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'I know in my heart I'm going to make it'

Lee Wilson knows the road to stardom isn't easy. That makes him all the more driven.

Someday, Lee Wilson will spend the hours before a performance sipping tea, listening to Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle, or watching a Whoopi Goldberg movie. He'll relax, while others scurry about testing microphones and checking lighting. It'll be someone else's job to make sure there's a sturdy stool and a soothing beverage awaiting him when he takes the stage.

This is not that day.

Just before his set at the Western Front in Cambridge, Wilson walks through the audience and steps onto the stage, but it has already been a long night. Earlier, on an evening in May, he worked to have everything in place for his 30-minute performance. Wilson, an aspiring singer-songwriter, is his own roadie, as well as publicist and manager.

Flashing a broad, inviting smile, he adjusts his microphone and surveys his bandmates and back-up singers. A smattering of applause can barely compete with people talking, laughing, and coming down from the previous singer's set, which was part R&B smooth, part conniption fit. Yet, Wilson soon has the audience swaying to his original songs and a heartfelt cover of Babyface's "When Can I See You Again." In these moments, the sweat and the struggle fade, and what remains is the infectious incandescence of Wilson's sweet smile, his even sweeter voice, and his belief that breakthrough success is destined.

"Sometimes it's hard to get onstage when I'm tired or I've been running around trying to do so many things, but I love to see people's expressions when they're enjoying my work and my art," says Wilson, after his well-received set. "This is what I've always wanted to do, and I know in my heart I'm going to make it."

Wilson's story is the tale of many other young singers and musicians pursuing dreams of success in the fickle music business. At 21, Wilson has spent much of his nascent adulthood sending demos to record companies and performing anytime and anywhere he can. He also has a self-released CD, "My Time to Shine," (a revamped version of his debut originally released as "Unsigned Hype, Vol.1") a blend of R&B brushed with hip-hop flourishes, and ballads, which showcase a voice reminiscent of Wonder, one of his musical heroes.

Also a songwriter -- he co-wrote all of his album's 12 tracks -- Wilson is determined to stay true to himself, and away from the materialistic and women-bashing cliches of contemporary R&B and hip-hop.

"I don't want to sing what everybody else on the radio is singing," says Wilson, who performs today at the Virgin Megastore. He launched his "Starving Artists Tour," which will hit small venues and colleges along the East Coast throughout the fall, and was scheduled to stop at the Western Front last night. Wilsonis also scheduled to perform at the All Asia Cafe in Cambridge Oct. 6.

"I don't want to call women [expletives]. I want to make music I like," he says. "When someone asks me about my music, I want to be proud of it, and be responsible for it. I don't want to do things just for the fame -- although I want that, too."

So far that approach hasn't attracted the major-label attention Wilson desires. If success has proved elusive, it isn't because Wilson devotes less than 100 percent to his career. Unlike other struggling musicians, Wilson doesn't have a day job, and hasn't had one in nearly a year and a half. He was a maintenance worker, then an administrative assistant for the Cloud Foundation, a Boston nonprofit agency. Now, he survives off whatever he can make at his gigs and sales of his CD.

"I could get a job, but I've just made the decision to do what I like," says Wilson, who briefly attended Berklee College of Music. "During the day, I'm on the phone trying to book gigs, I'm trying to book venues. I'm trying to get the band together to make sure they show up at rehearsals. It's a sacrifice, but I think the sacrifice is worth it."

Jonathan Gosselin, who runs Gosselin Marketing & Promotions, met Wilson through a mutual friend, turntablist DJ Hectik, when the young singer gave an impromptu performance at Gosselin's birthday party. Wilson hopped onstage to sing a remixed version of Ludacris's "Stand Up," and Gosselin was impressed.

"I think he's a great singer and has a lot of talent," says. "He has a lot of enthusiasm, he's very driven, and he's just an all-around great guy." Gosselin wants to sign Wilson to his management company, but the singer is wary of his career getting less attention than he believes it deserves. "I'm the most alone I've been," Wilson says. "I don't have management because I'm looking for someone who works as hard as I do or harder."

Hours before his Western Front performance, Wilson talked about his life and career -- which includes a live performance of his song, "She Stopped My Breathing" on BET's show "106 & Park" -- between bites of a chicken Caesar salad at California Pizza Kitchen at the Prudential Center. Wilson is accompanied by his longtime pal Charles Porter,who spends a good amount of time as Wilson's protector, supporter, and one of his most ardent fans. Large and affable, Porter pays for Wilson's lunch, since eating out is a luxury a struggling musician can rarely afford.

"I don't mind helping him," Porter says matter-of-factly. "This is just one small thing I can do to help Lee out." For Wilson, money is always an issue, and at best, his is a threadbare existence. From his show at the Western Front, he walked away with about $300, but his money usually goes right back into his career. His parents help out, but he's reluctant to ask them for money. "I can call my mom or dad, but I try not to because I'll hear a speech," Wilson jokes. "I don't really want to do that unless I'm desperate and starving."

It's a long way from Wilson's comfortable childhood in Dorchester, when his mother played music by Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, Marvin Gaye, Rick James, and the Mary Jane Girls, and Wilson absorbed as much of it as possible. At 7, his uncle, who played keyboards, would encourage Wilson to sing along.

"He was the only one who would listen. Everybody else was like, `Oh, it's too loud, shut up,' " Wilson recalls. "But he got me writing lyrics, and I just fell in love with the energy."

At 15, Wilson entered his first talent show at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester. He won. "That was my first time singing publicly, and that gave me confidence. Since 15, I've just been pushing and going forward." Over the summer, Wilson moved from Boston to New York, although he makes regular trips home.

He's primarily an R&B singer, but befitting a young man who also loves Nirvana, Queen, and the Darkness, his music skips across genres.

"Automatically, when I meet people, because I'm a black artist, they assume I do rap or hip-hop R&B," he says. "I've been talking to a guy at [a major label], and he's listening to the music and saying, `I really like it.' But he stops, then says, `I don't know what we can do with you.' He can pitch John Mayer singing `Believer' [an acoustic ballad] and it works. But with me, he's like `What can we do with this?' But people seem to love it. I want a big audience, and sometimes I think I should just do the stuff they want, but I love the acoustic stuff."

And so does the crowd at the Western Front. After an initially indifferent response, people flow with Wilson's easy groove, and pepper his songs, which include "Amazing" and "Believer," with bursts of applause.

"I don't think people were sure where he was going with it, but I think they got into it," says audience member Shondra Moore, 23. "I can see him making it. He had a lot of energy and he has a nice voice, and I think he knows how to win people over."

One gig at a time, one song at a time, Wilson believes he can win over everyone with whom he can share his music. He's an optimist, but also a realist -- he knows countless singers, with equally fine voices and similar aspirations, have failed before him, and that it takes more than talent to sell records and fill arenas. Asked whether he considers the possibility that his career may never take off, Wilson pauses pensively. He's worked too hard to give up, he says, worked too hard to even consider that he might not make it.

"I don't want to think like that because I get scared. I haven't prepared for `Plan B,' `Plan C', or anything else," he says. "And if there is a Plan B, I don't want to think about it. I guess Plan B is to put on a suit and tie, get a job, and go to work, but I refuse to think about this. I have to believe that if I really want this, and I work hard for it, it's going to happen."

Lee Wilson performs today at 5:30 at the Virgin Megastore, 360 Newbury St.

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