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A baseball great swings at new hits

Andre Dawson now seeks musical diamonds in the rough, as he develops talent for a new record label.

By DAVE SCHEIBER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 7, 2001


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[Publicity photo]
“During my playing days, I spent a lot of money just on the music alone, and kind of developed a vision of seeing what it’s like to be on the other side of entertainment, the music business,” said Andre Dawson, now vice president and founding partner of a new record label: Acclaim.
Andre Dawson knows the value of a good farm system.

In a heralded baseball career that spanned 21 years and may take him to the Hall of Fame, Dawson watched countless young players refine their skills in the minors before finally getting to their big trip to the Show.

Now, the show has a whole new meaning for the former standout of the Montreal Expos and Chicago Cubs.

Dawson is no longer taking a swing at the record books and baseball acclaim. He's taking a swing at the record business on a new independent label named Acclaim. The game plan: sign, develop and record promising acts -- and attract distribution deals and big contracts from the majors.

The one-time high school star from Miami and Florida A&M University is vice president and founding partner with label president Joe Danna, a former executive with Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Together, they have signed three acts from Florida -- the country group Wiley Fox of Hudson, R&B singer Mesha of Miami, and actor/singer/children's show star Audrey Landers (a veteran of six seasons on Dallas, and co-inventor/host of the former PBS children's program The Huggabug Club). Record release parties for Wiley Fox's debut CD, Radio Ranch, take place at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Roundup in Tampa and at 7:30 p.m. on July 7 at Ferg's Sports Bar in St. Petersburg.

At first glance, it might seem an unusual collaboration. But Acclaim Records is the product of intensive research and planning by Danna and Dawson's longtime passion for music. The special assistant with the Florida Marlins -- hired last week as bench coach for the rest of the 2001 season -- says he has been a music lover all his life. When he retired from baseball in 1996 (after 11 seasons with Montreal, six with Chicago, two with Boston and two with Florida), Dawson began pondering his next move.

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[Photo: AP 1995]
Andre Dawson, then baseball player for the Florida Marlins, connects for a three-run home run during a 1995 game against the Colorado Rockies.
"During my playing days, I spent a lot of money just on the music alone, and kind of developed a vision of seeing what it's like to be on the other side of entertainment, the music business," says Dawson, who turns 47 next week, but who still looks like a longball threat. "I got to thinking that maybe this could be some kind of second career for me, and I really kind of stumbled into it."

Dawson was getting his hair cut two years ago in Miami when a hairstylist began singing Happy Birthday to his barber. Dawson was impressed by the power of her voice. When Dawson heard a tape of songs she had recorded, he was sold. He helped her produce a CD and arranged a series of performances -- including singing the National Anthem at a Marlins home game.

"When she sang the anthem, just hearing it gave me chills," Dawson says.

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Acclaim label president
Joe Danna

While Dawson kept busy working with Mesha (he joined the Marlins as a special assistant to the general manager about the same time), Joe Danna was pursuing his dream and second career on the west side of the state. Danna had been employed nearly a decade at Radio City, working with artists from Diana Ross to Johnny Cash to the Grateful Dead to Kiss, as well as their managers. He developed an array of contacts and a wealth of knowledge about the music industry.

Danna, 49, was about to take a similar job several years ago at Madison Square Garden when he took a two-week vacation in the North Suncoast to visit his mother. Her health was failing and Danna wanted to spend more time with her, so he changed plans and moved with his wife to Spring Hill. Not long after, Danna began calling and visiting old contacts from his Radio City days, exploring the idea of starting an independent record label.

The key step was visiting the Hudson-based group Wiley Fox, made of up brothers Jesse, Eric and Brandon Embry. Danna was struck by the tight sibling harmonies, the lively country-rock sound and the strong chemistry they had on stage with crowds. He signed on to help manage the act, and soon after, a mutual acquaintance suggested he speak to a Miami man who had just become a music manager of a promising act: Andre Dawson.

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[Publicity photo]
Acclaim’s Wiley Fox, a country group from Hudson, is making its CD debut.

"When I first called, Andre was at the park and said he was too busy to talk, but I sent him a package," Danna recalls. "We set up a meeting, and things just took off from there."

Danna and Dawson decided to form a label geared to developing young acts, with hope of attracting attention from established labels.

"Our idea is to make the artists partners in their own label and help them any way we can," says Danna. "We're looking to create acts that have longevity, and if for some reason they don't make it with a major label, they can still work with our label."

When Danna took Dawson to check out Wiley Fox at the Roundup, the former slugger wasn't sure what to expect. He had been a fan of Willie Nelson, but was primarily a connoisseur of R&B and jazz. "I thought I was going to see country music, but what I saw was a great country-rock group and I was very impressed, especially with how they entertained the crowd," Dawson says.

With Acclaim on board, Wiley Fox cut its album in Nashville and Bradenton and added Mark Halisky, studio keyboardist for Alabama. Landers, who lives in Sarasota, recorded a duet with the group for the album, and is working on a country and pop record for Acclaim -- in hope of building on the two platinum records and success she has enjoyed for more than a decade in Europe. In addition to pursuing other acting projects (A Chorus Line, Somerset and, most prominently, Dallas are among her many credits), Landers and her sister, Judy, still tour with theHuggabug Club, which they developed with their mother, Ruth Landers. Her Acclaim release is due out later this summer. Mesha is set to send a single (Gotta Get Mine) to radio in July, when her album releases.

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[Publicity photos]
Actor/singer Audrey Landers, left, and Miami R&B singer Mesha are also on the Acclaim label.

Dawson never imagined any of this when he was winning the National League MVP award and hitting 49 homers in 1987, becoming the only major-leaguer to reach double digits in home runs and stolen bases 12 consecutive years, earning eight all-star nods and Gold Glove awards and finishing with 438 homers and 2,774 hits.

"I'm really excited about launching this -- it's a similar feeling to when I launched my baseball career," he says. "It's just like baseball. Our ultimate goal is develop the people we have -- and get them to that next level."

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