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POP MUSIC

A Master of Mystique

Maxwell is helping to bring romanticism and sexualized spirituality back to pop. But just who is this very private man?

July 14, 1996|Cheo Hodari Coker | Cheo Hodari Coker is a Times staff writer

Moving with the grace of the soulful, soothing melodies that are his musical trademark, Maxwell strolls through the lobby of his hotel in Beverly Hills.

His 10-inch blowout afro and sideburns, dark shades and clunky, thick-soled Buster Brown shoes make him look like Linc, Clarence Williams III's character on "The Mod Squad." And like that taciturn cop show character, Maxwell is a man who speaks only when spoken to.

His mission, however, isn't catching the bad guys or dodging bullets. Along with D'Angelo and Tony Rich, the 23-year-old New Yorker is part of a new generation of singers who are reestablishing the romanticism and sexualized spirituality that were signatures of '70s R&B.

"Focus is important," Maxwell says in a deep, quiet voice as he lounges on a couch near the hotel bar, sipping from a glass of water.

"The sentiment and the message is much more important in music than the actual sound, because sound changes [with the times] and it always will. What you're really saying never does, and that's ultimately what's going to keep you around."

Maxwell's debut album, "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite," is a homage to the warm, honey-coated vocals of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and other soul legends, and it has earned lavish praise. (See review, Page 58.)

But just who Maxwell really is is a question that's not easily answered. He enjoys the mystique of a hidden past, and none of the publicists or record company artists-and-repertoire people who work with him even know his real name, they say. MORE TK

"I think I'm pretty forthcoming otherwise, and not just in a musical sense," Maxwell says about the curtain he draws around his history. "Music is my life, but as a profession I don't want it to interfere with the daily routine of being a human being. Hopefully, people will respect that."

What Maxwell--which is now his legal name, according to his record company--will acknowledge is his West Indian-Puerto Rican heritage and his childhood neighborhood, the rough East New York section of Brooklyn.

His father died when he was 3, and his protective mother didn't allow her only child to leave their apartment except when necessary.

"There was a whole universe inside my room with my books and TV," he says. "I didn't get out that much, but in my imagination, I played basketball and baseball with the best of them."

Ultimately, it was music that gave the quiet youngster the confidence to come out of his shell.

When he was 17, a friend lent him a cheap, beat-up Casio keyboard. The first time he sat down with it, he looked up and realized that eight hours had passed, and he was still wearing his school jacket and backpack. He had found his future.

"Music was like an epiphany," he recalls. "It was what gave me this voice and a bridge to human people, 'cause when I was younger, I didn't really feel human."

By 1992, Maxwell had begun to make a name for himself on the New York music club scene. He started out by making tapes that he gave to friends. He was surprised to find a big crowd eager to see him the first time he played a formal gig--at the trendy restaurant Nell's. Soon, he was performing at other hot spots, and even before he signed with Columbia Records in 1994, Vibe magazine tabbed him as the "next Prince."

Alan Leeds, a veteran tour manager who worked with Prince and is now with Maxwell, was immediately drawn to the young singer.

"He's got a golden touch when it comes to songwriting," Leeds says in a separate interview. "Every once in a while somebody comes along who is a pure artist and lets his art live as it is . . . the hell with radio formats and the record company's expectations. They just want to give you an honest expression of who they are. Maxwell is exactly that."

Maxwell estimates that he wrote as many as 300 songs during the club days in New York--a byproduct of being too shy to form a relationship. But it wasn't until he had a love affair (now ended) that he found a focus for his writing. The songs on the album reflect on that experience--except for the fictional marriage proposal.

"Detail is incredibly important," Maxwell says. "There's so much music out there that people can play for three or four months and then get rid of, so I think the subtlety of detail is the only way you can hold on to a listener a little longer than usual. You've got to keep them intrigued."

Pop love songs are playing on the hotel restaurant sound system as Maxwell starts on his Caesar salad. Listening to Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is," he pauses--as if trying to form an answer to the song's question.

"I can't say that I know what love is all about, but it isn't just sex," says the singer, whose own public image is rapidly taking the form of a sex symbol. "It's about growing old with someone."

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