WHEN WALTER Egan was introduced to the collected staff of Columbia Records at its semi-annual meeting in Atlanta this January, it was as if he had been quarter-back of the promotion department football team, or an opera star making a comeback. "WAL-TER, WAL-TER, WAL-TER," the audience started chanting rhythmically. Some of them were waving penants with his name on them, and the cries got louder an louder.
"It was so weird," Egan says now in retrospect. "I just didn't know what was happening."
What was happening was the beginning of a new career for Egan, a 28-year-old teen-ager who has always wanted to be a rock 'n' roll star. After a dozen years of noodling around in different groups - including five with the long-defunct Washington band, Sageworth & Drums - Egan last year was signed to a $70,000 contract with Columbia. His first album, "Fundamental Roll", has been produced by two members of Fleetwood Mac, one of the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] phenomenally successful be released Monday, and Columbia is gearingup for The Big Push.
"I haven't seen this much interest at the company in the six years I've been here," says Ellen Bernstein, A&R coordinator of the West Coast Columbia office that signed Egan. Others at the company are talking about Egan in the same breath with Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen and Boston - who collectively have sold about 10 million albums of Columbia in the last 18 months.
The album, largely because of the vocal presence of Stevie Nicks, sounds a lot like Nicks' group Fleetwood Mac - which sold 4 million copies of it last album and has a new on that'a already the fourth best-selling LP in the country, Egan is being managed by Steve Leber, David Krebs and Greg Lewerke, who have also guided the sudden rise to fame of Aerosmith and the Electric Light Orchestra. Egan himself is hungry for success. He knows the moves. He writes the songs. He plays guitar well. He's good looking.
"Walter is managed by people we all knew," says Bernstein. "When an artist in managed by someone you're used to working with, you put more credibility in the act. And in the record business, that usually means he's going to get a lot more support."
Egan is sitting in Clyde's, the place that inspired Bill Danoff to write "Afternoon Delight", the song that won his group, the Starland Vocal Band, a Grammy Award last month. It's also the place where Emmylou Harris first climbed onto a stage to sing with the late Gram Parsons, an even that would eventually turn her into a country-western star. It's also a place where Egan used to spend time as a student at Georgetown, and when he walks in a few of the waiters remember him as Walt, this guy who used to play rock 'n' roll. There is no Walter Egan Star Vibe going on.
Earlier in the day Egan had wandered around Georgetown. Across the University campus, where he ran into his old sculpture teacher, Joan Caryl. He walked up to her and made a funny face, and she said, "Walter, what are you doing here?" and they hugged.
Then he wandered over to his old house at 1608 Wisconsin Ave. The place used to be called the Sageworth House, and it used to have the wrong address, 1708, announced in stained glass over the door. It's an antigue shop now and the proprietor, Ford Kalil, was not exactly thrilled at having one of the old tenants back for a visit. With good reason. It used to be a hovel. Rooms completely red. Rooms completely black. Plaster ceilings caving in. A bathroom that looked like a paint factory. A little yard filled with rubble and litter. When the group left in 1972, a local community weekly announced that "the blight has disappeared from Wisconsin Avenue".
"Is he one of the . . . PIGS . . . who used to live here?" Kalil asks a friend knocking on the door. He only consents to allow this group in after he's been told that this old tenant is about to become a STAR. He opens the back door, and under a tree still sits Egan's first piece of sculpture: a small white figure chiseled into a piece of white stone.
"You've painted over the wall," Egan says, pointing to a place in the hall.
"I should say so," the owner says. "We had to use six coats of paint to cover up the mess in some of these rooms."
"That's too bad," Egan says. A lot of famous people autographed that wall.Spencer Davis Linda Ronstadt. (Who used to stay there when she would play the Cellar Door in the early days of her career). George McGovern (his daughter used to date on of the guys in the band). Roy Buchanan. (Once, while jamming a half-hour version of "Hey Jude" at the house, about 50 people crawled over the outside fence to sit in the tiny courtyard and listen spellbound. At the end some kid walked up to him and said. "You sound like this guy I once heard a tape of, named Roy Buchanan." And Buchanan said, "I've heard of him")
Sageworth lasted in Washington for about four years, and then moved to Boston. They had hit the saturation point here: no national offers, and an audience that had heard enough of them for awhile. They thrived for a bit in the new Boston market, but it quickly turned into the old rock 'n' roll story: disagreements over music; romance problems; conflicts with other jobs. The group splintered, and various members drifted into other groups.
Egan moved out to Southern California, the mythical land of rock 'n' roll, the place he had sung about in his Manhattan high-school surfer band, The Malibooz. For three years he played in different groups, and eventually went on tour in England with Chris Darrow, a minor rock figure.
And meanwhile he was thinking: How long can I go on like this? Trained in school as a painter, he considered going back to that discipline. His parents, who sporadically supported him, wondered when these teen-age dreams would end.
"I guess I sort of set 30 as an age to get out ot this," Egan says. "If nothing happened by then, I'd have to try something else."
And then in February of last year, something happened. One of Egan's bands, The Ghost Riders, was playing an audition night at the Troubador, the LA equivalent of the Cellar Door. It was the group's first public performance, and Greg Lawerke, the American manager of the Electric Light Orchestra, was in the audience.
"I called him into my office the next day," Lewerke says. "He seemed like the leader of the group. He had the moves on stage. He was the only one who really know how to deal with an audience.His voice was good and I told him, 'Get rid of these other guys, and you and I will put together a solo career for you."
One thing led to another. Lewerke introduced Egan to Dunne Scott, a recording engineer who had worked with both the Electric Light Orchestra and Fleetwood Mac. Scott suggested Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac. They agreed after hearing a tape of Egan singing and playing guitar, and started working on the ablum last April, sandwiching the studio time between their own work on Fleetwood Mac's new "Rumours" album.
"It was pretty spontaneous", says Stevie Nicks. "Walter plays a lot like Lindsay. They're both into '50s music: Buddy Holly and stuff like that. I think it's a nit, maybe it's just because it's my child. But there's something about Walter's record. When it comes out of car radios, they're going to say: "That sounds like Fleetwood Mac.'"
Columbia is banking on just that happening.
In fact, the record does sound a lot like Fleetwood Mac - more precisely Fleetwood Mac meets Buddy Holly. The drum tones are big and fat, the guitar parts echo the spirit of Chuck Berry, and the vocals have that hint of reverberation that characterized so much of Holly's work. The opening track, "Only the Lucky", could have been on the last Fleetwood Mac album and nobody would have known that it was Egan. Half the record epitomizes the mirth of the '50s - songs like "When I Get My Wheels," "Where's the Party," "I'd Rather Have Fun" and "Surfin' and Drivin", wherein Egan is joined by the song's 1965 co-author, John Zambetti, a high school and college bandmate.
While Egan waits to see it his turn has come to be a star, his old colleague Zambetti, alas, is doing more these days than surfin's and drivin - as a matter of fact, he's an M.D., practicing in Orange County, Calif.