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LeAnn

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The sound man is down the street at Radio Shack when the limousine pulls up, bearing the star.

It's LeAnn, soon to be live from the Peaches record store at the strip mall on Kimball Avenue near the Kennedy Expressway. It's a Saturday afternoon--a cold, wet, dreary Saturday afternoon.

The sound man--also the store manager--has arranged the complimentary use of a microphone and amplifier, explains a clerk as he watches LeAnn's entourage step from the limousine and into the rain.

First there's LeAnn's mother, Regina Bormet, then her brothers, Stephen and Carlos, and James Edwards--the seventh-grade drama and music teacher who discovered her--and finally LeAnn herself, a 15-year-old Roosevelt High School sophomore wearing a full-length, electric blue silk gown and a big-star grin.

You can tell by LeAnn's regal approach, stepping out of the limo and--miraculously--over a puddle, that she's been practicing this entrance in her mind for a long, long time. She could be any one of a hundred Hollywood starlets, walking the gauntlet of gawking, cheering fans on Oscar night.

Edwards holds open the door, and she sweeps into Peaches. The lone customer looks up surprised, and then returns to a stack of jazz records. Edwards shakes hands with the reporter.

This matinee promotion was his idea, Edwards explains. LeAnn's here to sing one song. Her single. Her hit single, "Do You Love Me?" Actually, it's not a hit, despite what the press release says. At least, it's not a hit yet. But it will be, Edwards continues. It should be. It has the right sound. The right feel.

Sure, it's only local now, put out on Halo, a south-side record company. But one of these days--with the right airplay--it will sell, and it will sell fast. He's sure of that.

"I'm a schoolteacher--seventh grade at Haugan Elementary School; that's over at 4540 N. Hamlin," Edwards explains. "LeAnn was one of my students. We had an assembly. It was the annual assembly, mostly original music that I wrote. She tried out for one part and wound up with three. That's how good she is." As he talks, he smiles--a well-built black man wearing a white racing jacket with the Halo Record Company emblem on the back--and then pulls out a box filled with calling cards that read: "Do You Love Me? Then Request Me/Call Your Favorite/Radio Station or Record Store/For LeAnn/on Halo Records."

"We've had some airplay on the Kennedy-King radio station and on WGCI," says Edwards, looking up as a gaggle of giggling girls, in jeans and letter jackets, rush into the store and surround LeAnn. They're LeAnn's fans. "Yeah, I could tell right away that she had star quality," says Edwards.

"You could?" asks Bormet, the mother, overhearing the conversation.

"Oh sure. Her tone quality was unique. At the time, she was 12, and I knew then and there she was special."

Who does LeAnn sound like?

"Well, let's see, that's a real good question," says Edwards, taking some time to think. "LeAnn's style tends to house music. You know what that is. It's sort of like rap. House doesn't get played much on the air here, but it's real big with the kids. But she doesn't really sing house music. She's more commercial, more mainstream.

"She's not Madonna. That's not her style. But she is a trendsetter, like a Madonna. Just the way LeAnn sings a song is different than the others. And the way she carries herself, even when she's wearing blue jeans. You know that she's somebody."

LeAnn's mother smiles.

"I can't say LeAnn got it from me," Bormet admits. "She's been singing since she was three--mostly around the house, in the bathroom, that kind of thing. We live in Albany Park."

"Are you talking about me, Mom?"

It's LeAnn, holding the bouquet of roses Edwards had delivered for her.

Who are the major influences in your career?

"Ooh, that's tough. The major influences? Let's see. Well, my older brother Stephen and I were influenced by Love at First Bite."

You mean the vampire movie starring George Hamilton?

"Yeah. That one. You know the dance sequences in that movie? They were so exciting. We used to watch it on TV and imitate it. Remember, Stephen?"

Stephen nods and smiles.

"And, let's see," LeAnn continues, "I like Anita Baker. And . . ."

Has becoming a recording star changed your life?

"Not really. The kids at school know. It gets around. I think I've made more friends this year. But it's not like I remind everyone that, you know, I'm the one with the single."

What are your goals in life?

She throws back her head and laughs. "I want to be the first person to sing on the moon. It will be: 'LeAnn, Live From the Moon.' I want to sing 'Blue Moon' on the moon. And I want to meet Johnny Carson."

Her fans are surprised. "You like Johnny Carson?" one asks.

"Yeah," LeAnn replies. "He's nice. I was supposed to meet Anita Baker. But we couldn't."

By now a half-dozen or so customers have wandered into the store. Most seem surprised to see LeAnn, a teenager in such fancy dress. The word passes that LeAnn's a star with a hit single. Some of the customers buy copies of the record and ask LeAnn for autographs.

"No problem," LeAnn, ever gracious, responds to one woman. "Who should I sign it to?"

"Put 'Jean,'" says a black woman in a black rain cap.

LeAnn thinks before she writes, then scratches away with a black felt-tip pen.

"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you," the woman says. "This is so exciting."

Eyeing it all are the fans: Katie Diaz, 12; Nelly Martinez, 13; and Tiffany Armstead, 13.

"We want to be just like LeAnn," Katie reveals.

"Yeah," says Nelly, "a star."

"A big star," says Katie.

"We're her fans," says Nelly.

"And her friends," says Katie.

"Well, we think she's the greatest," says Nelly.

"And she's so nice," says Katie, "even though she's a big star. I mean, she's not a big star. Yet."

"But she's gonna be," says Nelly.

As big a star as who?

The fans pause.

Will she be as big as Madonna?

"No," says Nelly, "probably not that big."

"She'll be as big as Tiffany, though," offers Katie.

"Yeah, Tiffany," says Nelly.

"Ooh, Bruce Springsteen," says Katie, reacting to a song coming over the loudspeaker.

Do you like him?

"Oh, no," says Katie.

"Yuck," says Nelly.

"Eech," says Katie.

"He's old," Nelly adds.

Well, who do you like?

"House music," says Katie.

"Tiffany," says Nelly.

Who's Tiffany?

"You don't know Tiffany?" the fans say, almost in unison. "Nelly," Katie says, "go show him Tiffany. "

Nelly scurries off, returning with a 45 featuring on the jacket cover a skinny girl with big eyes.

"That's Tiffany," Nelly announces.

"Yeah," says Katie, "Tiffany's a star."

"And she's only 15," says Nelly.

"That's nothing," says Katie, reaching for another 45 with a girl on the jacket cover just like Tiffany. "This girl here is 15. It's Shanice. And what's that girl from 'Shake Your Love'?"

"Debbie Gibson," Nelly answers.

"Yeah, Debbie Gibson," says Katie. "She's 15. And then there's a group called the Jets, and the lead singers are 13 and 14. I wanna be a star, too. Just like LeAnn. We have a lot in common, you know, me and LeAnn. She went to Haugan; I go to Haugan. She had Mr Edwards; I have Mr. Edwards. She sang in the All City Choir, so I do it. And it's so exciting. When LeAnn's a big star, when she's in her limousine and we can't get near her, I'll always remember that I knew her when she was just a friend. You know? I'll always feel good about that."

"Yeah," says Nelly, "we'll be able to say, 'We knew LeAnn when we were in fourth grade and she was in seventh.'"

"Yeah," says Katie , "yeah."

An elegantly attired black man in a trench coat, fedora, and red silk tie swoops into the room. Frederick Robertson is founder of Halo Records, author of "Do You Love Me?", a 14th district police sergeant and a practicing naprapath. He's late because he was treating a patient.

"Mr. Edwards and I were in the choir together when we were younger," says Robertson. "We sang gospel. Last June, Mr. Edwards told me he had some exceptional students. He allowed me to listen to them, and LeAnn caught my ear. She's an exception. A lot of young people like to be the lead singer because they have a good voice. But it's having the creative wherewithal to go on and become bigger than life that makes a star. That's LeAnn.

"With LeAnn, it's the Cinderella story. We said: 'LeAnn, you can stay in the pumpkin, or come on out.' And she's coming out. We've introduced her to stars. She's met Fred Williamson, and Mary Wilson. And her career is taking off. She's singing tonight for the Chicago Latin Police Organization. And she'll be leading off for Chico DeBarge at a New Year's Eve concert."

Robertson stops talking as a hush falls over the store. LeAnn, handing the roses to her mother, has moved in front of the cash register, where she is preparing to sing.

The audience of 15 gathers around. There's a screech of feedback from the amplifier, but LeAnn doesn't notice. Her head is down, then up, then back down. Over the speakers comes the rat-a-tat-tat of electric drums, and the rock-'em-sock-'em thump, thump, thump of what, to the uninitiated, sounds like a disco beat.

And now LeAnn is dancing. It's a soft and simple step. She swings her arms and looks into the distance, over her shoulder, not as if she were swaying before a handful of friends in a mall record store near the Kennedy but as if she were center stage at Arie Crown. She pulls the mike to her lips, snaps her head straight up, and starts to sing.

I tossed and turned in my sleep last night,

I'd dreamed you'd gone away.

To lose your love, your arms that hold me tight

I had to call you right away and say:

Do you love me baby? love me baby?

Do you love me? . . .

And so on. The record supplies the instrumental backup, but LeAnn's singing live. Her fans rock to the beat, their eyes closed. Edwards beams. Robertson smiles. Through the front door walks an older man in a blue cap. Water drips from his red face. He looks baffled.

He whispers to the clerk: "The car. The limo. It's blocking my car. Move the goddamn limo."

Shh, the clerk motions. The man stalks off. But LeAnn's a trouper. Though the disturbance takes place right behind her, she pays it no mind. She eases through the second stanza, closes on the chorus, and then bows to the haphazard cheers.

"Thank you, thank you," she says. "Thank you for coming to my performance."

She takes the roses back from her mother and, entourage in tow, rushes through the steadily falling rain back into the limousine.

The fans, meanwhile, have taken the time to buy lunch at a nearby burger joint. As the limo pulls away, they huddle in the vestibule of Peaches, protected from the rain, eating cheeseburgers and drinking Cokes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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