A couple of years ago, Dennis Lambert had the “surreal” experience of sitting in a darkened arena alongside “20,000 people all completely crazy for” one of the world’s biggest pop stars – who also happens to be his former Boca Raton neighbor and his daughter’s lifelong friend, somebody he’s “known from the time she was 12.”
Lambert, a Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer, admits that it really wasn’t much of a surprise. Ariana Grande always seemed destined to do just that.
“I felt, and everyone in my family felt, she was going to be a star,” he says of Grande, whose path from Boca children’s theater to Nickelodeon to hit singles like “Problem” and “The Way” seemed a sure thing. “If not her, who? She was always an amazing little talent in person. She knows how to deliver. I just got a message from her saying ‘I miss you guys.’”
Grande, whose “Dangerous Woman” tour comes to AmericanAirlines Arena Friday at 7 p.m., has had her ups and downs over the years, from a splashy performance at the Grammys to the kerfuffle over a video showing her licking a doughnut in a bakery and appearing to badmouth America. And now she’s back in the spotlight, singing the theme song to the new “Beauty and The Beast” movie with John Legend and getting mixed reviews for her tour, with some saying she’s become more assertive and others criticizing its dark color scheme.
Lambert believes it’s all part of the road to greater stardom and musical legitimacy, as “she’s got a great show business head and a great appreciation for talents that came before her.”
He first met the would-be superstar about a decade ago, when his daughter Misha, who was then like Ariana about “11 or 12 years old,” became involved with the former Little Palm Theater, a longtime children’s troupe that Grande’s mother and grandfather took over after it had fallen on hard financial times. Right away, Lambert, who produced Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” and co-wrote the Four Tops’ “Ain’t No Woman,” knew he was hearing someone special.
“She was an amazing singer,” he remembers. “She could sing like Mariah Carey even back then, with that wonderful head voice, and the ability to mimic or copy all the singers she admired. She could copy all their licks, before she got her own sense of what to do.”
After Little Palm Theatre closed, Grande’s mother, Joan formed “a little children’s troupe” called Kids Who Care, which included Ariana, Misha Lambert, and Grande’s future Broadway co-star Aaron Simon Gross. The group of about eight kids sang at charity events and “black tie affairs in an effort to raise money, get exposure and be a part of a philanthropic sense of giving something back,” remembers Lambert, who occasionally participated, having the kids do a song or two of his or arranging a special holiday performance.
By the time Kids Who Care ended, it was apparent that little Ariana, whose big voice had gotten even better, was intended for more than Boca children’s theater. Lambert says that as a family friend he never really attempted to get involved with her professionally or offer much advice, as her mother seemed to be “navigating” her fledgling career quite well. But he did give them one bit of caution – look beyond Boca.
“The only advice I ever remember giving her mother was to don’t fall for the idea that someone in your backyard was going to be the right fit, because they’re not probably gonna be the right person, and that includes me,” he says. “Boca has a lot of people with a pedigree, most of whom were older, and I didn’t think any of those people were the right (ones) for her, as talented as they may be.”
The Grandes took that advice, and at around the age of 14, Ariana, along with former “Kids Who Care” co-star Gross, was cast in the Broadway musical “13.” And that’s when “things started to happen,” with that opportunity leading to exposure to casting directors and auditions, one of which was for Nickelodeon. Soon, the tiny powerhouse was cast on the TV series “Victorious” and then her own show “Sam and Cat.”
Lambert says Grande took advantage of then-relatively new vehicles for exposure like Facebook and Instagram to grow her fame. Since then, her star has risen, just like Lambert says he always knew it would. Their careers have even intersected in delightfully weird ways, like in 2015 when he was awarded a gold record for the sample of his Four Tops hit “Ain’t No Woman” that was used on a track by rapper Big Sean, who at the time was dating Grande.
“I said ‘I just got an award for working with Big Sean!’ and she said ‘Big Sean’s my boyfriend!,’” he said at the time.
Of course, the longer you’re famous, the more you attract less-than-favorable headlines. Lambert once had to deal with a song he co-wrote, Starship’s “We Built This City,” being named the Worst Song of All Time. (He’s said he’s proud of it either way.) And Grande found herself the subject of unwanted attention after that doughnut shop security footage captured her blurting out “I hate Americans” and licking a pastry, an act she apologized for.
“Unfortunately there was a camera in there,” Lambert says. “She’s a bright girl. She should have known better. I was disappointed, but I think she’ll learn from that. It’ll blow over. It wasn’t the worst thing that anybody ever said.”
All in all, he says that Grande’s talent will continue to grow past the point anyone remembers the so-called Donutgate.
“She’s only going to get better,” he says.
Editor’s Note: An original version of this story ran in 2015.
GRANDE’S SOUTH FLORIDA ROOTS
* Ariana Grande-Butera was born in Boca Raton on June 26, 1993.
* Her mother was CEO of a alarm system company, her father ran a graphic design company.
* She has a half brother, Frankie, who has been on reality TV shows and appeared on Broadway in “Rock of Ages.”
* Both attended the Pinecrest School in Broward County.
* Ariana appeared in children’s theater in Boca and Fort Lauderdale. She sang with Boca-based symphonies.
*She first appeared on national TV at a Florida Panthers hockey game, where she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”