April 23, 1990 12:00 PM

When Michael Bolton stepped up to the podium to accept his Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal two months ago, the balladeer wanted to make one thing perfectly clear: He was not an overnight sensation. “More like 3,642 nights,” he said, his gravelly voice revealing a hint of ruefulness. In fact, the singer-songwriter, who lists his age at “somewhere between 25 and 50″—he’s actually about 35—isn’t all that sharp at arithmetic. It has been about 7,300 nights since the New Haven, Conn., teenager dropped out of high school to follow his muse. He spent most of them playing small clubs, writing songs for other performers and even giving singing lessons to help pay the rent. And with his award-winning single (“How Am I Supposed to Live Without You”) and an album (Soul Provider) that is in a platinum orbit, Bolton has assumed a John Houseman-like posture toward recognition: “I take a certain pride in the fact that I’ve earned it,” he says.

But now that he has it, he doesn’t mind flaunting it a little. Liza Minnelli, he reports, recently introduced herself to him as one of his biggest fans. Gladys Knight, who recognized him in an elevator, “raved to me about me.” And not long ago, he crows, he spent an evening talking music and cars with Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa.

Heady stuff for a man who had been dreaming of a music career since he picked up the sax at age 7. The youngest son of George Bolotin, an official in the local Democratic party, and his wife, Helen, who dabbled in songwriting, Bolton got a music appreciation course at the knee of his older brother, Orrin, whose tastes ran to rhythm and blues. “I grew up singing along with Smokey [Robinson], Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder,” recalls Bolton. “I had hair down to my waist, and I sounded like a 50-year-old black guy.”

At age 12, Bolton was already writing his own songs. As a teen he had time for little else. “Music and girls, that was about it,” he says. Repeated attempts at a singing career failed, and it wasn’t until Bolton—after a name change from the more cumbersome Bolotin—began placing his songs with other performers that he began to make money from music. He was elated. “I said, ‘Wow, this is easy. You’re saying my rent check won’t bounce? You’re saying I don’t have to eat frozen broccoli anymore?’ I had a talent I didn’t even know about.” One of those ballads was “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” co-written with Doug James, which Laura Branigan took to the top of the adult contemporary chart in 1983. Word spread and Bolton’s tunes came into demand: Barbra Streisand, Cher, Kenny Rogers and Kiss were among the top-liners buying his material.

Then, in 1987, Bolton returned to his R&B roots, and his own singing career took off. “That’s What Love Is All About” was another adult contemporary hit, and his cover of Steve Cropper and Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” won him airtime on radio and MTV—and the praise of Redding’s widow. “Zelma Redding told me it was her all-time favorite version,” Bolton says. “And that she knows Otis would have loved it if he’d heard it.” Real celebrity, however, came with the release of Soul Provider, with its Grammy-winning single, last June. “What I’m doing is keeping the songs I used to give away,” he says.

But even as he basks in his newfound popularity, Bolton is also trying to survive the messy breakup of his 15-year marriage to Maureen, an exercise instructor. “It’s definitely a deeply painful reality because of the timing,” he says. “It’s ironic that at the high point of my life and my career, I have people calling to congratulate me, and on the other phone, it’s lawyers calling about depositions.” Still, the trauma could yield another suite of songs. “Michael doesn’t talk about his feelings,” his mother says. “He puts all his emotions into his music.”

The hardest part of the split, Bolton says, is the separation from his three daughters, Isa, 14, Holly, 12, and Taryn, 10. “There’s something instinctively wrong about being a visiting parent,” he says. Bolton makes the most of it. They see each other often, and last December he took them to Jamaica. “I spoil my kids,” he says. Still, the girls are among his toughest critics. “I test songs on them all the time,” says Bolton. “They love it: ‘Yeah, Dad, I think that one’s a hit, but you’ve done ’em better, you know.’ It’s wild.”

For the moment, Bolton plans to ease back a bit. “I’ve been working long and hard at this,” he says. “This is my time to enjoy the ride.” But then he’d like to do duets with singers like Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle and perhaps try his hand at acting and writing music for movies. “The more success you have, the more demanding it is,” he says. “Like a video game, once you get past the first screen, there are flying saucers with laser missiles shooting at you.”

—Cynthia Sanz, Robin Micheli in Los Angeles

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