Times Staff Writer

Riding to pop music fame and fortune on the pretense of reuniting missing children with their parents might appear a bit sleazy to some, but not to aging rock musician Phil O'Kelsey.

"I can answer that right now," said the 39-year-old Sherman Oaks resident who has spent most of his career playing backup bass and saxophone to other rock stars. "I really don't give a damn. OK?"

Displaying the muted indignity of a man who has been asked an irritating question once too often, O'Kelsey spoke briefly Thursday about this very serious publicity stunt just moments before taking the stage at the Roxy nightclub on the Sunset Strip.

"If I find one missing child out of all of this, how can you compare that and the way that child and those parents will feel with me and my career? I really mean that."

Devin Payne, O'Kelsey's stage name during 20 years of second-banana rock 'n' roll, is well aware that a little newsy hysteria helps in any drive to secure a recording contract. The missing children angle could help him finally make it into the Top 10, but that, he insists, is secondary to the issue of the lost children themselves.

Since the mid-'60s as the leader of Phil and the Frantics at a Phoenix, Ariz., high school, he has tried to break into show biz more often than Soupy Sales. His official biography says he's played with Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, the Lovin' Spoonful and Steppenwolf, among others.

"Devin Payne has spent his life carving a niche for himself in rock among music's most notable artists," reads his official press release biography. "Now, Devin's new album and video guarantee him his own 'spot in the limelight' and a most promising future."

Payne's music is actually typical opening-act-caliber stuff: unremarkable but serviceable raunch 'n' roll that can usually be counted on to induce middle-ear damage after the first 30 minutes.

Hence, when Payne recently hooked up with West Hollywood publicist Norman Winter, it seemed natural enough to bullhorn the missing children issue at the same time as Payne tried peddling his music video of "Fooling Around." The song is a single from "American Boy," an LP as yet unavailable in most any record store. If Payne can ever get someone to produce and distribute the album, he said he plans to put missing-kid pictures on the album cover.

"We invited quite a number of record industry executives and heads of labels to the Roxy," Payne told The Times in his dressing room during the second night of a two-night stand. "Our tally showed that every single one of them made it (to his first evening's performance), which was really nice, and they certainly seemed to enjoy it. Time will tell if we get a contract."

His Roxy appearances were only one of the missing-child elements in the Norman Winter-orchestrated publicity campaign. There are also flyers, a music video and a special public-service spot on videotape that advertises Payne's "Fooling Around" video, followed by the voice of former "Starsky and Hutch" star David Soul saying: "The song's 'Fooling Around,' but we're not fooling around when it comes to missing children."

With no apparent connection to the infidelity theme of the "Fooling Around" video, the ad switches after a few seconds of Payne's singing to a montage of mug shots of missing children. The day before Payne and his band of five launched their stand at the Roxy, the public-service ad was made available free to 650 U.S. television stations via satellite.

"I was going to go out to do my tour anyway and do my showcasing to get a label, so I thought 'Why not do this too?' " Payne said.

With the help of Winter--the same publicist who called a press conference last summer to announce that Michael Jackson was not effeminate and intended to marry some day--Payne launched his own full-court press conference last Wednesday to announce the release of the public-service ad.

Boasting the support of politicians and television actors, Payne announced that he was sending out the 30-second spot as a benefit for New York-based Child Find Inc. David Soul, who was once married to the current Mrs. Devin Payne, directed the 12-minute music video from which the spot was taken.

Karen Carlson, Payne's actress-wife who has an infant son by Payne and a teen-age son by Soul, said the idea of linking Payne's rock aspirations with the often slim hopes of reuniting parents with their stolen children was the result of watching the hugely successful child abduction docudrama "Adam."

"Devin didn't want to watch it at all, but I made him," she said.

It was at that moment, more than a year ago, that the Paynes decided to bring the issue of missing children to the attention of America.

Before, during and after the press conference, the Paynes pointed to their own children as potential targets of child thievery. Carlson testified that her teen-ager was nearly heisted from preschool twice a decade ago when she was still married to Soul.

Out on the Roxy stage, she talked to the audience of about 50 Devin Payne fans Thursday, pitching Child Find and the "Fooling Around" public-service ad.

She pointed out that 500,000 children are stolen each year in the United States, usually by an estranged parent or other relative. Payne's ad would be running for the next six months, "up to five or six times a day." She will personally select nine new missing faces each month to replace the previous month's missing-children pictures that flash on the screen as her husband rocks in the background. They are the kind of missing-children photos that have been appearing on milk cartons from coast to coast.

They plan to take the missing-children pictures on tour with them too, she explained.

"Devin's plan is to take this show on the road. We're looking for a sponsor, such as Pepsi Cola or Coca- Cola, who will sponsor us on the road, and the intention is to take Child Find into each town and show missing children's pictures, spreading the word all over."

Showing far more evangelism on the subject than her husband, Carlson hesitated uncomfortably, then said, "You all look really young."

Scanning the spiked hair, leather vests and bored faces staring up at her, she continued, "I don't know how many of you have children, but if you do, there's one thing I'd like to pass on to you: Have a family password that only you and your children know. Tell them never to go anywhere with anyone--even if they have a badge and say they are a police officer--unless they know the password."

Nobody jotted down the valuable tip in familial self-protection. In fact, when Karen Payne/O'Kelsey-Carlson left the stage, the boozy, cozy interior of the Roxy was as quiet as it ever gets.

And it didn't liven up much more moments later when Payne and company appeared, singing an indecipherable anthem to a hooker with the title "One-Time Lover."

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