16 CANDLES

Here's no longer the "Little" Billy Gilman of a few years ago. Now he's old enough to drive, and he's ready to restart his career.

Can it be that Billy Gilman - the little kid who created a sensation with his single "One Voice" in 2000 - is now old enough to date and drive a car? As incredible as it might seem, Billy actually turned 16 on May 24. And he's ready to take advantage of all the privileges that accompany this milestone birthday.

Not surprisingly, number one on his list is a car. "Of course, I have to pass the driving test," declares Billy, who's grown into a tall, lean young man. "But I don't see a problem there. My mom has been helping me a lot with it."

And like the typical teenage male, Billy knows what kind of wheels he wants. "I'd like to have a Chrysler Crossfire, as a birthday present to myself," he confides with a wink. "Maybe a metallic gray with great speakers. It's a cool car."

Cool enough to attract the female teen population of Hope Valley, R.I., where Billy lives with his parents and younger brother, Colin. "I pretty much know all the girls in Hope Valley," he laughs. "It's not a very big town."

But his female fans can rejoice - there's no particular young lady occupying his time. "I definitely have girl friends," admits Billy, making sure to emphasize that last word. "Maybe after I start dating - which I can do now that I'm 16 - I might have a special girlfriend. Who knows?"

Billy's biggest birthday wish, though, has nothing to do with cars or young ladies. Instead, he'd put an end to the voice change problems that have plagued him for more than a year. He wants to restart his career, one that exploded with "One Voice" four years ago.

Billy's 2000 debut album, also titled One Voice, sold more than two million copies, and his concerts drew overflow crowds of all ages. But by 2003, the wheels on his career were coming off.

Billy's last album, Music Through Heartsongs, failed to generate significant sales. Then a new regime took over at his record label, and he was dropped from the roster. To compound matters, Billy went through a yelp-y voice change as he hit age 15, and doctors advised him not to perform.

The good news is that he's on the road to recovery. "I haven't been able to do a full concert yet," he explains, "but I think that's about to change. Hopefully, there will be a concert tour in the fall." Billy points to his throat and cautiously adds, "But it all depends on how this works itself out."

With no further complications, the tour should happen - and Billy may even have a CD to promote. "We are still shopping some things around, trying to find the right record label for me," he notes. "I'd like to have an album out by the end of summer. We'll just have to wait and see."

Billy's glad the wait is almost over. For a youngster who's usually animated and energetic, downtime was not easy to deal with.

"It was a little tough," confesses Billy. "I went from doing about 90 concerts a year to nothing! It was something you don't think could ever happen. But resting my voice was the right thing to do, because I almost had some serious vocal chord damage. I was straining my voice to hit high notes."

Billy was hardly idle during his recovery. Last year, he was named National Youth Chairman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, a responsibility he took on with great enthusiasm. As part of his duties, Billy speaks to young people all over the country about muscular dystrophy. He also performed a short musical set during a recent MDA convention in Nashville.

"It's really fulfilling to be involved with this," he acknowledges. "So many kids suffer from this disease. You see kids in leg braces or having to use an oxygen tank to breathe and you think, 'Why should I complain about anything?' Not being able to sing for a while is nothing compared to what they go through every day."

Still, there have been disappointments. "The biggest thing was the record label situation," he candidly admits. "But I learned from that and I've matured a lot in the last couple years."

Musically, Billy feels that he's only getting better. "I'm learning how to write music," he declares with a smile. "I try to write lyrics but that doesn't come easy for me."

He's energized about the future, however. "I do have to prove myself all over again," he concedes. "But that's the challenge.

"I'm excited to be getting back out there again."

-- Bob Paxman

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