When two local record-label owners tried to take their most promising young artist to the big time, they found themselves knocked out by a music-industry heavyweight.

Bill Gray talks in quick bunches of words that smudge together in a blur of stories and analogies and rhetorical questions so you get his drift but could never repeat it exactly. Suddenly, Gray pauses and winks. “You follow me?” he says, rounding off a point. He doesn’t wait for an answer; his smile shows he knows you get it. He’s a charismatic guy. The kind of guy who can talk his way into favor with the bigwigs of the music industry and get what he wants. And he nearly did.

Things haven’t worked out the way Gray wanted, though. At this moment, he’s not wooing any record-company executives; he’s sitting in a Fuddruckers off I-395 in Alexandria, Va. Seated silently beside Gray is his business partner, Peter Scott. Together, they run Showtime Records, a recording label now mostly in name only, though they still dream of building a flourishing company that will sign and promote D.C.-area talent and bring music-industry jobs to the city.

Across the table, quietly picking at a red plastic basket of french fries, sits Jewel Hicks. She was supposed to be Showtime’s signature artist—the one to get it all rolling. Hicks—who grew up in the District as a kid who “misbehaved,” as she puts it—is blessed with a flexible and pleasing singing voice and, for a time, seemed on her way to becoming a D.C. star on the national R&B stage.

Gray is doing most of the talking, filling the silences with jokes and assertions. “I’ve been around a lot of talent in my time,” he says. “Jewel is one of the best I’ve seen come along in a long time.” When Hicks does speak, it’s with the what-if and could-have-been regret of an old woman, even though she’s just 28.

The music industry, it seems, is made up of the amazingly lucky and the heartbreakingly unlucky. In the middle of the afternoon at this deserted Fuddruckers nestled amid Northern Virginia sprawl, a long way from the big time, it isn’t hard to figure out which category Hicks, Gray, and Scott fit into.

But back in 1994 and early 1995, they had a plan that was working perfectly. Gray and Scott had landed a manufacturing deal with Warner Music Group and its subsidiary WEA Manufacturing. They used WEA to put out a single for Hicks under her first name, Jewel, with an album planned to follow soon. The single gained some attention: Tower Records sold it, WPGC 95.5 FM played it, and Billboard magazine wrote about it.

But it all fell apart in late 1995. WEA turned its back on Gray and Scott, they say, and ignored a broker agreement it had with Showtime. It turned out that Atlantic Records and WEA had a different Jewel—Jewel Kilcher, a 20-something, white, acoustic-guitar-playing singer from Alaska. You’ve probably heard of her. With a multi-million-dollar promotion campaign behind it, Kilcher’s album Pieces of You scaled the pop charts and created a star.

How could WEA manufacture releases by two artists named Jewel at the same time without knowing? Gray has his theories. He accuses Warner Music Group of stifling competition and committing fraud to cripple his fledgling record label. Gray and Scott have threatened litigation, though they hold out hope for a settlement.

Meanwhile, Hicks, her promotion wasted and her name forever associated with someone else, left her album unfinished while her single drifted into music-industry oblivion. She trudged off to work at a golf course, then at a hospital, and now as a security guard at an Alexandria apartment complex to support her 7-year-old child.

“I think I would have gone somewhere with this, and I’d be out there today somewhere on tour instead of working security,” Hicks says. “I want to sing. That’s all. I want to sing.”

Hicks’ family is steeped in music. The folks in the Ruffin family—as in David Ruffin, the flamboyant star singer for Motown’s Temptations—are her cousins, as are members of another classic R&B group, the Jewels, whom Hicks remembers showing up at family reunions in pink vanity-plated Cadillacs. So it makes sense that she was fascinated with music from a young age.

At 15, Hicks was sent away to a boarding school in upstate New York called Freedom Village, a place for kids who got into too much trouble. The principal recruited her into the school’s seven-member patriotic singing group, the Victory Singers. The chorus frequently embarked on long tours, singing the national anthem and other tunes at various events all over the country, including NASCAR races. It was Hicks’ first taste of a musician’s life, and she wanted more.

Hicks returned to D.C. after graduating from Freedom Village in 1992. Late that summer, a family friend introduced her to Gray, who, in November—a year before Atlantic signed Kilcher—signed Hicks to the fledging Showtime, which had put out two albums but nothing substantial. He had larger plans, though.

Those plans led Gray and Scott to Time Warner, a hulking conglomerate with enough arms to rival the most tangled government bureaucracy. The company, now AOL Time Warner, houses Warner Music Group, which includes such famed record companies as Atlantic, Elektra, London-Sire, Rhino, and Warner Bros. Together, they hold recording contracts with, among many, many others, Madonna, Faith Hill, Kid Rock, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tori Amos, Aretha Franklin, and Eric Clapton. You may have heard of them, as well. Time Warner also operates a network of distribution and manufacturing firms, principally WEA Inc. in New York and WEA Manufacturing in Olyphant, Pa., one of the world’s biggest makers of CDs and just about anything else you can record music on.

Gray got in touch with WEA, he says, after he met industry insider Benny Medina at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, in 1993. Gray says Medina liked his idea of forming a recording label to promote D.C.-area talent, and Medina’s assistant put Gray in contact with someone at the company.

Gray and Scott say they drove to New York in early January 1994 to meet with Dale Kanzler, a sales executive with WEA Inc. They say Kanzler gave them an office tour and then discussed forming a broker arrangement in which Gray and Scott, under WEA’s auspices, would help manufacture albums for tiny record companies. The arrangement could generate money that Gray and Scott would funnel back into recording and promoting their own artists. Also at that meeting, Gray says, they discussed future plans for Showtime with Kanzler, including promoting an artist named Jewel.

Kanzler, reached by phone in his New York office, denied that he made a formal agreement with Gray and Scott, noting that such deals must go through WEA’s legal department. Pressed for more details, Kanzler added that he works with thousands of clients and doesn’t necessarily remember them all. He referred all other questions to Jeff Raider in WEA Manufacturing’s legal department in Pennsylvania, who referred questions to AOL Time Warner’s legal department in New York. Erin Hennessy in the legal department referred questions on the topic to Will Tanous, a Warner Bros. spokesperson, who said that he couldn’t comment because he had no direct knowledge of the situation.

Hicks had already changed her name once. Her name was originally Jewell Hicks. But in early 1994, before they recorded her single, Gray, Scott, and Hicks went to Tower Records and searched through its computer to check if any other artist had the same name. A rapper named Jewell popped up, so they agreed to drop one L and turn Jewell into Jewel.

Soon afterward, Gray sent a sample of Hicks’ singing to Doug Cox, a senior buyer at Bayside Distribution in West Sacramento, Calif. Cox liked what he heard and signed a distribution contract with Gray for a single and an album. Bayside has since grown and diversified, but at the time, it distributed almost exclusively to Tower Records. “She was very talented,” says Cox from California. “We thought there would be a lot of interest in the D.C. area. That helped make our decision.”

After the single had been rerecorded and with a distribution deal in place, Gray decided to use his connection with WEA Manufacturing to fabricate it. He’d put out records with smaller manufacturing companies before, but why use them, he reasoned, when you have access to the best?

Except that Gray and Scott had no money. They say that, under the broker agreement, WEA had referred just one album to them, from a small label in Lansing, Mich. With no funds coming in, Gray and Scott had to allow WEA to cash in a $5,000 letter of credit as payment for manufacturing Hicks’ single, leaving Showtime with virtually no money. At that point, its only real asset was Hicks’ upcoming disc.

The single was manufactured through the three divisions of WEA that produce records in Olyphant: Ivy Hill Printing, Specialty Records, and WEA Manufacturing. “In those three departments, somebody should have noticed while they were printing it—while they were making the record and putting the labels on the record—that [Jewel Hicks] was a different artist and a different record company” from Jewel Kilcher, whose CDs were being pressed at the same plants at about the same time, Gray says. He adds that Hicks’ single should have come out in December 1994 but wasn’t finished until May 1995 because of various WEA Manufacturing delays.

Kilcher’s Pieces of You was first released on Feb. 28, 1995, three months before Hicks’ single came out. But Atlantic decided to ask Kilcher to rerecord several of the album’s tracks and didn’t start its major publicity effort until four or five months later, Cox says.

Unaware of there being another singer named Jewel, Gray and Scott began promoting Hicks locally. Bayside shipped thousands of copies of the single to stores in the D.C. area, as well as to shops in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. Hicks made two in-store appearances at local Tower Records locations, including singing for half an hour at the store near the George Washington University campus, where a special display was set up for the occasion. Bayside also paid for promotion on WPGC.

In its July 8, 1995, issue, Billboard ran a blurb on the new R&B artist from D.C.: “Jewel jumps into the fray of Jeep divas with a [single]…that makes fine use of her crystalline vocal tone and youthful innocence.”

Soon after, Gray remembers, he got a call from Cox: “He said, ‘Bill, you know there’s another Jewel?’” Gray says. “We were getting distribution, but every time we tried to go toward promotion, people would tell us there’s another Jewel.”

Gray and Scott say that they couldn’t release Hicks’ music under another name because they had already promoted her so much and because she was reluctant to change her name again. They accuse WEA of purposefully allowing them to manufacture Hicks’ single even though company executives knew that WEA had another artist named Jewel.

“Why would they manufacture Jewel [Hicks] when they just put [Jewel Kilcher] out?” says Gray, revving up for another flurry. “Because they knew that was all the money we had. If they hadn’t taken our money, we could’ve gone someplace else. Or if they had told us before [all the promotion], we could have changed the name. It’s not fair. That’s like letting your client walk outside and get hit by a can of paint when you knew there were painters up there.”

Cox suggests another scenario, saying that Kanzler and the WEA officials at the pressing plant probably didn’t communicate with the executives handling Kilcher’s release. He adds, though, that he’s never heard of one company putting out two artists by the same name from the same pressing plant at the same time.

“I was so shocked,” Hicks says. “I saw [Kilcher’s] video and I was like, ‘Who is this?’ It’s just frustrating. All these artists out there—I listen to a lot of music—and to listen to some of these artists and their material, and they can say just one word, just one word the whole song, and they’re making millions and millions of dollars off that one word. It’s frustrating to see. How come I can’t do that?”

For the past six years, Gray and Scott have studied what happened, written and called Time Warner executives, and compiled evidence. Gray says that when he has heard back, Time Warner officials have simply told him they had another artist named Jewel first—end of discussion.

Fed up, Gray and Scott hired D.C. attorney William Dansie earlier this year to look into the case and threaten litigation for unfair business practices, stifling competition, and fraud.

“[WEA] knew, or should have known, [Hicks] had the name, because [it] manufactured her,” Gray says. “I paid them my money to manufacture my artist. They accepted my money under pretenses that we have the only Jewel. That’s what I would think—if you take my money, it would show that we’re manufacturing Jewel. You can’t manufacture two Jewels and take my money, too.”

In the living room of Scott’s Alexandria home, Gray sorts through the collected evidence of his run-ins with WEA: letters from Bayside Distribution, WEA, and Ivy Hill Printing, among others. They are his proof that he isn’t making his story up. But they’re also mementos of a promising time. He’s saved several copies of Hicks’ 1995 single, too, some with Tower Records stickers still attached. The cover is yellow with a massive diamond in the middle. On the inside is a photo of Hicks wearing a snappy, early-’90s-style sweater vest over a white shirt. “She looks like she wanted to make it, doesn’t she?” Grays says, smiling over the CD case.

He pops it in the stereo. The background beat is clumsy, like something off your friend’s Casio, but then Hicks’ voice comes in, strong and clear. It’s a basic four-part harmony, with Hicks singing all the backup herself. Her voice carries the whole production, and you can hear what Gray has been bragging about.

Hicks visited Paramount Kings Dominion one day last summer and decided to sign up for an open-mike stage the theme park occasionally hosts. Mostly it’s for teenagers and college kids to make enormous fools of themselves by butchering well-known songs. But Hicks delivered a smoothly professional take on a Whitney Houston song and walked offstage past a shocked MC. The rest of the day, she reveled in a tantalizing taste of celebrity as park visitors kept recognizing her and praising her voice. But that’s about all the public performing she’s done recently, save at a pool party a few years back and singing in church.

Many aspiring musicians sing at coffeehouses, bars, even street corners. Hicks does no such things. Instead, she waits, hoping for a settlement offer that will reimburse Showtime for its losses and compensate her in some way. The process is slow, and Gray still talks about possible litigation. “I’m not sure what I want,” Gray says. “We just want to be whole again.”

But Hicks is sure what she wants: another shot at a singing career, even if it’s as a backup singer. “I look at all these singers out there who, in my opinion, can’t really, you know, sing. But because of the promotion, they’re out there making millions of dollars. It’s frustrating to know I had a chance but…”

Adds Scott from across the room, “Not a fair one.” CP