Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Happy Birthday, Celine Dion!

Spring of 1990. My buddy and workmate Johnny Gatski and I traveled daily from work at Radio World in Falls Church, Va., to my townhouse two miles away, where we would fix our lunch and spend 20 minutes watching a movie. One day, motoring back to the office down Columbia Pike, a song comes on the radio. I hear the voice, I recognize the chorus... "Where does my heart beat now..." "Hey, this is that new artist Celine Dion. I recognize the title from the Billboard Hot 100." At that point, the singer's first American hit was at No. 47.

Within three minutes, my life forever changed. One song. One voice. Such an occurrence had happened only once before, the first time I heard Sheena Easton's "Morning Train," listening to Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" in my college dorm. I was instantly obsessed with the greatest voice I'd heard in my life. Previously, Karen Carpenter and Olivia Newton-John had ignited passion for great female pipes. My discovery of Sheena led to parallel fervor for Billboard magazine, following "Morning Train" up the Hot 100 to No. 1; and each of Sheena's subsequent releases through ups and downs.

By 1990, living in Washington, D.C., I was willing to pay $265 a year for a Billboard subscription, and I'd memorize the big chart, highlighting in yellow all the singles I owned, and in the meantime, maintaining my own chart... the Taylor Top Ten, then Taylor Top Twenty, Taylor Top Thirty—all neatly deemed the TTT—until I reached Forty—and renamed it C2, for Chuck's Chart.

Celine reached the top 10 with "My Heart," and launched a career. I did the same, propelling to a post at Billboard in New York as Radio Editor in 1995. As Celine's hits progressed, so did my prowess to cover acts I coveted. Man, was I in the right place at the right time. As the mag's pop geek, I claimed ownership of Hanson, 'N Sync, Britney, Christina, BBMak, Jessica, 98 Degrees and the entire youth pop revolution in its heyday. And Celine (actually, generously handed over by my Billboard mentor Larry Flick, who previously coveted Celine coverage).

Over the years, I had the honor of five Billboard Celine cover stories as she gained prominence. As "My Heart Will Go On" continued to break chart and sales records, I wrote one piece after another, with every interview over the phone. I needled Rene, "When might I meet Celine face to face?" Finally, in 1998, when they were in New York for the "VH1 Divas" telecast, I had my moment. And then Rene invited me to dinner with she and her peeps in NYC's West Village. I sat beside Celine. We shared mashed potatoes. We sang TV theme songs. She was generous, comforting, genuine. I figured life was complete... ...Until January 2002. Celine had taken two years off after her millennium concert Dec. 31, 1999 in Montreal—which I attended—to have a kid, and was marking her grand return with "A New Day Has Come" in March. Billboard editor Timothy White suggested we ask for the first interview as a BB cover story. Rene agreed, and within a week, I was in Montreal, in their home, listening to proposed tracks for the new album. Rene asked for my opinion and in fact, one song, "Sorry for Love," was produced as a midtempo ballad and uptempo dance track, a la Cher's "Believe." "Rene, this could break Celine to the clubs, not with a remix, but an original track," I offered. "The gays will love this." Rene observed. He made a call. When the album debuted two months later, the dance version indeed appeared on the disc, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

Later that day, I met young Rene Charles, gave him a gift, had lunch with Rene and Celine, and then a three-hour face-to-face interview with Celine in the dining room, as snow gently fell outside—so soon after 9/11, which we talked about. She cried. I cried.

Ultimately, I wrote up one hell of a package for Billboard. Tim White allowed it to spread over five pages (unheard of anymore with Billboard's spit-it-out mandate). The article was a profound happening for the publication, with quotes picked up around the world. Canadian weekly "7 Jours" interviewed me about interviewing Celine. It was a staggering peak for me as a journalist.

In time, Celine's five-year run at Caesar's Palace in Vegas launched. I was there opening night, every year following, and present on closing night. Each time, she and Rene indulged me with backstage visits. And photos. Ironically, my career at Billboard peaked as Celine's did the same on the pop charts. Our last cover venture came in October 2007, with release of her "Taking Chances" album. I had one more coup, when Billboard delivered a wondrous 10-page special section on Celine's 25th anniversary in the music biz, which I was given total editorial charge of, thanks to the mag's Thom Duffy, who had promised for three years running that if it ever came together, I'd be given carte blanche to write. Celine and I spent more than two hours on the phone, as she was in a car, heading out for a family vacation. My interrogation was comprehensive, and when they reached the airport, Celine literally put on the brakes and sat there until we were finished. Again, a consummate pro and wholly giving.

And today Celine Dion turns 42. She's signed to another round in Vegas beginning in 2011. I'm crossing fingers that again, I shall be there for opening night. To hear "My Heart Will Go On" once more. To say hello. To moisten up, as I do every time I see Celine live. To hear the greatest singer of our time. Amen, cool cats. Amen.