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Gregory Abbott--an Intellectual With Soul

February 08, 1987|DENNIS HUNT

There's no other singer around like Gregory Abbott, who sings "Shake You Down," a recent No. 1 pop single. After you talk to him for a while, you wonder why he ever bothered with pop singing. It seems beneath him. But he insists that, for him, singing is not slumming. He's been serious about it, he recalled, since he was a tot.

Sure, Abbott looks the part of a pop singer. With those cat-like eyes, that handsome face, he sets women swooning--even before he opens his mouth. More specifically, he looks like a ballad singer. They really are his specialty. The songs on his debut album, Columbia's "Shake You Down," are mostly slow, sensuous songs.

But he certainly doesn't talk or think like a pop singer. Most of them are undereducated, creative types who live and breathe music. They can tell you everything about their kind of music but usually don't know a lot about anything else. If you want to get into a detailed discussion of Degas, Beethoven or the origins of the Iran-Iraq war, avoid most singers.

But you could certainly chat about these topics with Abbott. They're already calling him the singing intellectual. He's intelligent, well-educated and well-versed in many subjects. The breadth of his knowledge is impressive. He doesn't flaunt it, either. He's even modest. When the conversation turned to his intellectual pursuits, he downplayed them. But, under pressure, the truth came out.

In discussing what he learned from his current literary passion--biographies--he revealed offhandedly that he reads two to three books a week.

"I've always done that," he said. "Even when I'm on the road. I have a lot of time when the day is over and I'm back in my hotel room. I could stay on the phone or go to a disco, but I'd rather read. Most people would think that's boring, but I don't."

Reading biographies has taught Abbott that often what people do best isn't what they were trained to do. That, he said, is the story of his life.

"Making music and singing is what I really love to do," he explained. "I have a strong academic background so I could--and have--earned a living using that education: teaching, research, etc. But I'm into music. I want to play it, write it, sing it, produce it. But for a long time it was just a serious hobby.

"There are people who are doing what they prepared themselves for but aren't enjoying it. These are the people who, according to Thoreau, are living lives of quiet desperation. That's not me. I couldn't live like that."

Abbott--polished and gentlemanly--is very low-key, the kind of guy who doesn't like to draw undue attention to himself. He speaks in a deep monotone. Reading him is hard because he doesn't show much emotion. During a late-afternoon lunch in West Hollywood, he hardly ever smiled.

You have to pry his age out of him. Judging from his stories about his college days at Boston University, UC Berkeley and Stanford, he's probably in his late '30s. He doesn't look it, though.

Abbott isn't just a singer. He's a music scholar, well-schooled in music theory. "I know my sharps and flats," he modestly admitted.

That shows on the "Shake You Down" album, which he also wrote, produced and arranged. There's a slick, almost cerebral quality to some of his songs. Students of music theory tend to shun raggedness. His album is a rarity--a soul album without any of those charming, ragged edges.

But his academic musical background, he argued, offers a valuable benefit: "Knowledge of music theory allows you to be much better at emotionally coloring your music. You have the resources to give it more feeling, more radiance. You can make it more touching. Touching people is what pop music is all about, isn't it?"

Abbott's "Shake You Down" is one of the most unlikely hit singles of the last few years. It's a very black ballad, the kind that, a year or two ago, would have never made it beyond the bottom of the pop chart.

It's what's known as a groove ballad, which has lazy, sexy tension and sort of smolders along in a tempo somewhere between slow and medium. According to one female fan--they seem to be into this song much more than men--the song is like a small, cozy flame that's constantly on the verge of bursting into a big blaze. Abbott has the perfect voice to sing groove ballads--high, supple and seductive, expressive but not overpowering.

Regarding his sudden success, Abbott feels he's merely in the right place at the right time. These days, radio isn't as restrictive about black music as it used to be. "They're playing alternative music," he said, flashing a rare smile as he reflected on his good fortune. "On pop radio, they don't care what color you are if your record is good. That wasn't always the case."

Will this liberal policy last in radio? "I hope so, but it probably won't," he said. "I hope I'm a big star before things change."

Abbott, a New Yorker who's been transplanted to the San Francisco Bay area, has spent most of the '80s sharpening his studio skills, preparing to record his own album and to produce and write for others.

Usually musicians and singers have to resort to menial labor to make ends meet while waiting to make it big. Abbott, though, took the high road. He made ends meet by teaching and doing research at UC Berkeley.

But, in the last few years, he's been concentrating on music. He did record one album--for a small label that folded before the album was released. But that, he noted, was merely a stepping stone to his Columbia debut album, "Shake You Down."

"When I got the contract, I had the feeling I'd do something good--even earth-shaking," he said.

He did just that--and instantly. With "Shake You Down," he's one of those rare artists who made it to the top of the pop chart with their first single.

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