Who is Chip Weinman?"
This cryptic question is currently posted on 20 billboards in and around the city. The answer is almost as striking as the question.
Chip Weinman is a 62-year-old lobbyist and cancer survivor who has dreamed of being a professional pop crooner for more than 40 years. Though Weinman has sung the national anthem at Orioles games, he has never released an album or performed for a concert audience.
That will change Saturday, when Weinman headlines at the Hippodrome Theatre with a 47-piece orchestra, six backup singers and guest star Sheena Easton. The show, "Under the Covers ... Timeless Love Songs," a benefit for the University of Maryland Medical System, will also be filmed for a PBS special. It's the debut of a lifetime - one that Weinman hopes will help him launch a career as a singer.
"It's more than a vanity concert, and it's more than a charity concert," Weinman said. "This concert is the pops concert that I have always wanted to see. Not because I'm in it, but because I'm a hopeless romantic."
Weinman, who lives Pikesville, has always loved classic pop. When his friends were listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, he was into Barry Manilow and Andy Williams.
In the summer of 2005, Weinman attended a voice camp organized by singer/songwriter Josh Groban's voice teacher. The camp helped stoke Weinman's longtime dream of touring and recording. But seeing all the young aspiring singers at the camp also reminded Weinman that breaking into the music business is nearly impossible at age 62.
"Somebody my age doesn't get a record contract," he said. "Oprah doesn't return my calls. How the hell am I going to do this? 'America's Got Talent?' I don't think so."
Ever persistent, Weinman hatched a plan to propel himself into the limelight. He would set up a large-scale concert and get PBS to film the show and document his life story. If he could get enough public television stations around the country to broadcast the special, he might garner enough attention to tour.
Weinman contacted West Coast arranger, pianist and conductor Mark Gasbarro and persuaded him to arrange the music for the show. The set list includes pieces such as Manilow's "Weekend in New England," Elton John's "Your Song" and Andrea Bocelli's "La Luna Che Non C'e."
Gasbarro, who recently helped arrange and perform the soundtrack for this year's Academy Awards ceremony, was intrigued by Weinman.
"It seemed a little bit outrageous," Gasbarro said. "I guess I just eventually took him seriously. I thought, 'This guy's going to do this, so I'll facilitate it the best I can.' "
Gasbarro will be at the Hippodrome Saturday, conducting the orchestra from his piano. Singer Sheena Easton will also be there to perform several duets with Weinman. When Weinman approached Easton's camp with the offer, he wasn't taken seriously. But when Weinman told them a 47-piece orchestra and Gasbarro were involved, he won them over.
"It is bizarre, but give her credit," Weinman said. "Standard procedure for an icon is to say, 'I don't appear in public with children, animals or singing lobbyists.' "
Saturday's show might be Weinman's first real concert, but it's not the first time he's tried his hand at recording. In 1969, one of Weinman's friends introduced him to veteran sportscaster and songwriter Ernie Harwell during an Orioles game at Memorial Stadium. Harwell took Weinman to a vacant concession stand in the upper deck and auditioned him on the spot. Harwell liked what he heard, and worked his contacts in the music industry to get Weinman a deal with Scepter Records.
"I sang for him in the stands of Memorial Stadium in the fifth inning," Weinman said. "The next thing you know, I have a record contract."
Scepter Records sent Weinman to Los Angeles to cut a single and hired country star Kenny Rogers to produce it. Weinman recorded Hal David and Burt Bacharach's "Everyone Needs Someone to Love" for the A-side and "Whatever Happened to Forever" as the B-side, under the pseudonym Chip Wyman.
Scepter never released the single, and the company was sold to another label several years later. Weinman put aside his dream of becoming a singer and pursued a career in broadcast marketing. He got married, started a family and for the past 19 years, he has been president of the Maryland, D.C., Delaware Broadcasters Association, and he lobbies on behalf of area media.
The drive Weinman uses as a lobbyist has helped him in his quest to become a crooner, he said. That's not the only trait that comes in handy, he said.
"I tell the truth when I'm lobbying, and I tell the truth when I'm singing," he said.
Using his work connections, Weinman got in touch with Mark Wasserman, the University of Maryland Medical System's senior vice president of external affairs. Wasserman was planning a celebration for the 25th anniversary of UMMS's switch to nonprofit status. After hearing Weinman's story and listening to his demo, Wasserman brought Weinman on board for Saturday's performance.
"He is intense about it," Wasserman said.
"There was never any doubt that he would pull this off. I know this has been in the making for years. I think he's going to feel an extraordinary sense of fulfillment on a number of levels Saturday evening."
With sharp features, brown eyes and salt-and-pepper hair, Weinman is unassuming yet determined. In the past several years, he has lost more than 100 pounds through gastric bypass surgery and new eating habits. After battling cancer, he had his thyroid removed late last year and couldn't sing for months afterward. But Weinman soldiered on, and he says his voice is back in top form.
Though Weinman said he's ready for Saturday, when he'll finally get his shot at the big time, he still finds it hard to believe he has come this far.
"Who does this and gets away with this?" he said. "If I can pull this off, it will be pretty interesting. ... I hope they'll like me, because I can't be anybody but who I am."
If you go
"Under the Covers ... Timeless Love Songs," featuring Chip Weinman and guest Sheena Easton, is at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $32-$52. Proceeds benefit the University of Maryland Medical System. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.