When he was growing up in Indianapolis, and before he was Babyface, Kenny Edmonds’ friends gave him another nickname — Waterfall.
“It wasn’t actually a compliment,” he notes.
The moniker was prompted by his musical tastes, which, counter to the R&B and funk that was most popular in his circle, ran more toward melodic pop hits by singersongwriters such as James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg, and groups such as Bread — the material that populates his latest album, “Playlist.”
“People were like, ‘All you do is play that waterfall music. You don’t know nothin’ ’bout funk,’ ” the 49-yearold artist, songwriter and producer recalls now. “That wasn’t a good thing at the time. It was like you weren’t black enough. You weren’t funk enough.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t listen to (funky) things. I was a fan of the Jackson5 and James Brown and P-Funk. I’d listen to them. And Stevie Wonder. But Stevie Wonder did beautiful songs, too, and I liked those just as much.”
Babyface, of course, got his R&B credentials in short order — first with the groups Manchild and the Deele and then as one of the most successful songwriters and producers of the past two decades, winning three straight Grammy Awards for Producer of the Year for his work with Mary J. Blige, Boyz II Men, TLC, Toni Braxton, Brandy, Pebbles, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and many others. Add pop forays with Madonna, Eric Clapton, Celine Dion and more to the mix and there’s a track record of 125 top 10 pop and R&B chart hits.
But to this day, Babyface defends that early, much-maligned taste for soft rock.
“These songs were, like, my major influences, songs I tried to learn how to play,” he explains.
“The interesting thing is a lot of these songs, the black audience knows them just as much as the white audience — James Taylor to Jim Croce to Bob Dylan to Eric Clapton, these are familiar to black people as wel, so it’s just not R&B.
“And a lot of these artists I liked, they’re not as white-bread as it seemed. James Taylor ... he’s really soulful. He’s got a lot of heart in what he does. That’s what I connected to; I saw through the color lines and said, ‘Wait a minute, this guy’s really smooth ...’ ”
“Playlist,” which debuted at No. 48 on the Billboard charts when it was released in September, features two Taylor songs (“Shower the People” and “Fire and Rain”) as well as tracks by Clapton (with whom Babyface won the 1996 Grammy for Record of the Year for “Change the World”), Croce, Dylan and Fogelberg. Brandy joins him for Dave Loggins’ “Please Come to Boston,” and there are also two originals in the same sonic vein.
“I feel like it was something I needed to do,” Babyface explains. “I didn’t want to just do another R&B record or any particularly kind of record. I just wanted to do something I enjoyed.
“Ultimately, I feel like it’s shown another side of me that people weren’t aware of, but I think as they listen to it, it makes sense to them how these songs influenced me in the music I’ve ultimately done and the work I’ve done with other people. This has opened the door for me to just experiment and do any kind of music I want.”
Babyface, who’s still actively producing both young and established acts, mentions “something a little jazzier” as well as “some country music” as directions he’d like to explore in the future.
For now, however, he’s happy to incorporate the “Playlist” songs into his live repertoire and says he’s been pleased at how well it’s being received.
“I put (the ‘Playlist’ songs) together, since it’s kind of a specific thing,” he explains. “You want to create this little area for the songs, where they all make sense.
“When you’re an R&B artist, your black audience is looking for more straight R&B and may not be as forgiving for some of the new things from the ‘Playlist’ record.
“I was a little worried about it, but I’m finding early on it’s not an issue at all. The reaction has been great, which makes me really happy.”
Babyface and Ayo perform at 8 p.m. Friday (Nov. 30) at The Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $49.50, $35 and $20. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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