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Har Mar Superstar tours his gimmick-free tribute to Sam Cooke

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Tillmann: No right to sing “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
  • Tillmann: No right to sing “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Sean Tillmann’s heart and soul are both in the right place, but his alter ego Har Mar Superstar can get pretty far out there. During his Hollywood years, he was often mistaken for porn star Ron Jeremy, a striking resemblance that’s haunted him in the decades since fronting bands like Calvin Krime and Sean Na Na back in his native Minnesota.

Even so, Tillmann hasn’t done all that much to distance himself from the comparison. Har Mar Superstar performances typically find him stripping down to his briefs by show’s end. He also has a thing for singing lurid songs while executing breakdance spins and shoulder stands.

All that may sound just a little too gimmicky to take seriously, until, that is, you hear his music. Tillmann is a natural-born crooner with chameleonic songwriting abilities, from the a cappella doo-wop on his self-titled 2010 debut album up through the 71/2-minute title track of last year’s Personal Boy EP, a downtempo ballad with moody, synth-heavy production by Doomtree beatmaker Lazerbeak and Low producer BJ Burton.

And now, just when we thought we’d had him figured out (sort of), Tillmann is once again turning the tables with this summer’s “Har Mar Superstar Sings Sam Cooke” tour, which began as a one-off performance at Minneapolis’ famed Dakota Jazz Club. “I just wanted to change it up from doing a regular Har Mar show, and instead do a Sam Cooke night, because he’s one of my favorite singers and songwriters and I love his whole catalogue.”

The shows start out with a 45-minute set of songs by the legendary soul singer who defined an era with ’50s and ’60s hits like “You Send Me” and “Bring It on Home to Me,” followed by some Tillmann originals that he says were inspired by Cooke’s repertoire.

“My show has always been a little bit out there,” Tillmann acknowledges, “so I thought I’d do something that’s more accessible, something you could bring your parents or your grandparents to and everybody would have a good time.”
The singer will also be dressing the part during the Sam Cooke set, leaving behind his shirtless shtick in favor of more formal attire, as will his seven-piece backing band, which includes a full horn section. “I have a lot of respect for Sam Cooke, so we’ve been wearing suits and keeping it pretty classy,” he says.

Tillmann expresses further respect by staying away from Cooke’s 1964 ballad “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which became an anthem of the civil rights movement. It’s a song he feels would be entirely inappropriate to include in his set.

“Those lyrics will never come out of my mouth, because as a white man I don’t deserve to sing them,” says Tillmann.

“‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ is about systemic change, about changing the whole system. I think it’s his most beautiful song, and it’s the most touching, and I think the point will be completely missed if I sing it. It goes so deep that it’s hard to even wrap my head around that song, but it’s beautiful and I cry whenever I hear it. So yeah, you’ll never hear me sing it; no one ever will.”

It’s impossible to say whether the far less serious elements of Tillmann’s Har Mar Superstar act have held him back or helped him move forward. He’s never scored a proper hit, but he has had plenty of brushes with fame.
Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas, for instance, helped produce Tillmann’s most recent full-length Har Mar album, 2016’s Best Summer Ever, and wrote its opening song “Youth Without Love.” “Haircut” is a co-write with Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ frontwoman Karen O, who also sings on the track.

And then there’s Prince.

Tillmann, who turned 40 earlier this year, was born and raised 150 miles outside Minneapolis in a southern Minnesota city where he would search the rivers for minnows, hang out at the local video store, and take music lessons along with his sister, who went on to become an opera singer. In his teens, the future Har Mar would perform at Prince’s legendary Minneapolis venue First Avenue, and attend the Purple One’s after-hours parties.

“I’d see him jamming with legends of every type of music. It was pretty humbling to be in the presence of Prince, because he was so insanely talented and it was a huge honor to be around that, you know?”

That said, Tillmann was careful to keep a proper distance from the superstar who, along with Stevie Wonder, would so profoundly influence his music. “You never want to meet your idols,” he explains. “And Prince was such a prankster that, if he’d made an off-handed hilarious comment about me, it would have basically destroyed my life.”

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