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The Billboard Cover Story

Bruno Mars, the Billboard cover story

By Richard Smirke

"I don\'t know," says Bruno Mars, kicking back in the opulence of a penthouse suite at the five star Sanderson Hotel on London\'s West End, "if it ever goes down like this."

The following day he\'ll play a blistering late-afternoon show to 64,000 sun-kissed British fans at the Wireless Festival (sponsored by Barclaycard), held in the U.K. capital\'s Hyde Park. But for now, the 25-year-old Hawaii native is enjoying a rare day off and reflecting on a "crazy surreal" journey that has seen him climb from childhood Elvis impersonator to the brink of global superstardom.

"It\'s a rare thing that happens," he says, a packet of cigarettes and a smartphone resting by his feet, "especially in this day, where it\'s real hard to sell albums. I\'m traveling to places that I\'ve never even heard of and there are all these people singing the songs back -- and English is not even their first language. It\'s like, what the hell happened?" The answer is simple: Music fans the world over have fallen in love with Bruno Mars.

Mars\' debut album, "Doo-Wops & Hooligans" (Elektra), has spent 39 weeks in the Billboard 200\'s top 40. It debuted at No. 3 the week of Oct. 23, 2010, and has sold 1.2 million units in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. First single "Just the Way You Are" spent four weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, moving 4.5 million copies. The touching, R&B-flavored track also spent 20 weeks at No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart -- the longest-reigning debut single in the list\'s 50-year history. His follow-up release, "Grenade," reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 on Dec. 30, 2010, and has moved 4.4 million U.S. copies. "The Lazy Song," the third track off Doo-Wops, peaked at No. 4 on June 18 and has sold 2 million downloads.

Mars\' appeal isn\'t just limited to the United States. "Doo-Wops" hit No. 1 in the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and Ireland. The United Kingdom has proved a particularly fertile market -- he\'s scored three No. 1 singles with "Way," "Grenade" and "Lazy," selling a combined 2.2 million U.K. units, according to the Official Charts Co. The OCC places Doo-Wops\' U.K. sales at 620,000. The eclectic 10-track album, which mixes pop, soul, soft rock, reggae and swing, has been certified 14 times platinum worldwide, according to Elektra. Mars\' total worldwide single sales stand at 15 million, the label says. And then there\'s his other job: with Los Angeles-based production trio the Smeezingtons.

Made up of Mars and fellow songwriter/producers Ari Levine and Philip Lawrence, the Smeezingtons are a six-legged pop phenomenon, scoring a succession of Hot 100 smashes in the past two years, including 2010\'s "Nothin\' on You" by B.o.B featuring Mars (2.8 million, according to SoundScan). Other credits include last year\'s "Billionaire" by Travie McCoy featuring Mars (2.9 million) and "F**k You (Forget You)" by Cee Lo Green (4.9 million) and the recent "Lighters" (314,000 units) by Bad Meets Evil, aka Eminem and Royce Da 5\'9", that features Mars.

 To paraphrase the man himself, it doesn\'t normally go down like this. Ever. "That\'s because the world has never seen another Bruno Mars," the charismatic singer jokes, before imploring, "Please let that be the headline."

 "He\'s a quadruple threat," Elektra Records co-president John Janick says. "He\'s a writer, a producer, an amazing singer and an amazing performer -- on top of that he just has a great personality."

 "The great thing about Bruno is that you can\'t put him in a box. That\'s why I think people are so attracted to him and his music," Atlantic Records chairman/COO Julie Greenwald says. "You can put him with any type of artist from any genre and it will be beautiful. He understands music." To understand the roots of Mars\' musical education one must go back to the late \'80s when he made his onstage debut, at age 4, impersonating Elvis Presley in his parents\' 1950s-style revue on Honolulu\'s Waikiki Beach. "That was it," Mars says. "I was Elvis."

 He was born Peter Gene Hernandez in Honolulu to a Filipino singer and a Puerto Rican-born percussionist raised in Brooklyn. Young Peter moved to Los Angeles in his late teens. He regularly played shows at dive bars on Ventura Boulevard. "To about six people," he says. "All related, of course." Bruno eventually landed an artist deal with Universal Motown, only to be dropped a year later. "I wasn\'t ready for it," he says. "I did nothing. And the lesson was -- why are you waiting for someone to come and write a song with you? You know how to play the freakin\' guitar. Do it on your own." At around this time he met Philip Lawrence, a fellow struggling, broke songwriter, who was attempting to break into the music industry.

 "We immediately hit it off because we have such a similar musical sensibility -- we\'re very melody-driven," Lawrence says. "He plays every instrument, so he comes from that very musical world. I come up with the big melodies and the big hooks and it just comes together somehow." Teaming up to write songs for other artists, the Smeezingtons -- the term "smeez" is a pun on "smash" -- were born, soon to be joined by New Jersey native Ari Levine. Mars\' future manager, Brandon Creed, then VP of A&R at Epic Records, gave the production outfit an early boost when he bought one of their songs for $20,000 for an undisclosed pop act.

 "That kept us afloat," says Mars, who credits Creed with guiding his artistic development. "Brandon was always saying, \'You need a story. You need to be in the studio writing for people.\' At the time I was like, \'You\'re crazy. I\'m amazing!\' But he was absolutely right. Working and interacting with other artists and being so involved with the business aspect; understanding A&R, understanding radio, understanding music videos meant that when it came to my time, I\'d seen how it goes."

Not everyone in the industry shared Creed\'s faith. Mars says he was turned down by every label before the newly revived Elektra Records, according to him, "rolled the dice and hit the fucking jackpot." "There was a lot of rejection," he says. "A lot of other labels saying, \'You don\'t know who the hell you are. You\'re doing all this reggae, R&B, rock stuff. How the hell do we market that? Are you pop? Are you urban?\' Elektra gave me a shot and trusted my vision."

 His public bow came at the start of 2010 with B.o.B\'s "Nothin\' on You," which featured Mars singing the infectious hook. That was followed by McCoy\'s "Billionaire," once again featuring the artist. Those two releases provided the springboard for his solo career, says Janick, who credits Atlantic Records VP of A&R Aaron Bay-Schuck with bringing Mars into the label fold. The next stage of the campaign was the release of a four-track digital-only EP, titled "It\'s Better If You Don\'t Understand," in May 2010.

"We put that in the market right away because we wanted to make sure that people understood that he was a real artist," Janick says. The EP has sold 27,000 units, according to SoundScan. "Just the Way You Are" was serviced to pop and rhythm formats two months later and went on to top the Hot 100 Airplay chart for seven consecutive weeks. "Grenade" was serviced in October and drew a similarly ecstatic response. Like "Way," the track reached a total radio audience of more than 150 million people. "Mars\' songs connect to our common elements of humanity," Atlantic Records executive VP Andrea Ganis says. "Love, acceptance, loss. The ability to marry those sentiments to engaging melodies is what makes his appeal so broad."

Another key moment in the campaign came on Aug. 25, 2010, when Mars performed his first New York show at the Bowery Ballroom. To build on the buzz that he was generating, Elektra filled the room with key tastemakers from the press, TV and radio. "It could have gone really bad. But that\'s how we got \'Saturday Night Live.\' That\'s how we got all the great things that we got," Mars says. "That night was one of the most special moments for me. It was the first time I was singing my songs and the crowd was singing them back."

In addition to "SNL," high-profile spots followed on "Late Show With David Letterman," "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and "American Idol." Then there was the Dec. 1 CBS broadcast of the Grammy Award nominations concert where Mars picked up seven nods. And on the February Grammys telecast, in which Mars delivered a show-stopping doo-wop-style rendition of "Grenade" and teamed with B.o.B and Janelle Monáe to perform "Nothin\' on You," he won best male pop vocal performance for "Just the Way You Are."

"That gave us a huge spike," Janick says. Major European TV spots have included the finale of "X Factor" France, Germany\'s ECHO Awards and "The Graham Norton Show" in the United Kingdom. Live performance is now heating up too. U.K., European and Australasian runs have already taken place in 2011. Mars also recently wrapped a joint U.S. trek with Monáe, dubbed Hooligans in Wondaland. A European theater tour (average venue capacity: 5,000) takes place this fall. "As a new artist," Mars says, "it\'s important to show the core fans what I sound like live... for them to hear every single line and see the intricacy that we all put into a show."

Mars, for all the success, remains pragmatic, and focused. "When people fall is when they\'re like, \'OK. Now I\'m here, what\'s next? A clothing line?\' That\'s not what I\'m trying to do." His website contains a modest selection of merch, including hot pants, T-shirts and wristbands. But he\'s firm. "It\'s like, \'Don\'t be a slut. Remember your dream. Do your music and keep it special.\'" Mars\' February charge for cocaine possession is discussed with similar frankness, and apparent humility. "It\'s something that I wish would go away," Mars says. "It\'s a cloud that constantly follows me no matter how many achievements. I\'d like to move on. To show that I\'m here for my music. Not to be in a tabloid."

To that end? "I\'m itching and jonesing to get back into the studio," he says, "and fantasizing about doing a side project." No firm plans for that exist, but he\'s looking around. "I\'m such a fan of how Jack White and Danger Mouse get down and put these bands together. I\'d love to be the drummer in a band that I\'m producing, and sit back there and have someone else sing," says Mars, who has recorded vocals for Jay-Z and Kanye West\'s forthcoming "Watch the Throne" album, but says he doesn\'t know if he\'ll appear on the final record. "Whether I\'m on it or not I\'m pretty sure it\'s going to be awesome.

"I\'m just a mixed-up dude," he says when asked about his genre-crossing versatility. "I want to work with the Kanyes, the Jay-Zs... a Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Kings of Leon, Mumford& Sons. I want to do all those things. As proud as I am of "Doo-Wops," I feel like, \'Oh, man. People haven\'t seen nothing. They don\'t even know what I\'m about to do,\' and that\'s what I can\'t wait to show the world."