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COVER STORY : The Saga of the First Brother : Drugs derailed Roger Clinton’s pop star dreams a decade ago. Now he’s out to prove he deserves the record contract he signed after his brother’s election. ‘People might look at me as some fortunate son, but I was never that,’ he says

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The audience nestling in the bleachers on Stage 26 of the Warner Bros. lot to see the filming of “Designing Women” pays little attention as five musicians begin playing nearby during a break in the action.

The band, introduced as Politics, serves up a funky version of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a good-natured nod to the heavy rain outside. The musicians are brought in each week to keep the audience entertained between the long breaks, but few in the audience pick up on the gag or even tap along with the steady beat.

The crowd is too absorbed by the popular sitcom to notice. They seem fascinated just watching the crew move the cameras into place on the show’s familiar living room set.

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It’s a much different scene during a second break in the filming. There is foot-tapping and even a few shrieks from female teens as an effervescent young man in a warm-up suit steps to the microphone to join Politics on a brisk, soul-tinged arrangement of Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With.”

The singer twisting his hips in time with the music is Roger Clinton--and the sudden electricity on the set is symbolic of the jump-start in his personal and professional life since his half-brother Bill became President of the United States.

Clinton, 36, has wanted to be a pop star ever since childhood and he spent almost seven years in the ‘70s and early ‘80s in a band in Arkansas, but the rock lifestyle led to drugs, and his dreams got derailed for more than a decade.

Thanks to his brother’s election, Clinton will now get his big chance. Time Warner has signed him to a recording contract, and he’s also planning a national lecture tour and autobiography.

Coupled with reports of the old personal problems, this sudden emergence has led to a media profile for Clinton that combines elements of a fast-moving opportunist and a black-sheep echo of Billy Carter, President Carter’s colorful brother who died of cancer in 1982.

All this has made Clinton wary of the press. His manager, Butch Stone, says Clinton has turned down more than 100 requests for interviews since the inauguration--not at the insistence of the White House, as has been reported, but because Clinton is nervous of being exploited.

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He agreed to this interview because he wanted to stress his commitment to music and combat the suggestion that he hasn’t paid his dues musically . . . that he’s just, in the words of a John Fogerty song, a fortunate son--someone who was born “silver spoon in mouth.”

“Sure, I thought I was fortunate in terms of having a mother and brother who loved me, but I wasn’t someone who was given everything,” Clinton says firmly. “People might look at me as some fortunate son, but I was never that.”

Clinton also responds forcefully when the Billy Carter comparison is mentioned.

“I’m not Billy Carter,” Clinton says pointedly.

But he almost immediately softens the tone, defending the man who was often portrayed as a beer-drinking Southern buffoon.

“Billy was the perfect person (for the media) to be able to victimize, scrutinize, sensationalize and they wore it out and they still are wearing it out.”

He points out how Carter traveled around the country for two years at his own expense counseling other terminally ill people after his own illness was diagnosed.

“I was so touched when President Carter came up to me at the inauguration and thanked me for some of the things I’ve said about his brother,” Clinton says.

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“The fact they (the media) still bring him up again now . . . it is like they are oblivious to the fact that he is dead. Let the man rest in peace, for goodness sake.”

Stone, a wiry, energetic man in his mid-40s who shares a Marina del Rey apartment with Clinton, has been around rock ‘n’ roll since his college days in Arkansas, when he discovered that booking bands for weekend sock hops was an easier way to make money than hustling pool.

Stone, whose dances usually drew 100 or so college or high school kids, made the move to management around 1966 when he found a band that suddenly attracted almost 3,000 paying fans. Fronted by a hyperactive singer named Jim Dandy, the group--Black Oak Arkansas--signed with Atlantic Records in 1970 and gained a reputation as one of the hardest-working bands in rock, averaging more than 300 shows a year.

It was through Black Oak that Stone met Bill Clinton in 1976.

“I gave Bill his first ride in a limousine . . . to a Black Oak Arkansas concert,” Stone says, behind the wheel of his Cherokee Jeep. It’s two days before the “Designing Women” filming and he’s heading to LAX to pick up Roger, who is flying in from New Orleans following a benefit concert with the Neville Brothers the night before.

“Bill was attorney general then and he loved music. There’s no secret in Arkansas that he would have rather been a rock ‘n’ roll star than President. Roger is the same way. They are both the ultimate Elvis fans. . . . The mother, too. Virginia is almost an Elvis fanatic, not to the point where she thinks he’s still alive, but almost.”

Stone didn’t really know Roger Clinton until 1986 when Roger was released from federal prison, where he had spent almost 18 months for drug distribution.

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“Bill asked me to help take care of him for a while . . . create as much of a low-stress environment as possible, get him to where he could relax and start trusting people again,” Stone says, parking his Jeep in a lot across from the American Airlines terminal.

Roger spent more than 15 months with Stone on the latter’s 1,300-acre horse ranch in Arkansas.

“He had problems . . . he made some mistakes, but he worked hard at it and it worked out pretty well,” Stone says.

When record companies started contacting Roger Clinton late last year, he called Stone and asked him to be his manager. Stone, who had gone through a series of financially and emotionally draining legal problems, including a divorce, quickly agreed. He wanted to get active again in the music business, and he felt protective of Roger.

“I worry a lot about Roger . . . all the time,” Stone says, munching on a doughnut in the terminal snack bar while waiting for Clinton’s plane. “You just don’t have any idea of what he’s going through. You work 18 years at being (a singer) with moderate success and all of a sudden the world isn’t just opening the doors, but beating the damn doors down, man. He doesn’t have a real good b.s. sifter. He’ll tell you different, but he’s basically a big, open-hearted kind of guy.

“He and I both realize that he got this opportunity because his brother got elected President. We have no delusions about this. That doesn’t offend us in any way. But it’s up to him from here on. . . . If he makes a bad record, it’s not going to matter if the President is his brother or the Pope is.”

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Stone’s concern, however, isn’t just professional. He worries about the pressures of the constant media scrutiny--especially on someone such as Clinton, who leads what Stone describes as an active bachelor lifestyle and enjoys going out to clubs and partying.

“It’s hard, man,” Stone continues. “What I’ve learned about Roger is he’s very human. He wears his emotions right here (on his sleeve). He’s anything but perfect. If people are trying to find some saint, then forget it.

“If you or I get a speeding ticket, does anybody give a (expletive)? No. But he bought a brand new car (recently) and got a speeding ticket, and it’s national news. . . . It’s very much a trial . . . every day.”

Clinton is tired from the New Orleans trip, but relatively relaxed as he sits on a fluffy chair in the living room of the rented, two-bedroom apartment. It’s night and you can see the lights from the marina channel through the window.

The room is neat. The only items on the coffee table in front of him are a few magazines, including the issue of Rolling Stone with David Letterman on the cover. A framed copy of Rodney King’s call for peace during the Los Angeles riots sits on a table nearby.

Clinton smiles when asked if people tell him that he looks a bit like Letterman.

“Well, it’s usually my brother that they mention, but sure, people say I look like Letterman, too,” he says. “You ought to see me with my glasses on.”

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He suddenly stands and rushes to his bedroom to get a pair of round, wire-frame glasses that are almost identical to the ones Letterman is wearing in the Rolling Stone photo.

Back in the living room, Clinton, who is 5-10 and a muscular 185 pounds, picks up the magazine and holds it next to his head as he tries to duplicate the mugging pose Letterman adopted for the cover shot.

“He hasn’t made any references to the fact that we look alike, but people tell me all the time that he makes jokes,” Clinton says. “I think they’re hilarious. I’m a big fan.” (See accompanying Top 10 list.)

Clinton speaks with such enthusiasm and occasional innocence that he seems much younger than he is. An outgoing man, Clinton shares his brother’s ease in a crowd. At the TV filming, he is always talking to someone--cast, crew, members of the audience or his band.

Unfailingly polite in the old Southern tradition, he peppers his answers with “yes sir”--and is still down-home enough to express awe when discussing his favorite show-biz figures, especially Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.

He also has boundless energy. The two phones in the apartment ring constantly--friends calling to see if he’s back in town--and Clinton jumps into each conversation with relish.

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Clinton loves Los Angeles, he says, because of the city’s creative climate and because he feels much freer than back home in Arkansas, where he has been in a fishbowl ever since his brother was first elected governor in 1978.

“I love Arkansas more than anything in the world and I will go back one day to live for the rest of my life. . . . However, some people back home are obsessed with my business being their business,” he explained on the ride from the airport. “There are articles and rumors, and you can turn your head to a certain extent, but you eventually get really tired.”

With his brother in the White House, the spotlight is on Clinton everywhere.

“I am getting used to it,” he says. “There’s not a first cousin saga, or a first sister saga, but there is a first brother saga . . . and I’m the first brother. The only way I can combat it is show people what I can do. That’s why the music is so important to me. . . . It’s what I’ve dreamed about all my life.”

Clinton is going to call his album “Red Roses for a Blue Lady,” the title of a soothing 1965 pop hit by Vic Dana, because it was the song his mother, Virginia, loved to hear him sing when he was just a child. Later, he would listen to records that big brother bought--everything from the Beatles and the sing-along folk-pop group the Seekers to Otis Redding and Joe Cocker, who was a special influence.

Above all, however, was Elvis.

“Mom was playing his music all the time,” Roger Clinton says, leaning forward in the chair. “She also had pictures of him all over the house. He had this amazing charisma . . . plus big brother looked like Elvis when he was young and anything that had to do with my brother is all that it took for me to like him.”

Roger’s father--and Bill’s stepfather, Roger Clinton Sr.--was a violent, abusive alcoholic who was rarely around the house, he says. The father died in 1968.

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The young Clinton idolized his brother, and even looked to him as a father figure. He tried to play the saxophone like his brother, but eventually settled on singing. For one thing, he didn’t have his brother’s discipline. Singing was easier.

Unlike many youngsters, Roger wasn’t shy about singing, even at school. “It was my favorite way of expression,” he says. “I wanted to entertain, make people happy . . . see that reaction on people’s faces.”

While still in high school, Roger Clinton was singing professionally at the Black Orchid, a Hot Springs nightclub that featured topless dancers upstairs and his band downstairs.

Since his brother didn’t get into politics until 1974, there was no pressure or special attention on him during the early club days. For the rest of the ‘70s, Clinton divided his time between studying political science and English at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., and playing with his band, Dealer’s Choice, around the Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas area.

The material consisted of the hits of the day, everything from Fleetwood Mac to Alice Cooper, with some Elvis and Joe Cocker thrown in.

His mom, he says, was his biggest fan.

“She was always right there (when we played Hot Springs) . . . until 1 or 2 in the morning and, remember, she had to get up at 6 in the morning to be at work.”

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Eventually, he fell prey to one of the hazards of the rock lifestyle: drugs.

“It doesn’t have to be a big push,” he says of his involvement with drugs. “You just try it one time and the addiction takes over if you allow it to. . . . The temptations were there and I gave in to them.”

Clinton kept his addiction hidden for years from his family, he says. “I just wanted to party. My family didn’t know about it,” he says. “They had no clue. They thought I was out pursuing my music.”

That changed the night in July, 1984, when Clinton was arrested on federal charges. Humiliated and thinking he had let down his brother and mother, he thought about suicide. “It was devastating to me,” he says, now speaking slowly in the quiet living room. “I had come to the conclusion, ‘That’s it. I’m not going to put them through this.’ ”

But his family comforted him.

“They were there for me,” he says. “My brother was furious. He was hurt, scared and he got in my face. He said, ‘How dare you be so selfish to me and your mother (as to consider suicide). We love you more than anything in the world’--and it was like a light switch in my head and that was the end of that thinking.”

Clinton dislikes blaming drug problems on the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle or the pressures of being a famous politician’s brother. One of his goals this year is to take time, while he is on the lecture tour, to speak to high school students--to warn them about how drugs can enter anyone’s life and how they can be overcome.

But he believes the pressures of being in the spotlight in Arkansas added to his problem in the ‘80s.

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“I didn’t begin drugs as an escape, but it became convenient once you start, especially if you are one with an addictive personality,” he says.

“I would use (drugs) as an escape valve. I remember so many times when I would be out and people would be on me . . . about this or that . . . the black sheep label or ‘he’s a problem’ or hot-tempered. This was before I could really handle it. I’d go and have to smoke a joint or do a line (of cocaine). It was like a vicious circle. That’s what drugs do. They make you feel like you are safe. There was the pressure and I just used it as an escape.”

It led to prison.

“The first night in prison was the low point for me, when they took me straight from the courtroom and to prison and those bars . . . just like in the movies . . . the sound of the cells shutting down,” he recalls, while eating a steak sandwich and French fries that Stone ordered for him from a local restaurant. “I was lying alone on the cot in the cell . . . and you are a number. That’s when the only thing left is to turn to God and that’s what I did.”

Soon after he was paroled in 1986, Roger went to Butch Stone’s ranch. “Butch offered me everything he had: A home and security and stability . . . a chance to break back into society in a slow way, a haven to get away from it all.

“I didn’t get too much accomplished there in terms of my music, but I got a lot accomplished inside of me. I prepared myself. It gave me a chance to think and be with myself and with people who loved me. . . .”

After leaving the farm, he went to work for a year for a highway construction company--hard, grueling work. “I needed to get up and bust my ass every day, physically. I needed that discipline . . . to prove to people that I could do it.”

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His re-entry into the music business was on tour selling T-shirts and cassette tapes for country legend George Jones. But his only time at the microphone in that job was warming up the band during sound check. He traveled all around the country for more than two years, slowly regaining the courage and desire to get back on stage.

By the end, however, the lifestyle again caused problems. “There was no temptation at all the first year and a half,” he says. “Then I started to wear down, had a couple of relapses. . . .”

The road to California began the night in 1990 when he sang at his brother’s last gubernatorial inauguration in Little Rock. A family friend, optometrist Danny Thomason, said he was impressed by Clinton’s voice and was going to see if his brother, Hollywood TV bigwig Harry Thomason, could help Roger get started in a singing career.

At the TV executive’s invitation, Clinton headed to California in early 1990. He did odd jobs on the set of Thomason’s “Designing Women,” “Hearts Afire” and “Evening Shade.” On his off nights Clinton went to Los Angeles clubs, including the Whisky and the Roxy, sitting in whenever he could with the musicians.

This was back in the days when few outside of Arkansas had heard of Bill Clinton, much less that this outgoing young singer was related to him.

The joke when some soul-minded musicians heard his name was, “You any relation to George?”--meaning George Clinton, the black funk legend who fronted Parliament-Funkadelic.

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By late last year, however, no one was confusing him with the wrong Clinton.

Time Warner contacted Roger after hearing him sing at the Democratic National Convention and Clinton, in turn, contacted Stone, hoping for his management skills, but also to pay back the favor of the post-prison years.

At the “Designing Women” filming, Clinton is upbeat and accessible, shaking hands and talking to the crew and members of the audience. Given his energy and all the years that he has waited to get a record contract, he doesn’t seem to want to waste another minute.

In fact, he sounds frustrated when he talks about the slowness of the project, which may not be released until early next year. But Stone counsels him, stressing the importance of making as strong an album as possible because the pop world may only give Clinton one chance.

The safest kind of album would be a collection of soul standards, with Clinton backed by various pop-rock all-stars. But Clinton would like something more ambitious, something including a few songs he has co-written with members of the Politics.

Ken Barnes, editor of the influential trade publication Radio & Records, believes radio program directors will be curious but also skeptical of a Clinton record. “They may have a lot of preconceived notions about nepotism or the sheer novelty value of the signing . . . the old Billy Beer (stigma),” he said. “I don’t think the doors would be closed, but he will have to come up with a very good record to overcome the skepticism.”

Clinton has already recorded a single, a remake of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” backed by the hot R&B; group En Vogue. But there is no release date scheduled. He and Stone are discussing album direction--whether the tone should be more soul or rock--and other plans with Time Warner officials.

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The lecture tour--which began with a Jan. 16 speech in Palm Beach., Fla--will resume in earnest in April, with as many as 40 dates planned during 1993. The theme is overcoming problems or hurdles in life. The book, which will be written with Los Angeles radio personality and author Jim Ladd, isn’t expected until 1995.

Clinton acknowledges the personal and professional dangers ahead, but believes he is gaining the confidence and discipline to overcome them . . . and to be taken seriously. One thing he’ll draw upon, he says, is the love of his family. Clinton says his brother, whom he speaks to a couple of times a month, is enthusiastic about his music career.

“I learned by the way my brother handled his skeptics,” he says. “When everything was being written negative about him, he took (his case) to television. . . . and people finally said, ‘This is not the person we’ve been reading about. This is not a person who doesn’t care. This is not a person who is a liar and who has no character.’

“And I’ve got to show people what I’m really like. I can’t concern myself with what people who don’t know me write about me and what people who don’t know listen to or read. I’m eager to get started. I’m anxious to show what I can do. I’m not frightened at all.”

Top 10 Ways Things Would Be Different If Roger Clinton Were President In case you missed David Letterman do his Top 10 List on Roger Clinton on the Feb. 19 show, here it is: 10. Walls of Oval Office wouldn’t be cluttered with various diplomas. 9. Garth Brooks--Secretary of Hats. 8. Long, complicated State of the Union addresses replaced by five-minute prime-time reminders to always use ZIP Codes. 7. New Cabinet position: Minister of Barbecue. 6. Hillary wouldn’t be running the country anymore. 5. Every Saturday, nation would gather around their TVs to watch President compete on “American Gladiators.” 4. “Hail to the Chief” replaced with theme from “Wayne’s World.” 3. Chief Justice Wapner. 2. A lot of speeches would begin, “Dan Quayle had a good idea the other day.” 1. One word: Hootercade.

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