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On the edge, once again

Soulful singer Keaton Simons seems poised for a big breakthrough. But he's been here before.

June 15, 2008|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer
  • LOOKING FORWARD: Simons? first major-label album came out Tuesday. Collapsed business deals and his own drug use held him back in the past.
LOOKING FORWARD: Simons? first major-label album came out Tuesday. Collapsed… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

JARED LEVY, a manager of artists and a music industry marketing strategist, was playing volleyball on the beach a few years back when Eliza Roberts began chatting him up. She insisted that Levy go see her son, Keaton Simons, play a show that night at Temple Bar on Wilshire Boulevard.

Levy was tempted to blow it off, but Roberts was forceful, and charming, so he went. He was floored by what he heard. Simons was what music executives call a "triple threat." He could write compelling songs, sing with a distinctive, soulful voice and play guitar with skill and ferocity. He sounded like a polished pro, not a raw newcomer, with enough sound and charisma to fill an arena. It turned out there was a reason for that. "I'd been around for years," Simons said recently.

"He was one of the best musicians I'd ever seen. And there were 15 people there," Levy said. "I know this is a tough town, but I thought: What is the disconnect here?"

The answer, he would learn, was tortuous, even by the standards of the modern recording industry. Simons' career had been delayed and derailed from the start -- by cursed Hollywood connections, by a doting but heavy-handed mother, by his own drug use and melancholy, by business deals that collapsed around him, including one with Maverick Recording Co., the record label founded in part by Madonna.

Now, Simons -- who has toured the West, played "The Tonight Show" and had songs on big TV series -- finally has his first major-label album. "Can You Hear Me" landed Tuesday on Larry Jenkins' relaunched CBS Records, and the first single, "Good Things Get Better," has the catchy, hand-clapping beat of a potential summer hit.

Simons, 29, appears ready, at last, to make a splash. If only the music industry -- and this town -- can stay out of his way. "I love everything about music," he said, the other day, as he puttered around his home studio in Woodland Hills. "I do not love everything about the music business."

Simons was not born into Hollywood royalty, but he was born to people who lived just outside the castle walls.

His grandmother, Lila Garrett, was a pioneering TV writer. His grandfather, David Rayfiel, wrote the 1975 award-winning film "Three Days of the Condor." Another grandfather, Don Garrett, was a publicist for The Supremes and numerous other acts. His mother was pregnant with Keaton when she played Brunella, the doe-eyed desk clerk in "Animal House," and has since performed in dozens of films and TV shows. His father, Jimmy Simons, was a producer on the critically acclaimed, long-running sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle." His stepfather is the actor Eric Roberts, Julia Roberts' brother.

Pretty much from the start, it was clear that music was Simons' thing. At 2, he would sit at the piano and imitate -- with surprising precision -- the first measures of whatever his mother had played, whether it was Joni Mitchell or Domenico Scarlatti.

A few years later, his parents gave him a kids' guitar, but he rejected it in favor of a regular-sized one -- not because he wanted to play a grown-up instrument but because, he said, the sound quality was superior.

It was an unusual childhood; no one ever seemed to be working a normal job and people always seemed to be awake at strange hours, he said. "I did a lot of parenting," he said. "I had a very adult thing about me when I was little."

That did not translate into a steady academic life. When he was 14, he said, he was kicked out of high school after he was caught growing marijuana inside an abandoned school locker. He finished high school with a tutor at home, at age 16.

At Evergreen State College in Washington state, Simons poured himself into music, dissecting the works of Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon and mastering every instrument in a traditional Indonesian gamelan ensemble. And he began writing his own songs -- including "Currently," which is on the new album. That song demonstrated the wry wisdom that would become a hallmark; it concludes: "I am currently in love with you."

Simons soon began making waves in the L.A. music scene, playing with a host of influential artists: Snoop Dogg, with whom he appeared on "The Tonight Show"; Tre Hardson of the Pharcyde; N'Dea Davenport of the Brand New Heavies.

He appeared to be on his way, largely because of his musical gifts but also because of connections. Eric Roberts began carrying copies of Simons' recordings with him to auditions to leave with producers needing music for soundtracks. Actor David Duchovny, a family friend, would soon hand-deliver Simons' recordings to Craig Ferguson, resulting in a booking on Ferguson's show.

"People would tell me year after year after year: He's going to be huge," his mother said. "But unrealized talent can be a great burden."

On a rocky road

Indeed, IT seemed to be weighing on him all along.

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