A Singer's Shocking Past

updated 09/03/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/03/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Was his father out there? That question would haunt Emerson Hart when he'd take the stage with his Grammy-nominated band Tonic. Squinting past the bright lights, he'd scan the crowds clamoring for the group's smash hit "If You Could Only See," checking for any faces resembling his dad's. But this was not the case of a son longing for a reunion with a long-lost father. Says Hart, 38: "I was deathly afraid."

That hard knot of panic was born of Hart's volatile childhood: His father, Jennings Hart, was a paranoid schizophrenic who tormented his family with violent outbursts until his mysterious and still unsolved disappearance 27 years ago. "There Emerson was, a platinum artist, paralyzed," says Hart's wife, Nicole, 38. "He feared his dad was still alive, waiting to pull the rug out from under him." After years of living quietly with that fear, Hart—who left Tonic in 2003—decided to confront his past by writing about his father on his solo debut, Cigarettes and Gasoline, released in July. "Once I was able to be honest about it," says Hart, whose new single "If You're Gonna Leave" is on the Hot Adult Top 40 chart, "I could let it go."

Hart grew up the only son of Jennings, a glass-mold maker and onetime USO singer, and Sandra, a former hostess on the preschool TV show Romper Room. But home life in Atlantic Highlands, N.J., was nothing like that idyllic classroom with the magic mirror. "We didn't have the Leave It to Beaver life," says Sandra. "We lived with the devil." In moments of clarity, Jennings Hart would take Emerson crabbing or sing Glen Campbell tunes to him while they cruised in a black Cadillac. But the father's rages could be horrific: Once, when the family cockapoo, Licorice, accidentally nipped Emerson, Jennings held a gun to her head, raving and ready to pull the trigger. Hysterical, Emerson clung to his dad's arm, while Sandra tried to pull Jennings away, begging him to stop. Eventually, he calmed down. "That," says Emerson, wiping away a tear, "was a strong memory."

Jennings was finally diagnosed with acute schizophrenia in 1975, but he'd repeatedly go off medication and refuse treatment. Two years later, Sandra filed for divorce. Jennings relocated to rural Pennsylvania and continued to visit his son but would periodically threaten to kidnap him. "I didn't trust my dad," says Hart. "I wanted to love him, but I couldn't get there because of his illness."

Then, in late January 1980, Pennsylvania State Police told Hart's mom that Jennings had vanished. His car and keys were still at his house; change littered the driveway. Though the police suspected he was murdered, they never found a body. The cops did learn that Jennings had been dating several women simultaneously, some married, and they say Jennings's disappearance may actually have been a crime of revenge. Though it remains a missing persons case, Hart says, "all my mom wanted was for him to be declared dead. That would've meant closure for us. But that never happened."

Jennings did leave behind one final message: a letter to Emerson dated Jan. 21, 1980—the day he disappeared—on his desk waiting to be mailed. Emerson has kept the letter, now yellowed and torn, its words strangely mundane and surprisingly tender. "Just sitting in my office ... I was thinking of you," the letter read. "We are all looking forward to you coming back to see everybody in February. I hope we have some snow when you come in ... Love, Dad." Left without answers, Hart told friends his dad had died in a hunting accident. He drank heavily to mask his pain and his constant dread of becoming schizophrenic himself. Finally, Nicole urged him to seek therapy; Hart gradually found relief. Writing about Jennings (he sings, "I am trolling the ocean for the soul of my father ... He's waiting for me" in his album's title track) also helped put the mystery to rest. "It was his death certificate to me," he says.

Today, Emerson, sober for over a year, lives with Nicole, their two cats and three rescue dogs in Nashville. Hart has worked through his fears of becoming a father himself—he and Nicole are trying to get pregnant and are also applying to adopt. "I hope my kids can always count on me," says Hart. "You have to forgive. If you don't, you carry it around. That's too heavy. I'm at peace now."

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