By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Tonight is the night Columbia Records hopes to get people to notice Simpson. This showcase is one of a handful planned for the top markets in the country -- New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit, among others -- a chance to get radio programmers and retail stores and writers into the same room to see and hear what she can do. Simpson's first single, "I Wanna Love You Forever," will be released in less than two weeks, and Sweet Kisses, her first album, is due out on November 9. Columbia wants to make sure every radio station in the country is playing Simpson's music, every record store is selling it, and every newspaper and magazine is writing about it.
For the moment, however, the people knocking back free drinks at the bar and noshing on the trays of quesadillas orbiting the room seem to be more interested in the reception than in Simpson's performance. Yet for all their indifference, the crowd inside the Gypsy Tea Room is here to see Simpson, if only to find out whether she's as good as her label seems to believe she is. They've heard the stories that have been circulating since she signed with Columbia two years ago, such as the one that claims she walked into the offices of Sony Music Entertainment -- Columbia's parent company -- unannounced and walked out with a recording contract. When something in the music industry seems too good to be true, it usually is, and they're ready to find out whether there are any holes in Simpson's story.
After almost an hour of sweaty Shiner Bocks and greasy Mexican food, an employee from Sony's regional offices instructs everyone to move into an adjacent room so Simpson's performance can begin, adding that the bar will be closed while she is onstage. The party's over, he might as well have announced, time for business. A few minutes later, Tom Donnaruma -- Columbia's senior vice president of sales -- takes the stage and introduces the audience to Columbia's new "special talent." You can practically see the dollar signs in his eyes.
"There was a gaping hole, and we knew that she could fill it," Charlie Walk, Columbia's senior vice president of promotions, says later. "She's an incredible artist with an incredible voice. If you look at Top 40 radio, there aren't that many great vocalists. There are great songs, but not great singers...Not only does Jessica have great pop songs, but she's a great singer as well."
Simpson emerges from backstage with her group of dancers, including her 14-year-old sister Ashlee, and it's not hard to tell what Columbia sees in her. She's a beautiful young woman with a voice that's prettier than she is, and she sings the kind of candy-coated R&B songs that sell. Following on the heels of Britney Spears -- another attractive blonde adolescent, who has sold more than six million copies of her debut album, 1998's ...Baby One More Time -- Simpson's timing couldn't be better. Not only does she have the right songs, but she can sing them better than any of the other teenage girls ruling the pop charts at the moment.
And the audience is right there with her. When she launches into "I Wanna Love You Forever," a showy ballad that allows Simpson to air out her five-octave range, the crowd bursts into applause when she hits the high notes. The room may be filled with ringers -- the Sony and Columbia staffers are almost contractually bound to be enthusiastic -- but even the cynics in the audience would have to admit that the girl is good. The songs may be disposable, but the singer isn't. She has the presence of a performer twice her age, strutting around the stage as if she owns it. And tonight, she does.
After wrapping up her two-song set, Simpson lingers to thank everyone for coming, especially Teresa LaBarbera-Whites, the artist-and-repertoire (A&R) representative who helped sign Simpson to Columbia two years ago and the woman she refers to as her "second mom." LaBarbera-Whites looks the part, beaming from her seat near the front of the stage. But she should be the one thanking Simpson.
If Simpson is as successful as the label hopes, it will prove to LaBarbera-Whites' detractors that she can find talent while working out of an office in Dallas instead of in New York or Los Angeles and silence those who have wondered how she has kept her job for almost a decade even though she has brought only three bands to Columbia. Yet it probably won't quiet those who have often speculated why someone who has always stressed her commitment to local music has failed to bring a single Dallas act to the label, with the exception of Jessica Simpson. And Simpson moved to Los Angeles almost a year ago.