It has been 30 years since the self-titled debut album by Tiffany, then only 16, knocked Michael Jackson’s “Bad” from the No. 1 spot on the national Billboard charts. And it’s been 15 years since she posed nude for the cover of Playboy magazine and a multi-page spread inside.
But before Tiffany became a chart-topping, multi-million-selling teen pop star in 1987, she was a pre-teen country singer. And she could be found, on many a Sunday afternoon, sitting in with the San Diego band Tall Cotton at the Belly Up.
By coincidence, that same Solana Beach nightclub is where Tiffany - now 45 and the mother of a 24-year-old son - will perform Monday in support of her first album in five years, 2016’s “A Million Miles.”
“Isn’t that amazing? It is kind of coming full circle back to the Belly Up,” she said, speaking from a recent tour stop in San Antonio.
“Those were overwhelming gigs, because I was so little and it was awesome to be on stage. When you’re a little girl, living your dreams, even tiny little stages in someone’s backyard are amazing.”
But Tiffany, who began performing at the age of 9, wasn’t your average preteen vocalist.
Like Tanya Tucker, who also got off to a precocious start, this Norwalk native looked like the grade-school girl she was at the onset of her career. But when she belted out hits by Tucker and other fully grown country stars, she sounded like anything but a little girl.
“I did (Tucker’s) ‘Delta Dawn’ and a lot of songs by Emmylou, Tammy Wynette and Rosanne Cash - those were my staples,” Tiffany recalled.
“My dad accompanied me, and sometimes people were like: ‘Oh, look at the little girl.’ But as soon as I opened my mouth, that was a game-changer. Especially when I was 10, 11 and 12, my voice sounded like a 30-year-old woman’s. I think it was a little alarming and I don’t think people knew how to react.
“Now it’s different. People expect me to sound like a 45-year-old woman. And I still get an ‘awe factor,’ which is awesome. When I was a kid, it was this booming voice coming from this shy little girl.”
Go your own way
Yet, as much as the young Tiffany loved country music, she had an even greater aural passion for a certain member of Fleetwood Mac.
“It was Stevie Nicks who made the biggest impression and really resonated with me,” she recalled. “I found her intriguing and liked her voice. Her songs were kind of mysterious and she was a woman in a rock band.”
So why didn’t Tiffany, who in recent years has opened her concerts by singing Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” pursue rock?
Tiffany, with Kathryn Dean
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: Belly Up, 143 South Cedros Ave., Solana Beach
Tickets: $20 (advance), $22 (day of show), $35 (reserved seats), $55 (VIP tickets)
Phone: (858) 481-8140
“I was 12 and it was a little premature,” she replied. “By the time I was 14, I’d done a few different things. One was a rock thing with producers who had credits. But I was told to wait: ‘Wait until you’re 18 and have developed more.’ And I didn’t want to wait!
“I was driving my family crazy, singing all the time. I was in the studio when I met George Tobin, who ended up being my manager and producer, and got me signed to MCA Records. I was really happy somebody saw my talent and that I got a record deal, although I don’t think I knew what that entailed. Singing pop music was not something I planned, but I managed to do it.”
That, she did.
Her chart-topping 1987 debut album sold 5 million copies, fueled by the success of her chart-topping singles, “I Think We’re Alone Now” (a re-make of the 1967 Tommy James & The Shondells’ hit) and “Could’ve Been.”
She had two more Top 10 hits in 1988, “All This Time” and “I Saw Him Standing There” (which followed Maggie Bell’s more rollicking 1975 remake of The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There”).
But the key to Tiffany’s ascent to stardom was as unlikely as it was successful: a national tour that found her singing in - ahem! - shopping malls.
“It was a little embarrassing at first,” Tiffany admitted in a 1989 Union-Tribune interview, “because I got a lot of reactions like: ‘Are you being neglected at home?’ and ‘Go home,’ and ‘Why are you singing in the mall?’ One time we set up near a hearing-testing place, and they wanted to kick us out of the mall! And you never really knew what to expect; one weekend, there’d be hundreds of people, the next there’d be 10.”
Reflecting on her mall tour now, three decades later, she spoke more fondly of the experience.
“It was a lot of fun and it made sense to sing at malls, because that was where my age group hung out,” Tiffany said. “I was sad to leave the malls.”
Marriage, motherhood, Playboy
Her final Top 40 hit, 1989’s bouncy “Radio Romance,” entered the charts at No. 35, then quickly vanished. At the age of 17, her teen-pop stardom was fading fast, and she knew it. At 18, she dyed her red hair black and got a nose piercing.
“Music was changing. I was changing,” Tiffany said.
“I got off the road and chose to have baby and get married. It was a weird time. A lot of the girls that were my fans were changing into young adults and they wanted to be more sexy, but my record label didn’t want me to be.
“There was no good way to transition from being a young pop star into a full-fledged and sexy young adult. I felt rejected.”
Fast forward to 2002. Tiffany, then going through a divorce, was growing increasingly frustrated that she was still regarded as “that mall girl.”
Accordingly, when Playboy reached out to her, she was more than happy to take off her clothes and update her image in a major way.
“As a performer, you’re constantly re-branding,” said Tiffany, who wants to branch out into artist management and, one day, make a jazz album.
“I’m very proud of those pictures. Posing for Playboy made me feel amazing. I’d love to tap into that again, but that’s just not who I am 24/7.”
Her 2011 album, “Rose Tattoo,” was a full-on country outing by the Nashville-based singer. On her latest release, the ballad-dominated “A Million Miles,” Tiffany tackles adult-oriented pop with aplomb.
“It’s very hard when you’re younger to know yourself,” she said, when asked her advice for aspiring young teen-pop singers. “But just try to be true to yourself, which is hard. As an artist, it’s pretty natural to want to transform and grow, and that gets tricky when the music industry is invested in one image of you.
“Failure and hardships, ultimately, are what create a better artist.”