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Divying the wins

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When it comes to music, Cliff Hritz and William Schrul are on the same note.

The South Philly residents make up The Divys, a pop-rock duo with a 1980s’ edge. The moniker stems from the name of legendary actor Divine, star of numerous John Waters’ movies, including 1988’s "Hairspray."

"Philadelphia is well-known for its music history, but we want to bring it up to date," Hritz, who first visited South Philly with friends a decade ago at age 19, said. "It’s never really been a place where rock and pop bands have been."

Although it’s hardly been two years since The Divys were founded in March 2005, they snagged a 2006 John Lennon Songwriting Contest Award. The club remix of "Freddie, Are You Single?" from their first album garnered the grand prize in the electronic category.

"I’m a huge John Lennon fan. So it’s a huge honor," Hritz said. "It’s not some contest started by some business guy. It’s a contest started by Yoko Ono."

Since ’97, the international contest has recognized songwriters’ talents. A panel of professional artists, including Grateful Dead founding member Bob Weir and singer/songwriter Lyfe Jennings, judged the entries on originality, melody, composition and lyrics. The contest has two sessions and 12 categories, with a total of 72 finalists and 24 grand-prize winners.

"When I think about it, I’m still shocked," Schrul, 38, said of winning. "There’s too many people in the competition. It’s too fierce."

Their award didn’t come without a lot of hard work and dedication. Growing up in West Orange, N.J., Hritz moved to South Philly six years ago and works full time at a law office in Center City. Weekends, he walks from his apartment on the 700 block of South 17th Street to the band’s studio, which towers above the city on the 21st floor of a building at 15th and Lombard streets. This space doubles as Schrul’s apartment.

A domestic flight attendant with United Airlines, Schrul spent more than a decade working in the Big Apple, including four years as an associate producer with Bobby Orlando, owner of "O" Records.

"It’s oversaturated," he said of the music industry in New York. "I like the idea of a band coming from Philadelphia instead of from New York. Even though I’m not really from here, I think of myself as a Philly native.

"I remember it was so odd that the cars down there in South Philly are parked in the middle of the street. You’d never see that in New York," Schrul, who hails from Buffalo, recalled of his first impression of the area.

Previously, the musician had been in an electronic band, but after moving to the area four years ago, he was on his own and found it harder to write tunes. At about the same time, Hritz had come to a standstill with his own group’s co-songwriter and was about to call it quits.

"It’s ‘compromises’ to the point where you’re miserable," the guitarist said. "Our musical tastes were different."

Hritz left the soft-rock group and placed an ad in a weekly newspaper looking for someone with a love of songwriting and new wave. He also placed a listing on Craigslist.com.

The same person responded to both ads: Schrul.

"This is the kind of music I like," Schrul, the band’s keyboard player and singer, said of why he replied.

"It was nerve-racking," Hritz said of the first meeting, adding, "I started strumming and it worked."

As grand-prize winner of the contest’s first session, The Divys are eligible to compete for one of 12 Lennon Awards, which will be announced in May. These winners will face-off in an online voting ballot for the coveted Maxwell Song of the Year Award and $20,000.

Up until Sept. 1, when the first-session results were announced, neither band mate thought they had a chance. Both had entered the contest before with other groups, but had never gotten this far.

When Hritz logged onto the award’s Web site on the big day, he couldn’t contain his excitement and woke up Schrul at 8 a.m.

The awards package, Hritz said, included $5,500 worth of musical equipment. Part of the prize, a brand-new guitar, is slated to arrive in January.

"It was like a sign: Don’t give up," Schrul said of the win.

The Divys wrote "Freddie, Are You Single?" as part of their 17-song debut, "This Is What You Get," which came out in August. By Schrul’s estimates, the duo wrote, recorded and produced the award-winning track in one weekend.

"It’s a lot faster than what I was used to doing," Schrul said, although the two said one weekend is the average time it takes to give life to a new tune.

"We’ll have an idea for a song, maybe a title, but the words always come last," Hritz said.

"Freddie" also won the November Song of the Year Award, an international contest that selects a winner and four finalists in 10 different categories every month. The Divy’s entered in the electronic/dance section.

All 100 copies of their first album have been sold and Schrul said there’s been about 65 downloads from their Web site, TheDivys.com.

"We’re right on the brink of getting people to notice [us]," Schrul said.

The duo is halfway through its second album, "Divys Two," and is working on an extended-play disc called "Dance to This." Sometime this winter, Hritz said, they plan to play at a Center City venue, which will be their first live performance since the band’s inception.

"Philadelphians should brace themselves for a pop-rock band that it hasn’t seen before," he said. "We’re gonna make Philadelphia proud, just like how Rocky ran up those stairs."

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