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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Donnie Emerson plays live in CDA weeks before his bio-pic premieres in Venice

Overnight sensations in the world of music are often misnomers.

During a show in Spokane in 2020, Colin Hay was reminded that his former band Men at Work was dubbed an overnight sensation in 1982 after the singles “Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now” became hits.

“The phrase ‘overnight success’ is almost always so inaccurate,” Hay said. “I was playing for 15 years before I had any success. Overnight success often takes years and sometimes it never happens at all.”

Donnie Emerson can relate. It’s been 45 years since he and his brother, Joe, released their debut album “Dreamin’ Wild.” It went nowhere at the time, but has been rescued my music fans in recent years and the family’s improbable story is the subject of a film that was shot in Spokane last year starring Casey Affleck.

Through it all, Emerson has continued to make music. Next week, he and his Dreamin’ Wild Band will headline Coeur d’Alene’s Alive After 5 concert series.

When his father Don Emerson Sr. financed his sons Donnie and Joe Emerson’s debut album “Dreamin’ Wild,” it appeared that the teenage boys from Fruitland, Washington, had a chance to make it as recording artists.

The senior Emerson believed in his musical wunderkind of a son so much that he took a loan out against his farm, which produces hay, wheat and alfalfa.

“I’m not a musician but I could see that Donnie is just so talented,” he said while calling from his Fruitland farm. “I had to help my boys. It’s what a father does. It was an easy decision for me since I just watched Donnie play and he deserved a chance to do what he dreamed of doing.”

By 15 Donnie could play guitar, piano, clarinet and trombone. Donnie Emerson was writing songs daily inspired by songs he heard the Spokane radio station KJRB. Such iconic recording artists as Hall & Oates and Smokey Robinson had a massive impact on Emerson.

“What I heard on the radio was so inspiring,” Donnie Emerson said from his South Hill home. “I was moved to make music.”

With Donnie Emerson, then 17, on vocals and guitar and Joe Emerson, then 19, on drums, the tandem recorded the aptly titled “Dreamin’ Wild.” The album is raw but the songs are there, particularly the blue-eyed soul of the melodic “Baby,” and the moving “Give Me the Chance.”

The former sounded as if it could have catapulted the Emerson brothers out of Fruitland and obscurity. But the album, which features the Emerson boys in matching white jumpsuits, failed to launch upon its 1977 release.

“Unfortunately that sort of thing happens in this business,” Emerson said. “We put everything we had into that album. It was disappointing but we tried.”

There are many more misses than hits in the music industry. However, a music blogger, Charles Fleischer, found a copy of “Dreamin’ Wild” in 2008 and raved about the album as a gem that fell between the cracks.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti covered “Baby” in 2012 and “Dreamin’ Wild” was getting considerable notice, albeit more than 30 years after it was released. In 2012, the album got a re-release from Seattle’s Light in the Attic Records.

“To be honest it messed me up a bit,” Emerson said. “When the album was re-discovered I was doing other kinds of music. By then I was doing everything from country to smooth jazz to funk to soul when this broke loose. I was doing my own thing.”

But it was another example of the lack of control Emerson or any other artist has after a project drops. But the good, which came out of the critical acclaim, raves by Pitchfork and music bloggers, was undeniable since Hollywood was interested.

The buzz led to movie interest spearheaded by Bill Pohlad, who directed “Love & Mercy,” the bio-drama about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Pohlad is the writer, director and producer of the film “Dreamin’ Wild,” which was shot in Spokane and Fruitland last autumn.

The film wasn’t completed until the last week of July. “The final scene was actually re-shot last week,” Emerson said. “Bill wanted to get it right. It took time.”

It’s not surprising since nothing is overnight in the film industry either. “Dreamin’ Wild” will premiere in September at the Venice International Film Festival in Italy. A national release date has yet to be scheduled.

“I’m excited,” Emerson said. “How can our family not be excited about this?”

Emerson, 60, is thrilled that his brother Joe, 62, father, Donnie Emerson Sr., who is 91 and mother Salina, 87, will see the screening.

“It’s so cool since we’ve been all in this together since the start and they get to see the film,” Emerson said. “I can’t wait to see it.”

Casey Affleck plays Donnie Emerson and Zooey Deschanel portrays Emerson’s wife, singer Nancy Sophia. “Casey is an intense actor, who is overshadowed by his brother (actor-director Ben Affleck) but Casey is the one who won the Academy Award (for best actor for “Manchester By the Sea”). Zooey is amazing as well. The entire cast is tremendous, he said.”

Joe Emerson is ecstatic about the film and is thrilled that the world will learn about his brother. “People will learn about Donnie and how amazing he is,” Joe Emerson said while calling from Fruitland. “He really shines as a musician. Donnie is an Elton John type. When he sits down behind the piano Donnie is just as good as Elton.”

In the interim Donnie Emerson is writing, recording and playing out, including Wednesday’s show in the Lake City.

“I’ve played there in Coeur d’Alene before and I’m excited to get back there and perform,” Emerson said. “I’m on this musical journey that’s lasted a long time. I’m going to play everything from soul to Latin to jazz to funk to country to swing. When you come to the show you’ll see a guy with 45 years of experience. And you’ll see my wife Nancy, who is the highlight of the show. I’ve been performing with Nancy for 37 years. She’s the spark at our shows.”

But will Emerson play “Baby” in Coeur d’Alene? “I’m going to do ‘Baby’ for certain,” Emerson said. “People want to hear it and so I’m happy to play it. Why not play it?”

It’s taken nearly a half century for the spotlight to arrive for Emerson but his hard work has paid off since the singer-songwriter gets to do what he loves.

“It really is about putting the time in,” Emerson said. “My father always says that you have to exhaust the body before the mind. He always said that if you don’t do the physical side, the creative side won’t be utilized to the fullest extent. My brother and I worked our tails off at a young age. When my brother Joe was a teenager he worked like a 30-year-old man on the farm We all put our time in working.”

Now the harvest has finally arrived. It wasn’t overnight for the Emerson family but it’s better late than never.