Two months ago, Lawrence Beamen could stroll up to the small recording studio he runs on South Main Street in Walnut Creek without causing a minor traffic jam.
But that was before he made hearts melt and goose bumps rise with his stirring rendition of "Ol' Man River" on national television. And that was before observers began hailing him as a singing sensation, or the "new Barry White," or the person to beat on the summer's most popular TV show, "America's Got Talent."
Recently, Beamen was approaching his studio when a female fan driving along Main slammed on her brakes, bolted from the car and shrieked, "Omigod, it's you!"
That led to another car stopping and then another andanother. And before Beamen knew it, his tall, buff bod was swallowed up in a swarm of giddy admirers.
"It was crazy — just surreal," recalls Beamen, insisting such scenes leave him "shy and embarrassed." "Two construction workers were watching all this happen. They came up to me and said, 'We don't know who you are, but can we get your autograph?"
If the smoky-voiced Beamen, 34, continues to make a bold impression on "Talent," it won't be long before everybody knows who he is. After struggling in anonymity for years, the longtime East Bay resident suddenly finds himself on the brink of stardom.
Beamen, who followed his breath-taking performance of "Ol' Man River" with an equally impressive offering of Joe Cocker's
Yes, it's all crazy, mind-boggling stuff. But for a guy who left home at 16 and spent much of his life yearning to have the public recognize his singing prowess, it already feels like he's a winner. That feeling is only reinforced when Piers Morgan, the toughest of the three-headed judges panel on "Talent," calls him "the nearest thing to a guaranteed, nailed-down star we have produced on this show."
Says Beamen, "I've been on my own for so long and I've been fighting and running for so long. Now, I feel like I'm almost at the finish line."
But to get to this point, he needed to overcome what he calls a strong case of "wild butterflies." Upon taking the stage for his July 7 "Talent" debut. Beamen was so nervous that Morgan and fellow judges Sharon Osbourne and David Hasselhoff went out of their way to calm him down.
"My legs were heavy," recalls Beamen. "I felt like my body was going to freeze up and crumble into pieces."
But he gathered himself, dug deep and launched into "Ol' Man River," a song from the classic musical "Show Boat" that speaks of racial oppressiveness and was popularized by Paul Robeson, one of his musical heroes.
It blew the judges and audience away and left Beamen in tears.
"'That song is very dear to my heart. It gets to me," says Beamen, who spent his childhood in Vicksburg, Miss., a small town that played a key role in the Civil War. "I think the world should know it verbatim. It represents anyone who has struggled, not just African-Americans. It speaks to the slave in all of us about the things that bind us and hold us back."
For a long time Beamen felt held back by the forces of the music industry. A classically trained artist intent on reviving the "depth of Barry White, the soul of Mahalia Jackson and the honesty of Bill Withers," he was seen as the proverbial square peg.
"I would constantly hear from record companies, 'That's not our style. That's not our genre,'" he says. "I tried for years and years and years to get signed and it just wouldn't happen. You can't make people hear what you hear and like what you like."
Still, Beamen, a savvy entrepreneur, found ways to keep the dream alive. He produced songs for himself, as well as other artists, and took advantage of digital technology to make his work available for download (www.lawrencebeamen.com/). He appeared in local theatre productions of "Ragtime" in Oakland (2006) and "Show Boat" in San Mateo (2007) and collected paychecks by performing at weddings, Gospel programs and any event that would have him.
There were plenty of discouraging moments along the way.
"Around Christmas last year, I did a classical program over two nights at the Oakland Museum and it didn't go so hot," he says. "The economy was starting to crash and everyone was busy with the holidays so we had a tough time selling tickets. I think the first night we had 20 to 25 people and the second night even less.
"It was one of the worst times of my life, singing-wise."
Is it any wonder, then, that Beamen is determined "to live in the now"? Fiercely guarding his privacy, he's reluctant to discuss why his parents banished him from their Oakland home while in his teens ("They are very supportive now. Mom calls every day to see if I'm OK."). And he doesn't say much about a short-lived marriage he entered into at 18 ("It lasted five years, but, mentally, I left after three.").
Instead, Beamen would much rather talk about the opportunities — win or lose — that "Talent" might provide. Although hip-hop is probably not an option ("I can't think and talk that fast"), he claims he's open to just about anything else, including the stage, classical music, R&B and Gospel.
"I'm willing to roll with it and see what happens," he says. "To be honest, I just want to sing to the world and do what artists do."
Bay Area performers have made their mark on "America's Got Talent" this season. Here's a rundown: