Born William Wendell Gilman on May 24, 1988, in Westerly, RI; son of Bill (an oil company technician) and Fran (a homemaker and former secretary). Addresses: Record company--Sony Nashville, 34 Music Square East, Nashville, TN 37203. Management--RPM Management, 209 10th Avenue South, Suite 229, Nashville, TN 37203. Website--Billy Gilman Official Website: http://www.billygilman.com.
Country music prodigy Billy Gilman was the youngest solo artist to be nominated for a Best Country Performance Grammy Award and the youngest artist to have a song on Billboard's Country Singles chart, all unprecedented accomplishments for a singer just entering his teenage years. Gilman's debut album, One Voice, climbed the Billboard country music charts, eventually reaching platinum sales and making Gilman the top-selling debut country artist in 2000.
Born William Wendell Gilman on May 24, 1988, in Westerly, Rhode Island, Gilman is the son of Bill, an oil company technician, and Fran, a homemaker and former secretary. Raised in the Providence suburb of Hope Valley, Gilman's musical talents became apparent while he was still a toddler. His mother told of hearing three-year-old Billy singing along with Pam Tillis on "Cleopatra, Queen of Denial" from a television special the family had taped: "He watched it twice and knew the words to the whole song," his mother told People. "I thought, 'Oh, wow, what is this?'" She said it was clear to her that her son, even at that early age, had a musical talent that was truly unusual.
Gilman's grandmother, for whom Billy often performed at home, was the first to decide that the family needed to take steps to help develop the boy's obvious singing talent. When Gilman was eight years old, she took him to see vocal coach Angela Bacari (who was later to become his co-manager as well). Impressed with Gilman's singing voice, Bacari worked with him to improve his vocal skills as well as his stage presence. Not long after she began working with Gilman, she began arranging occasional professional engagements for him around New England. He opened for Sara Evans and Jo Dee Messina on a couple of their New England dates, and in 1998 shared the stage at the Springfield Fair in Massachusetts with Martina McBride. He and McBride teamed up on "A Broken Wing." Greg Piccolo, former saxophone player for Roomful of Blues, caught Gilman's act in Connecticut. Stunned by Gilman's talent, he sent a tape of the singer's karaoke rendition of "A Broken Wing" to Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. Benson knew immediately that he was listening to something special. He was so impressed that he flew Gilman down to Austin, Texas, to cut demos of "Till I Can Make It on My Own" and "Little Bitty Pretty One." While Billy was in Austin, he came onstage with Asleep at the Wheel a couple of times and met a number of players on the Austin music scene. Benson was impressed by the youngster's knowledge of country music history. "He likes Patsy Cline, Hank (Williams) Sr., western swing--he does 'Boogie Back to Texas,' one of my songs, in his show. He's an encyclopedia of country music," he told Billboard.
Gilman's career began to take off when Benson sent a demo to veteran Nashville manager Scott Siman. Siman, who also manages Tim McGraw, played the tape for McGraw, George Strait, and the Dixie Chicks. "[T]hey all went wild," Siman told Billboard. "Tim said, 'Put a gag on that kid until my career's over.' He's just one of those kids who comes along once in a long while, nine out of 10 of whom go to Broadway, but he loves country music." With Siman as co-manager, Billy signed a contract with Sony Music Nashville in 1999.
In Gilman's official website biography, Blake Chancey, senior vice president of A&R for Sony Music Nashville, recalled the first time he saw Gilman perform: "I went to see Billy open for Alabama at the Warwick Theatre in Rhode Island. He got three standing ovations in a 30-minute set and totally blew me away." Chancey's production credits include albums by Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Dixie Chicks. He knew it would be difficult to find the right songs for Gilman, but he was determined to see if he could find the right combination. He brought in Don Cook and David Malloy as co-producers. "My hope was that David and Don could write as well as produce." As it turned out, the songwriting/production team Chancey had put together managed to produce the perfect vehicle for Gilman's debut. Among the several songs the team wrote for Billy's first album was "One Voice," a song of hope against a backdrop of troubling contemporary realities. "That song was the vehicle to introduce the world to Billy," Chancey is quoted in Gilman's official website biography. "That song needed the innocence of Billy, and Billy needed the message of the song. It was the perfect fit." The single "One Voice," released in advance of Gilman's debut album of the same name, topped the Billboard charts for four consecutive weeks. When the album itself was released in June of 2000, sales exploded. Less than three months after the album's release, One Voicewas certified platinum.
Billy had managed to stir up a good deal of attention even before the single "One Voice" was released. Appearing with Asleep at the Wheel at the Academy of Country Music Awards Show in April of 2000, Gilman sang "Roly Poly," the Bob Wells classic, and brought down the house, earning for himself the award show's first standing ovation. Before long, Gilman was booked on a number of national television shows, including Rosie O'Donnell, Oprah, Today, and The Tonight Show.
For fans or critics who suspect that Gilman is in the limelight thanks to the unceasing efforts of one or more stage parents, the singer himself will be the first to disabuse them of this mistaken notion. When he signed his contract in the fall of 1999 with Sony Music Nashville at the age of eleven, Gilman was ready, but his parents were not. "They're not pushy parents at all," he told DotMusic online. "I pushed them into the music business because I wanted it so much." Fran Gilman makes sure to keep her son grounded by asking him to help around the house--including caring for pets--when he is not on the road.
The spotlight was definitely on Gilman during 2000. In addition to appearances on television shows around the country--both local and national spots--the young star made the rounds of the country music award shows and performed at venues across the country. Topping off his whirlwind year in late November of 2000, Gilman swept the BillboardVideo Music Awards when he walked away with prizes in all four categories for which he was nominated: Best Country New Artist clip, Best Contemporary Christian clip, Best Contemporary Christian New Artist clip, and Best Jazz/AC New Artist clip. After the show, he told Billboard: "I'm so happy right now I couldn't ask for more." Gilman's Christmas album, Classic Christmas, was certified gold before the end of 2000, having sold more than half a million copies. Sales of his third CD, Dare to Dream, were doing well in mid-2001 despite mixed reviews. Billboard conceded that the young singer's "big-time pipes and personality can't help but impress, and producers (Don) Cook and (Blake) Chancey make it all sound just great," but said that over-all, Dare to Dream had "pep, pop, sugar, and very little spice."
Still, despite the lukewarm reviews for his latest offering, it seems certain that Gilman will be around for some time on the American music scene. The power of his voice is undeniable. Obviously, there is some concern--particularly in the executive suites of Sony Nashville--about how well Gilman will weather the inevitable change in voice, but there is little doubt that the young singer will make the adjustment and keep on making music America wants to hear.
by Don Amerman
Billy Gilman's Career
Made first public appearance, age eight; signed contract with Sony Music Nashville, 1999; "One Voice," the title single from his debut album of the same name held number one spot on the Billboardcharts for four weeks, 2000; released Classic Christmas, 2000; released Dare to Dream, 2001.
- Selected discography
- One Voice (includes "One Voice" and "I Think She Likes Me"), Sony Nashville, 2000.
- Classic Christmas , Sony Nashville, 2000.
- Dare to Dream (includes "She's My Girl" and "She's Everything I Want"), Sony Nashville, 2001.
- Billboard, April 1, 2000; November 25, 2000; May 19, 2001.
- Dallas Morning News, May 4, 2001, p. 28.
- People, August 14, 2000; May 10, 2001.
- "Artist: Billy Gilman," Sing365.com, http://www.sing365.com (June 15, 2001).
- "Billy Gilman Biography," BillyHeads.com, http://www.billyheads.com/bio.shtml (June 15, 2001).
- "Billy Gilman: Biography," Sonicnet.com, http://www.sonicnet.com/artists/biography/760719.jhtml (June 15, 2001).
- Billy Gilman Official Website, http://www.billygilman.com (June 15, 2001).
- DotMusic.com, http://www.dotmusic.com/interviews/November2000/interviews16548.asp (September 20, 2001).