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Fifteen years ago singer Louie Merlino used to sneak into Buffalo-area rock clubs to jam, underage, on Led Zeppelin songs with the local kings of hard rock, Talas.

Today Merlino, who left Buffalo in 1976, is a prominent New York City session singer on the verge of attaining his dream.

Merlino is the frontman and boldly unconventional strategist for a new hard rock band called Beggars and Thieves. Its first album on Atlantic Records, released last week, is expected to be one of the most auspicious debuts of 1990-91.

Less bombastic than Foreigner, more melodic and accessible than Bad English, Beggars and Thieves sounds so good on the car tape deck that it would be no surprise to see the sound adopted wholeheartedly by album-rock radio.

Merlino doesn't flinch from comparisons with Foreigner. He's long been a fan of that group's singer, Rochester native Lou Gramm.

"I used to sneak in and see Lou Gramm sing at McVan's with Black Sheep," Merlino mentions by phone from New York. "And I used to say, 'Man, that guy can sing.' He's the only guy who ever impressed me in a club singing."

For all his youthful escapades, Merlino never became well-known on the local music scene. He sang for a couple bands -- Crown and Forge -- before graduating from Emerson Vocational High School in 1976, but then he packed his bags into a Chevy van and drove to Los Angeles.

In seven years in L. A., Merlino worked with several bands that were close to landing recording contracts but failed.

"It's not as easy as you would think," he said. "There's a lot of competition. There are a lot of people who, unlike in New York, aren't willing to help you."

When another one of those near-miss bands fell through in 1983, he decided it was time for a change. He moved to Manhattan.

"I did a lot of things at first in New York," he explained. "I was actually a marine surveyor for money. I inspected commodities that came from South America -- precious oils and metals and fruit and vegetables. Big ingots of tin would come in and I'd do them."

His first break musically was an audition with three Britishers -- Ian McDonald, a founding member of Foreigner; Steve Holley, who used to work with Paul McCartney, and Brian Stanley, who worked with Canadian rocker Bryan Adams.

"They were looking for a singer for two years," he said. "Fiona (a female hard rock singer), who's a friend of mine, recommended me for the gig and I went down and got it. I actually was making money. Every month they were paying me like a small salary, which was a first for me."

The band, known as Danger Street, had no success with the record companies, but by accident it gave Merlino a valuable introduction. It hooked him up with busy producer and songwriter Desmond Child.

"The first time I met Desmond Child," Merlino recalled, "he auditioned for the Danger Street gig and I got it. He came up to me once and said, 'You're Louie Merlino. You got the gig with Danger Street and I tried getting that.'

"I met him again and did a publishing demo for him and I swore I'd never work for him again because he beat me up vocally, to the point where I couldn't even talk. He just had me sing stuff over and over again.

"He originally sang the demo himself and, being a singer, I understand where he did a certain thing, which is dangerous when you're doing a demo. You can do things that you can't reproduce. So I was trying to get this line and he kept having me do it over and over and over again."

Merlino's aversion to Child lasted until his phone rang one Friday night five years ago.

"I got a call from my answering service saying, 'Emergency phone call from John Waite and Desmond Child at the Hit Factory,' " he recalled. "I wasn't that fond of John Waite at that point and I wasn't really that fond of Desmond. But something inside me said, 'You should get up and do it.'

"So I got up and did some scales and went down there and, from then on, Desmond has put me on every single record he's done."

As a result, Merlino's name can be found on numerous hit albums -- Alice Cooper, Joan Jett, Kiss, both Michael Bolton albums, the two latest Cher albums. He'll be on Child's upcoming solo album.

Child, in return, co-wrote one of the songs on the Beggars and Thieves album.

Merlino put together Beggars and Thieves with guitarist Ron Mancuso, whose family moved from Niagara Falls to Las Vegas when he was a child. Mancuso was part of Merlino's last band in L. A.

"Ron and I always wrote really well and effortlessly together, so I convinced him to come to New York."

Rather than barrage record companies with demo tapes, Merlino and Mancuso took the opposite tack. They sent no tapes at all. Instead, they built a reputation as a hot live group, winning a battle of the bands and setting off a bidding war among record labels.

"I didn't even give (Atlantic Records President) Ahmet Ertegun a tape until we were signed," Merlino reported. "When I knew we were getting the deal that we were getting, that's when I went up and handed Ahmet a tape.

"Being in New York, I've been through it and learned that lesson. I just said, 'We're playing here Wednesday night. Show up. If you don't want to show up, we'll be playing here next Thursday night. And if you don't want to show up there, miss out.' People don't like to miss out in the record business."

Before recording, Merlino and Mancuso recruited a stronger rhythm section -- bassist Phil Sousan, formerly with Ozzy Osbourne, and drummer Bobby Borg, who has written two books on percussion.

The album was recorded last spring in Woodstock with producers Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero, who previously produced Tesla and mixed Guns N' Roses and Alice Cooper. For management, they signed up with Q-Prime, which handles Def Leppard, Metallica, Queensryche and Tesla.

Now, having filmed a video for their signature song, "Beggars and Thieves," they're waiting for the album to take off and a tour to materialize early next year.

"We haven't done a lot of playing out," Merlino said, "but we're all pretty experienced. We did some acoustic shows opening for Tesla last summer in Boston, New York and Philadelphia and it went over really well. You know, nobody but Beggars and Thieves would dare to do its New York debut as an acoustic set."

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