easiest thing to do is just stay at home."

Bermudez spent the next three years working in that laundromat, making change, selling soap and writing songs. His customers became his subjects. So did his frustrations.

"I would call David sometimes, crying, like, 'Dude, you know what it's like to get up at 4:30 in the morning? It's easy for you to.... ' "

Maldonado, his faithful manager and cheerleader, would interrupt: "He's like, 'Yo, that's a song. Write about it.' "

That song, "4:30 AM," appears on 2003's celebrated "Confesiones."

"I've always said that opportunities come around again and again," says Bermudez, who moved here three months ago to break into acting. "The important thing is not to be caught sitting on your hands when it comes."

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Latin Grammy Awards

Where: Univision

When: 8 tonight

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Handicapping the Latin Grammys

Album of the Year

* "Pafuera Telaranas," Bebe (Spain)

* "Todo el Ano," Obie Bermudez (Puerto Rico)

* "Diez," Intocable (Texas)

* "Cantando Historias," Ivan Lins (Brazil)

* "MTV Unplugged," Diego Torres (Argentina)

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