The invitation for the reception and special performances happening at the Gypsy Tea Room this evening promised "the debut of an astonishing new voice," but that claim is at least a couple of months too late, maybe more. Jessica Simpson, the 19-year-old Richardson native who belongs to that voice, has been here all along. The only problem is, no one noticed.
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.
In the nine years that LaBarbera-Whites has worked for Sony and Columbia out of Dallas, more than a dozen bands from the area have signed major-label deals, but Columbia was never a serious contender for any of them. Most local bands don't even know her name. The truth is, for all the big talk and big ideas and big goals that have come from LaBarbera-Whites regarding local music over the years, she has done very little to help expose the bands and musicians here. LaBarbera-Whites maintains that it's not that easy, that just because someone who can sign bands is around town doesn't mean that someone is going to get signed. But should it mean that no one will?
Teresa LaBarbera-Whites was lucky enough to find Jessica Simpson before someone else did. Most of Simpson's life has been geared toward being discovered and signing a recording contract, becoming a star just like her heroes, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. She had been so close so often that she was nearly ready to give up -- at the tender age of 17. But five years of trying and failing had taken their toll. Simpson had been at the right place a few times before, but never at the right time, always tripping with the finish line in sight.
She knew she wanted to be a singer almost from the beginning. By age 5, she was already singing in the choir at Heights Baptist Church in Richardson, where her father worked as a youth minister. A few years later, she was one of the choir's soloists, wowing the congregation every Sunday with a voice that was so big coming from a girl so small. Simpson just loved to sing, whether it was "Amazing Grace" or a song she heard on the radio. And people loved to hear her.
As naturally as Simpson's voice came to her, it wasn't as simple to turn it into a career. The misstep that hurt the most was the first, and it came when she was only 12 years old. After answering a nationwide open call and appearing at a regional audition in Dallas, she was selected out of more than 30,000 girls from around the country -- along with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera -- to compete for one of the final cast-member positions as a Mousketeer on the Disney Channel's The New Mickey Mouse Club. Spears and Aguilera made it; Simpson didn't. They went on to star on the show with Justin and J.C. of 'N Sync, and Simpson stayed at home and watched as all four went on to successful singing careers. Nothing was more frustrating than seeing the way her life might have worked out if she had just survived the final cut.
"I would have quit after The Mickey Mouse Club if it wasn't for my family, because I was so depressed and hurt," Jessica says. "You know, as a 12-year-old, it really hurts your self-esteem to be that close to something and not get it."
"It was definitely a struggle, because Jessica kept saying, 'That's me!" I'm supposed to be there,'" says her father, Joe Simpson. "Yes, it's been hard."
Joe Simpson didn't think his daughter's fantasies of becoming a singer were anything more than that until the Mousketeer audition. He always knew she was talented, but until he went with her to Orlando and heard how she sounded by comparison, he thought that he was just another proud dad. And after seeing the disappointment in her face when she didn't get the part, he decided to redouble his efforts to make her career happen. He installed himself as her manager -- a position he still holds, along with 98 Degrees manager Paris D'jon -- and set about trying to find her a record deal.
Fighting depression, Jessica realized she had to push herself even harder. "I felt like a loser," she says today, resting up in her hotel room before another industry-only showcase in Detroit later that evening. "But that's really when I knew that it could go somewhere, you know, and I should take it serious, so I got into voice lessons."
Urged on by her father, Jessica made those lessons pay off two years later when she signed with a small New York-based gospel label that had secured national distribution through the now-defunct EMI. It seemed only natural for Simpson to record a gospel album, since she had grown up singing in her father's church and she was -- and is -- a devout Christian. She signs all of the entries in the tour diary on her Web site, www.jessicasimpson.com, with Bible verses. She spent most of the next two years in the studio recording her debut, only to see all that time wasted. She was just 15 when the label folded a week before the record was ready to be mixed.
"Many times, I was the only one left who believed," Joe Simpson says. "After a while, even [Jessica's] hopes began to fade. When the Christian deal went down and we didn't really have anything, she got pretty despondent and said, 'Well, it's not ever gonna happen.' And I said, 'No, not true.'" He laughs. "We're gonna make this thing happen no matter what we have to do. We just kept plugging, and ended up getting the right breaks."
When Joe Simpson discusses his daughter's career, he often sounds as if he's talking about his own, saying "we" instead of "she." Occasionally, it comes off as if the former youth minister is using his daughter for his own personal gain. But he can be forgiven if it seems that Jessica's big break is happening to him rather than to her, because, in many ways, it is.
After Jessica's gospel album crashed and burned, her career became the family business. Her grandmother put up the money to have the disc mixed and manufactured, and Jessica and her father hit the road. Jessica even wore costumes designed by her mother, Tina. Traveling on the Christian Youth Conference circuit, Joe would preach and Jessica would sing, selling her albums from the side of the stage because her nonexistent label still held the rights to all the recordings.
They were doing well, performing with the Winans and Kirk Franklin, but Jessica began to lose faith in her career, thinking that if she continued to sing gospel songs, she would remain on the Christian Youth Conference circuit forever. And she wasn't getting any younger. Besides, Simpson wanted to sing songs like the ones she heard growing up, the songs on the radio, not in church. It wasn't a hard decision to make -- she just did what her daddy had always told her to do and asked God.
"I trust that every step that I take is under God's control," she says. "I knew that I would get a bigger audience by doing the secular, and I have more of an opportunity to be a positive role model."
To help Jessica leave the spiritual world of gospel and enter the material world of pop, the Simpsons hired Tim Medlebaum, an entertainment lawyer in New York, who quickly set up meetings with nine record labels. Around the same time, Jessica began recording a demo at a Dallas studio, something to take to the labels to show them what she could do. She chose two of her favorite songs -- Whitney Houston's "I Want to Run to You" and Celine Dion's "Seduces Me" -- but she wasn't happy with how they turned out. She didn't think that the recordings captured what she wanted the labels to hear, and decided to scrap them, asking the engineer, Chuck Webster, to promise he wouldn't play it for anyone.
Webster didn't play it for just anyone: He took it to Teresa LaBarbera-Whites, an old friend who had taught with him in the music and video department at the Art Institute of Dallas. He wasn't sure whether the recording was any good either, but knew from working with Simpson in the studio that she had something that LaBarbera-Whites might be interested in.
Unbeknownst to Simpson, Webster asked whether he could drop the tape by her office, see what she thought. LaBarbera-Whites agreed to listen to it, mainly because he was a friend, but she didn't think the tape would be anything special. She had heard the same spiel a thousand times before from a thousand different people. Her office was cluttered with demo tapes sent to her by bands looking for a break; this would be just another to add to the collection. She had no idea that the girl she was about to hear would be her redemption.
Teresa LaBarbera-Whites has lived a charmed life, staying in Dallas while most A&R reps are located on the coasts, near the twin centers of the music industry. It would make sense for LaBarbera-Whites, 37, to remain in Dallas if she had been working closely with local musicians, or if she had exhibited any signs in nine years that she could locate talent no matter where she lived. But she hasn't.
A&R reps, many times, are the only faces from a label that a musician sees. They're the ones going out to clubs every weekend, looking for new talent. They're the ones who find bands and sign them to recording contracts, or at least recommend it. They're the ones who work with groups after the contract has been signed, helping them find a producer, locating songs, anything and everything a band needs short of finding someone to sing for them. A&R reps don't have to live in the same city as the musicians they are working with. In fact, most of them don't. Few A&R reps live out in the field as LaBarbera-Whites does. You'd think that she would take advantage of this, try to lock down every marketable local band before someone else comes in and steals them away.
Yet she has tried -- and failed -- to sign only two local bands in all this time (Erykah Badu and Doosu), and she hadn't produced a successful artist until Destiny's Child scored a No. 1 single recently with "Bills, Bills, Bills," a track off the Houston-based quartet's sophomore release, The Writing's on the Wall. The writing should have been on the wall for LaBarbera-Whites' career last year, when her first signee, Houston's David Rice, made a record that no one except for the rest of his band and the producer heard. A&R reps have been fired for less. One local music-industry insider can't believe LaBarbera-Whites has lasted this long without a hit.
"I don't know what the deal is with Sony, but if you're an A&R rep and you've been there nine years and you've only signed three acts, they better be like Smash Mouth," the insider says. "They better be huge. I was friends with a guy in New York that signed Sugar Ray. Sugar Ray was a huge, million-dollar seller, and my friend was still quaking in his boots that he was gonna get canned, due to the nature of the job. He was like, 'I have to find another band; I have to find another band.' That's what's interesting." He pauses for a beat. "Why is Teresa still here?"
LaBarbera-Whites always knew that her place in the music industry was not onstage. She couldn't sing or play guitar -- she was just a fan. But she was a resourceful fan. With her husband Kent, she ran The Edge Entertainment Company, which handled public relations and promotions for local bands.
She also worked as a manager, working with -- and eventually splitting apart -- Three On A Hill. Her skills as a manager left something to be desired: Three On A Hill frontman Peter Schmidt left the band in 1990 after LaBarbera-Whites tried to force the group to perform choreographed dance moves during their performances.
LaBarbera-Whites was not just ambitious about her own career; she was high on the local music scene as well. In 1985, she and her partner Karen Kennedy started the Dimensions of Dallas Music Showcase and Seminar. They created the showcase so that labels would have a chance to see local unsigned bands, a way for the industry to come to Dallas and listen to what the city had to offer in a few nights. Dimensions couldn't guarantee that bands would be signed, but it offered to help. "The labels are in the business to find talent and develop bands, and there are young bands here," LaBarbera-Whites told the Dallas Observer in November 1989. "It's proven ground."
The connections she made while running the showcase, as well as her experiences with The Edge Entertainment Company, led to her gig with Sony. It would seem that when LaBarbera-Whites found herself in a power position at one of the same record labels she tried to lure to Dallas, she would have done all she could to bring local acts to its attention. That was, after all, her job.
Sheri Gesin, who worked as an A&R rep for London and Slash Records and signed Hagfish to London in 1995, says that regional talent scouts are expected to bring something new to the table almost every week. With LaBarbera-Whites' lack of competition -- Gesin quit a few years ago, and only one other scout, Capitol's Paul Bassman, operates out of Dallas -- she should have the market cornered.
"Your job was to filter as much music from your market or your region as you could," Gesin says. "We had conference calls twice a month, personal phone calls from people in New York. There was constant pressure to know what's out there. And God forbid they call you about a band and you don't know something about them. It was a really stressful job. Those conference calls, they were round-robin things where each rep had to do their 20-minute pitch to get the ear of their boss and make their sale, and not sound like a schmuck. If you didn't hear anything new in two weeks, you better have a good reason why, like you had the flu."
The fact of the matter is, LaBarbera-Whites hasn't brought much of anything to the company. In four years as an A&R representative for Columbia and five years as a talent scout for Sony, the only other act besides Simpson and Destiny's Child that has signed with the label thanks to LaBarbera-Whites is David Rice. And the only thing that can be said about his tenure at Columbia is that it was brief. It's not solely her fault that more bands from the area haven't signed with Columbia; there are dozens of other labels vying for their attention. But LaBarbera-Whites hasn't exactly made Columbia stand out from the crowd. Most of the time, she isn't even trying.
"Clearly, she had her heart in the right place with Dimensions of Dallas," says George Gimarc, former program director at KDGE-FM (94.5), who worked with LaBarbera-Whites on the conference. "But people who sign bands have different tastes, and maybe her tastes have changed. We have a bunch of great rock bands here, but maybe that's not what she's looking for."
LaBarbera-Whites isn't looking for much of anything in Dallas. Part of the problem seems to be that she isn't as committed to Dallas music as she is to her three young children, which is admirable. But that doesn't help with her job, which demands that she go to clubs almost every weekend, which she, admittedly, doesn't do. (She was at Trees on September 3 checking out Chomsky, but only because she was showing around someone from Columbia's New York offices who was there to see the band.) She doesn't even read any of the local papers on a regular basis. Her only real conduit to unsigned bands, local and otherwise, is the tapes that show up in her mailbox. And that's how she discovered Jessica Simpson.
Doing a favor for a friend, LaBarbera-Whites listened to Simpson's tape as soon as she got it. LaBarbera-Whites wasn't that impressed by the demo, but she says, "I loved her voice." She tracked down Simpson and her dad, who were busy doing youth ministry work in Texas and Mexico in the summer of 1997, and tried to set up a meeting. They told LaBarbera-Whites that they didn't plan on returning to Dallas before flying to New York to meet with the labels. LaBarbera-Whites had a choice, and not much time to make it: Attend one of the youth revivals Jessica was performing at on the Texas border, meet them in San Antonio, or let them go to New York without her. "Really pregnant" with her third child, she opted to drive to San Antonio. It didn't take long for her to know that it was worth the trip.
When LaBarbera-Whites met Jessica and her father in a hotel room in San Antonio, she just wanted to hear one song, confirm that the voice on the tape was as good as she remembered. "She sang a cappella for me, and I was blown away," LaBarbera-Whites says. "I was like, 'OK, I'm going to New York next week.'"
The impromptu meeting gave LaBarbera-Whites and Columbia the inside track on signing Simpson. LaBarbera-Whites met Simpson in New York a week later and took her to the Sony headquarters. After she sang for label executives -- including senior vice president Will Botwin, chairman and president of Columbia Records Group Don Ienner, and Sony Music Entertainment chairman and CEO Tommy Mottola -- the deal was done. Mottola was so impressed that he signed Simpson immediately after she sang for him in his office.
"I never played them the demos," LaBarbera-Whites says. "I just said, 'You've gotta trust me.' And she sang one song for them, the same one she sang for me. Jessica's one of those really gifted people...I'd never seen her perform. I just knew that she had a beautiful voice."
After signing the contract, LaBarbera-Whites and Simpson began working on her debut, recording in Los Angeles and New York. Eventually, Simpson and her family were called to the West Coast so often, they decided to move there. After the Simpsons set up house in Los Angeles in October, work on the album progressed much faster. Jessica could drop by the recording studio anytime she wanted, and her father could meet with the label on a daily basis. But the label still brought Simpson along slowly, giving her all the time she needed to make the best album she could.
Columbia has extremely high hopes for Simpson, already comparing her to Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, even though her pretty blonde appearance and pretty bland music has more in common with teen queens such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. The label wouldn't mind if fans connect the dots between Simpson and the former Mousketeers at first. After all, Aguilera's self-titled RCA Records disc recently debuted at the top of the Billboard album charts with 253,000 copies sold in one week, and Spears' 1998 Jive first-look ...Baby One More Time was certified by the Recording Industry Association of America in August as the top-selling record by a teenage girl ever, with more than 6 million copies sold. While the similarities are almost inescapable, LaBarbera-Whites doesn't want anyone to get the wrong impression.
"I had a producer tell me a couple of months ago, 'Well, if it wasn't for Britney, [Jessica] wouldn't have her deal,'" LaBarbera-Whites says. "I was like, 'Excuse me?' I can tell you for a fact I didn't know who Britney Spears was, and I'd never heard of her when we signed Jessica. But through the course of making this record, you know, Britney exploded and [so did] all the other young girls. It was kind of like, my worst fear was that they were gonna throw her into this category because she's young and beautiful, and they're just going to assume that's where she goes."
But Columbia believes Simpson has a shelf life that extends far beyond her teenage years. She's being positioned as the label's next big star, already ascending the ranks at Columbia to join proven hitmakers such as Will Smith, The Offspring, and Carey. Simpson couldn't be happier, finally seeing her dreams come true after all these years of waking up too soon.
"It's definitely overwhelming," Simpson admits. "There's a lot of pressure -- I'm not gonna lie. But it's definitely something I've been praying for for a long time. I'm like, 'Get the record company involved.' They've just waited for me to develop as an artist, and it takes time. I appreciate them respecting the time, and now they're really gung-ho about it. They're really putting all the force into it."
Columbia has also given LaBarbera-Whites the time to develop as a talent scout, never giving up on her when they could have, and maybe should have.
While LaBarbera-Whites was in her office listening to tapes, Deep Blue Something and The Toadies (Interscope Records), the Old 97's (Elektra), Hagfish (London), The Nixons and Bobgoblin (MCA), Jackopierce (A&M), Vibrolux (Atlas/Polydor), Tripping Daisy (Island), Radish and Tablet (Mercury), cottonmouth, tx (Virgin), Slowpoke and The Tomorrowpeople (Geffen), Erykah Badu (Universal), and Funland (Arista) all signed contracts with major labels. None of these local bands ever seriously considered Sony or Columbia, and apparently, LaBarbera-Whites never seriously considered any of them. At least not at first.
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"She used to be notorious for showing up at a show when 10 other label people were in town and it's an 11th-hour deal," says a local industry insider. "You can get a meeting, and you may win them, but it's gonna cost you two times as much, and it's gonna be much harder. Bands like The Old 97's and the Nixons -- everybody and their brother is writing about them. How can you not see it, whether you like them or not? You're going to at least go check them out and go, 'Could we make money off that?'"
There are still dozens of signable, bankable bands in town, everyone from Shabazz 3 to Centro-matic to Legendary Crystal Chandelier to Hellafied Funk Crew, something for everyone. Some of these would be critical favorites, and some would make money, but they would all be successful. Yet all of these groups will likely be passed over by LaBarbera-Whites as well, mainly because she may not consider them until it's too late.
"I've gotten to sign just about everything I've wanted to sign," LaBarbera-Whites says. "Sometimes the time is not right, and sometimes it's fate. Those people are better off other places. I feel really blessed to work for a major label that leaves me alone, lets me do what I want to do, lets me go where I want to go, and make the kind of records I want to make. That's always nice. I consider myself pretty lucky."
But LaBarbera may not understand just how lucky she is. Stumbling onto Jessica Simpson may have bought her another decade in the music business, but it doesn't account for the decade she's nearly wasted. Of course, you won't find many local bands who will complain about being overlooked by LaBarbera-Whites. They don't even know she's around. And maybe they never will.