Who knew Billy Dean could be such a devastatingly effective cabaret singer?
Dressed in a dark blue double-breasted suit with pin stripes and sipping occasionally on a glass of wine — a la Frank Sinatra — Dean charmed a full house recently at Nashville’s 12th & Porter nightclub.
The occasion was the rollout of his new album, Billy Dean Sings Richard Leigh, a 10-song collection that has a distinct classic pop flavor to it.
Leigh, who has graced the country charts with such winners as “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” (both of which Dean covers in the album), was on hand to join in the applause.
Backed by a six-piece band and two harmony singers, Dean narrated his set in a way that wove the disparate songs into a single vocal tapestry about love in all its stages, from the euphoria of discovery to the bleakness of loss.
During the ’90s, Dean scored a series of Top 10 hits, including “Only the Wind,” “Billy the Kid,” “If There Hadn’t Been You” and “Tryin’ to Hide a Fire in the Dark.” In an interview with CMT.com, Dean explained his motive for the Leigh tribute.
“I started thinking about the climate of our music industry two or three years ago — how it’s been turned on its head and about all the different people affected by it,” he said. “One of the persons affected the most is the guy who could have gone to college to be a doctor or lawyer or scientist but who decided to come to Nashville to become a professional songwriter — not a recording artist, not a producer but one who dedicated himself to the craft of songwriting.”
With more artists writing their own material, Dean continued, he fears “the guy who lives and breathes his work every day, making the best music and best songs, could go away.”
Thus was born the idea of doing a series of albums devoted to Music Row’s top tunesmiths.
Leigh was a natural choice to launch the series. He and Dean met just after Dean had joined him as a staff writer at EMI Music in Nashville.
By that time, Leigh was already famous from having won a Grammy for best country song following Crystal Gayle’s rendering of “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” He had also co-written hits for such rising stars as Steve Wariner (“Life’s Highway”), Ronnie Milsap (“In No Time at All”) and Kathy Mattea (“Come From the Heart”).
In fact, Leigh and Wayland Holyfield also wrote Dean’s first chart song, “Only Here for a Little While.” In 1994, Leigh would be inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
As Dean recalled it, he and Leigh converged one fateful morning at the EMI coffee pot. “He said, ’If you’re not writing with anybody today, I had a [co-writing] cancellation. You want to go upstairs and work on something?’ I said, ’Sure.’ I was blown away.”
The upshot of that first co-writing bout was Dean’s 1991 signature hit, “Somewhere in My Broken Heart.”
Dean admitted he blew the chance to have another hit from Leigh’s pen.
“Right after we wrote ’Somewhere in My Broken Heart,’ he [and Layng Martine] wrote a song called ’The Greatest Man I Never Knew.’ He played it for me before he played it for anyone else because things were really rocking for us in the early ’90s. We were off to a good start.”
The story of a dutiful but emotionally distant father, “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” soon caught the attention of Reba McEntire, who recorded it and turned it into a No. 3 hit in 1992.
“One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was not recording that song when he played it for me,” Dean admitted. “I’d lost my father, and I was pretty close to him. So I didn’t feel like I was the right artist to do the song. I learned the greatest lesson — to not make everything about me. Richard always wanted me to record that song. I guess he wanted it to come from a male point of view.”
Dean billed his 12th & Porter appearance as “Love’s a Small CafÃ©” and said he may tour music from the album under that rubric. The phrase — and the pensive mood it conveys — comes from lines in one of the album’s songs that go, “Love’s a small cafÃ© where you don’t belong/’Til someone comes along.”
“With Richard and me,” Dean reflected, “it’s like one plus one equals three. His style of writing fits my voice to a T, even better than songs I write on my own. … He calls what we’re doing ’Hank Sinatra music.'”