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Stayin' Alive in the '90s

The Bee Gees. George Michael. Now Jon B stands out from the R&B crowd as a power player.

July 12, 1998|Natalie Nichols | Natalie Nichols writes about pop music for Calendar

Jon B's first hit was a duet with urban superstar Babyface. His current single "Are U Still Down" features vocals by the late rapper Tupac Shakur. R&B-pop acts from Toni Braxton to Color Me Badd have recorded his songs.

How has this 23-year-old from Pasadena managed to make an impression on urban pop not seen from a white artist since the glory days of George Michael?

Blame it on the Bee Gees.

"That was R&B music, I don't care what anyone says," asserts the singer-songwriter-producer with good-humored conviction, shifting his tall, skinny frame in a wooden chair during an interview at his Pasadena home studio.

"You're talking about three white guys who had their hair permed out, with butterfly collars and the tans going on, in polyester suits, walking it." He then playfully sings the opening line from the group's 1978 hit "Stayin' Alive."

Where others might consider the Bee Gees' mid-'70s foray into disco to be a strictly commercial move, Jon B found inspiration: "Those guys were doing their thing. They didn't care what people thought or said."

The young performer has taken this philosophy to heart. His languorous reserve and soft speaking tone belie a steely resolve to "keep it real," i.e., be true to himself.

That's a key component of maintaining credibility among the R&B and hip-hop artists with whom he works, not to mention the audience that has signaled its approval for his sensual blend of '70s soul and '90s hip-hop by keeping his current album on Billboard's R&B charts for 40 weeks, where it's holding at No. 8 (it's No. 38 on the Top 200 album chart).

Approaching 1-million sales status, "Cool Relax" is his second collection on Yab Yum Records, the Sony/550 Music affiliate run by Tracey Edmonds, Babyface's wife. Along with Babyface and Shakur, the album features collaborations with such urban heavyweights as A Tribe Called Quest's Ali Shaheed Muhammed and the vocal duo K-Ci & JoJo.

Though it's not unheard of, it is unusual for a white artist to make such a mark in R&B. The term "rhythm & blues" itself has no hard-and-fast definition; historically, the Billboard R&B charts have reflected everything that black record buyers liked: blues, jazz, swing, and eventually '50s rock 'n' roll tunes by such white artists as Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins, which often were reworked versions of black songs.

As R&B expanded to encompass Motown, soul, funk, rap and hip-hop, a few white artists sporadically made the charts. As with Jon B today, the most obvious reason such acts as Wild Cherry, Bobby Caldwell and the George Michael-led Wham! crossed over was that they played styles that were popular among R&B listeners of their eras. The music, not the artists' race, was ultimately the main attraction.

To Edmonds, the quality of Jon B's work was the only thing that mattered. "Songs and the art of songwriting have always been my central reason for signing an artist," she says. "[Jon B's] songs and the soulful emotion with which he delivered them immediately impressed me upon hearing his demo."

She dismisses the idea that his color might have been a concern.

"I knew that with careful career planning, he was an artist who could be accepted by both the R&B and pop audiences--regardless of color."

Jon B certainly looks the part of the suave R&B singer. At least after he changes from a tank top and sweatpants into a baggy dark blue suit for a photo shoot. He wears a variety of gold jewelry, and his dark hair and beard are closely cropped. Often expressing himself in hip-hop slang, he thoughtfully considers questions and seems a bit shy when responding, engaging the listener but not always making eye contact.

To him, keeping it real largely involves giving warm, deeply sexy voice to a seemingly inexhaustible supply of seduction sentiments, like the singles "Are U Still Down," "Don't Say" and the million-selling "They Don't Know," currently No. 8 among Billboard's Hot 100 Singles.

Growing up, he heard a wide variety of pop music, thanks to his grandparents' Palo Alto record store. Starting around age 5, he tried out everything from Rod Stewart to the Jackson 5.

Little Jon (whose last name is Buck) didn't grasp the idea of genres, let alone fathom that they could be segregated by color. Born in Rhode Island and raised from age 4 in Pasadena, he is the middle child in a progressive, musical family. His father is a music professor at Cal State L.A., his mother a concert pianist. His older sister plays violin, and his younger brother is a cellist. Jon himself is fluent on keyboards, guitar, bass and drums.

He gravitated toward R&B and soul, he says, because they "stuck out in influencing me: the hooks, the really catchy melodies, the rhythms that I loved to dance to." But his passion made the teenage Jon B an object of occasional derision among fellow students at L.A. County High School for the Arts.

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