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A Tribute to <i>Kinky Boots</i> Star Billy Porter

A Tribute to Kinky Boots Star Billy Porter

Music

When Billy Porter won the Tony Award for Kinky Boots, it was the culmination of a very long, circuitous journey to achieve the sort of mainstream breakthrough that so many of us assumed would come his way much sooner.  I know there is a lesson in this for all of us who strive to be recognized for our talent and hard work.  When Billy accepted his award I was not only happy for him but also gratified that the abiding belief I had invested in his talent as his manager for a few years in the mid-1990s had, at last, elicited the sort of approbation we had both worked toward with such determination and passion.

Billy Porter, Tony Award
Billy Porter and his Tony Award

As Billy held his award and stood not just before his peers but, at last, before an international audience of millions, I was reminded of another, much earlier moment, which was up to that time—and still remains—one of the greatest memories of my music business career; a moment when it seemed like anything dreamable was achievable and that together Billy and I would streak across the sky, rewriting the rules and making history.  Though this would not be the case and we would, in the end, pursue our dreams separately, I’m so grateful that I have a recording of the song that made me believe that dreams could come true.  At that time we were each in our own way defined by our shared sense of hope and purpose, symbolized for me by the sheer beauty of Billy’s voice and his enormous gifts as an entertainer—gifts only recently given their proper due.  After the jump, my recollections of that special night and the unreleased live vocal performance that helped make it so memorable.

Billy Porter young
Billy Porter’s A&M Records promo picture. DHM was my little production company and DV8 was Ric Wake’s imprint. Photo by Marc Haurilak

Sometime in 1995, the late Ed McMahon, a fan and champion of Billy’s going back to his Star Search triumph several years earlier (Star Search was a 1980s precursor to American Idol, for those too young to remember), called up Billy and invited him to participate in a benefit for McMahon’s church in L.A.  It was one of those megachurches like you see on  TV on Sunday mornings and this was to be no run-of-the-mill church fundraiser.  The musical director was David Foster, one of the most highly esteemed writer/producer/arrangers in the business, and the line-up was a super high level roster of secular and non-secular recording artists, with David conducting a big orchestra.  The event was a big deal for Billy and a wonderful opportunity to get to know David Foster.  It was also the first opportunity I’d had to hear Billy sing live in a non-theatrical setting with a large orchestra and choir backing him up before an audience of probably at least 5,000 people.  We were both really excited.

What I remember about the event was David Foster popping by our trailer to apologize for Billy not really having a chance to soundcheck. I remember this was because Tevin Campbell took forever to finish with his.  David couldn’t have been nicer or more appreciative.  When it came time for Billy’s performance that night, it didn’t really matter that he hadn’t had a chance to work with the orchestra sufficiently, because he was just so much more talented than Tevin (shades of my protective manager side coming out here, after all these years).

Billy Porter, "Kinky Boots"
On a trip to Pittsburgh, Billy’s hometown.  Circa 1995

Billy had chosen to sing Richard Smallwood’s “I Give You Praise” and, if memory serves, had prepared a special arrangement of it himself.  It is still one of my favorite gospel songs.  The vast church was configured so the performance was in the round.  Ed McMahon introduced Billy in his inimitable Tonight Show announcer voice, “Ladies and gentleman, Billy Porter!”  The music began and Billy walked slowly from the back of the room, taking his time moving down the aisle.  I had goosebumps—not just because of the power of Billy’s performance, but because in this moment I felt like I could taste our future, sitting right there, close enough to touch.  I knew that Billy had the potential to be the next link in a chain that began in the 1960s with Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, and Sam Cooke, and continued through the 1970s with Donny Hathaway and into the 1980s with Luther Vandross.  I just knew it and his superb performance that night served as further proof that my belief in him was justified.

Billy Porter, Liza Minnelli
With Liza Minnelli and Billy at an after party for his Town Hall Concert, Christmas ‘1995, that I produced. We had some starry moments like this, but mostly it was just me and Billy together and dreaming big.

By the time the choir came in mid-way through the song, the audience rose to its feet en masse.  It was thrilling.  I was the only white fool in the room, jumping up and down in the back of the church, completely caught up in the joy of the moment and power of the music—I must have looked like a red headed dot with a big shit-eating grin.  It was a sublime and rarely equalled sensation.

We ran a recordingthat night off the sound board.  It has never been mixed or mastered.  It is completely imperfect and that is exactly as it should be: a lasting memorial to why I devoted two years of my life to helping Billy accomplish his dream of becoming a recording artist.  I begged the labels to include material on his album that was more like “I Give You Praise,” that captured his incredible energy and gave him an appropriate opportunity to show off his incredible voice, but it seemed like Billy and producer Peter Zizzo were the only people who agreed with me on this.  It was surprising how little control we actually had over the creative direction of the record.  Usher had only just broken through and it seemed like every other person involved in the project—especially the higher up on the food chain you went—suddenly wanted to make Billy’s record sound more like Usher; more “R&B,” more like what was being played on the radio.  Me?—I just wanted the record to capture lightening in a bottle and for it to sound like Billy.

But this Stargayzing piece is not about what went wrong.  It’s about what was right and a special night that will remain forever fixed as symbol of how purely I believed in my own instincts and someone else’s gifts from God.  Though it took Billy 20 more years, when they called his name to accept his Tony Award, I felt Ed McMahon looking down, saying, “Standing ovation, pal!”

 

 

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9 Comments

  1. Brett Laurence
    February 4, 2014 at 5:11 pm
    Reply

    Hi David,

    Very nicely written piece. Brought back memories for me of the good ‘ole days! This is the first I’ve heard of Billy winning the Tony – fantastic! He is definitely one of the most talented vocalists I have ever worked with.

    Thanks for sharing this memory.

    -Brett Laurence

    • David Munk
      February 5, 2014 at 9:26 pm

      Hi Brett. It’s so great to hear from you. I’m really glad you took the time to read the piece and thrilled that you took the time to comment—it means a great deal to me. I’m rather surprised that you only just now heard that Billy won the Tony award. You do realize this small seemingly little point is actually emphatic proof that you are, indeed, a straight man!

      Thanks again for checking in. David

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