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Is D'Angelo the Heir to Throne of Soul Music? : 21-Year-Old Newcomer Has Fans Swooning Over Voice as Sweet as 'Brown Sugar'

August 18, 1995|CHEO H. COKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — "This is ridiculous!"

Michael Beardon, who has worked as Madonna's musical director, expresses his astonishment aloud as he watches the excitement build in the hours before show time at the Supper Club, a hot spot just half a block from the dazzle of Times Square.

As a 15-year industry veteran, Beardon, 31, has seen his share of mob scenes, but he repeats his amazement over what is unfolding as recording artist D'Angelo makes his New York City club debut.

Leggy models, record-label executives and plugged-in hip-hop kids all move toward the doorman waving their brown-colored invitations, each trying to convince the doorman of their worth.

"This is his first album . . . and they're acting like this," says Beardon, who works with D'Angelo on his live show. "Wow."

Before the 1,000-capacity club is filled, twice that many fans and scenesters will attempt entry. Once the fire marshal shows up with a battalion of trucks, it's clear that hundreds, no matter how much clout or fame they have, won't make it.

Among those who don't get through the doors in time: R&B trio TLC, director Martin Scorsese and the artist formerly known as Prince, who happens to be D'Angelo's single greatest influence.

So it's little surprise that a short, stocky 21-year-old dressed in jeans and a casual Polo shirt, his hair separated in cornrow braided sections, gets turned away--even though he strides to the front of the line as if he owns the place.

"But I'm D'Angelo," the smooth-talking B-boy tells the burly doorman emphatically. "I'm playing here tonight."

No luck.

D'Angelo waits for more than half an hour before someone believes his story and he's finally allowed into the club, which is already in full swing. With far more women than most hip-hop shows and the free-flowing liquor, the place has the feel of a funky '70s party--not unlike the smoky atmosphere shown in the D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar" video, the success of which was responsible for packing the club in the first place.

Such celebrities as director John Singleton and Robert De Niro rub elbows with some of the more urbane types chatting among themselves while waiting for the show to begin.

Around 10:20, the stage lights come up and D'Angelo strides out with the elegant slink of a jungle cat, greeted by delighted squeals from female fans. As he intersperses inspired versions of soul classics with spirited renditions of his own songs, it is apparent that D'Angelo isn't your average new jack.

For one, he can actually play an instrument, something the majority of this new generation of soul men can't do. As he sings, filling the air with a falsetto that at times recalls everyone from Prince to Donny Hathaway, it's easy to see why critics and fans are beginning to dub him the savior of soul. This entertainer appears to be a figure who can single-handedly bring an integrity and purity back to a genre that has sacrificed true feeling for over-production and cliche.

*

D'Angelo may have trouble getting into his own show, but he's had no problem getting onto the pop and R&B charts. The Richmond, Va., native's debut album, "Brown Sugar," has only been in the stores seven weeks, but it has already sold more than 300,000 copies. EMI Records expects it to eventually reach the million mark.

What makes his success so encouraging is that his album has broken away from the current R&B format in interesting and exciting ways. D'Angelo doesn't exactly blaze trails, but he comes across as the rightful heir to the soul tradition of such influences as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

His rhythms have a rugged hip-hop flair, but the lush melodies, which are all played live in the studio by D'Angelo, set him apart from the rest of his new jack brethren and their sample-driven hits.

Like so many great soul vocalists, Michael D'Angelo Archer learned to sing in church. His father, a Pentecostal preacher in Richmond, introduced music to him at a very early age. Some of the first songs he ever heard came from records by such gospel greats as the Mighty Clouds of Joy and Mahalia Jackson.

Before he ever got near a school room, D'Angelo was spending his time at a piano sounding out songs, like Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" and Earth, Wind & Fire's "Boogie Wonderland," that he'd heard on the radio.

"I did a lot of moving from place to place when I was young," he remembers, sitting on a couch at a Manhattan rehearsal studio. "But wherever we moved, the piano came with us. Everybody kind of knew that it was my thing."

He even became his father's chief pianist and organist at church. Though religious, D'Angelo's parents never steered him away from secular music. As he got older, he added drums, bass and guitar to his instrumental arsenal.

While the rest of the country went crazy for Michael Jackson in the mid-'80s, D'Angelo found a different musical hero: Prince.

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