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Originally published December 22, 2013 at 5:30 AM | Page modified December 23, 2013 at 2:43 PM

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Wanz, 52, is an overnight star thanks to the magic of 'Thrift Shop'

Once a Microsoft factotum, Michael “Wanz” Wansley made his mark singing the infectious hook on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ smash hit “Thrift Shop.” Now he tours the world and is making his own music.


Seattle Times columnist

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It’s hard to imagine that putting Michael “Wanz” Wansley into the “Thrift Shop” video was a secondary thought.

Just look at him; standing in the middle of the Unicorn lounge in a three-piece suit the color of cotton candy, looking around, getting you ready for the hook that has caught and kept fans from here to Helsinki:

“I’m gonna pop some tags, only got 20 dollars in my pocket ...”

You know the rest. Everyone does. It’s been sung in arenas and scrubbed clean for the small screen, from “Ellen” to “Sesame Street” to “Saturday Night Live.”

It has helped bring Macklemore and Ryan Lewis worldwide fame and seven Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year for “The Heist.”

And it has brought Wansley — “Wanz,” as he likes to be called — the musical breakthrough he’s been dreaming of his entire life. Finally. At 52.

“I had a pitch I could handle and I drove it into the gap,” he said of his part on “Thrift Shop,” which, in the last two weeks, he performed at the Grammy announcement show; three consecutive nights at KeyArena; and once at the Showbox at a fundraiser for Children’s hospital.

Every time, Wanz did — and owned — his part, dancing and strutting and stirring up the crowd with his bottom-of-the-barrel delivery from his 5’10”, 220-lb. frame.

“I don’t have anything but the notoriety of the guy who sings on said song,” he said the other night. “I’m just a singer on another guy’s song. Everybody thinks more of it than I do. That’s the only way I can manage it.”

And now, in the wake of a yearlong tour that took him to Europe and around the country, Wanz is trying to manage the opportunity that he thought would never come.

He was settled into a booth at the Paragon on Queen Anne, where he and so many other musicians have plied their trade over the years.

The middle-aged server came over to take his order, and took him in.

“Heyyyy! How are you doing?”

There was a bit of excited small talk, and then Wanz picked up the menu.

“Everything around me has changed,” he said. “But I haven’t changed. I haven’t gotten far enough in the process to be ‘booshy’ about anything. I try to avoid pretentiousness.”

It’s not hard. Not that long ago, he was a single father to two sons, now 25 and 20, driving a truck delivering hair-care products, then working as a software-testing engineer and figuring, well, some musical dreams just die.

He kept his flame flickering by writing songs at home and recording hooks for friends, and last summer sang in the chorus of “Porgy and Bess” at Seattle Opera.

Then in late June, he got a call from a friend saying that Ryan Lewis was looking for someone to sing like Nate Dogg for a song he and Macklemore — Wanz had barely heard of them — were doing. Wanz met with them and his “Thrift Shop” hook was recorded in 45 minutes.

Weeks later, Lewis called him back.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Going to work,” Wanz told him.

Within hours, he was trying on suits at Leroy’s and having pictures of himself sent to Macklemore — Ben Haggerty — for approval. The winner? A pink, red-striped three-piece with a pink tie.

“I never had a job before where I had to wear a suit and tie,” he said.

Now look at him.

“Yeah, God is ironic,” he said. “Maybe I’ll get sponsored for some suits.”

He sounds like he’s joking, but Wanz is at a point where everything is possible, everything deserves a second thought. Strike while the iron is hot, and even on this cold, wet, Sunday night not long before Christmas, he can feel the heat.

He has recorded and released a dance-beated cover of “The Christmas Song” that debuted on the “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” blog on Nov. 15 and is available on iTunes.

He is also about to release a song and video called “Party Don’t Stop” which he hopes to have out next month.

“Anything else for me focuses around finding the next ‘hook’ and writing my own songs, investigating a book about my journey and/or publishing ‘The Book of Wanz.’ ”

It would start in Lakewood, where he was born, and head to Alaska, where his father was stationed at the Fort Richardson Army base.

That’s the home of one of his earliest musical performances: Singing Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” on the playground.

“All I do is feel the music and let it out,” he said. “Music is part of my DNA. It’s who I am.”

But life forced him to be other things. He went to school for music education, then fathered two children and became a workaday guy at Microsoft from 2000 to 2010, playing bass and singing here and there.

The dream had always been to sing in front of thousands. And, if you added up all the gigs, you’d probably get that many.

His lowest point came in 2008, when he ended a long-term relationship with the mother of his younger son.

“I stopped believing in myself,” he said. “I looked at the outside world and compared myself to it. It was about what I didn’t have and what somebody else had.

“I had to lose myself to find out who I was.”

The call, the song, the video and the tour haven’t changed him — only his life experience.

It marked the first time he had flown overseas. First time walking out in front of an arena of screaming fans. First time in San Francisco’s Fillmore Theater — a moment that brought him to tears.

“To look on the wall and see the posters of the people who had played there. B.B. King, the Grass Roots, the Mamas and the Papas, The Doors.

Then came the night last March, when he was standing on the stage of “Saturday Night Live” at 30 Rock and felt a flood or memories wash over him.

That day on the playground. The classes in music education. The nights in bars when no one showed up to see him perform, save for a few friends.

“Every band, every gig, the barriers, the downtime I took in 2008,” Wanz recalled. “I hear (Kevin Hart) introduce us and the first thing that came to my mind was, ‘God built you for this ... ’ ”

Suddenly, one of the items on his bucket list — to walk onstage and get a Grammy — doesn’t seem so crazy.

Wanz laughed a laugh of disbelief, delight and karma coming through.

“It’s on the calendar,” he said of the Grammy Awards.

So is Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Japan.

He’s bought some things with his “Thrift Shop” money, but most of it is music gear to continue his art.

“It only takes one song, and then to find that one song,” he said. “But that song found me.

“I’m damn lucky to be here and I know it,” he said. “End of story.”

Nicole Brodeur: nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.



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