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POP MUSIC

The Righteous Brother : R. Kelly's ambitious album of genre- spanning songs finds him updating the spiritually grounded R&B of such greats as Al Green and Donny Hathaway.

November 29, 1998|DAVE HOEKSTRA | Dave Hoekstra is a staff writer at the Chicago Sun-Times and a contributing music writer to Playboy magazine

McLin has patiently watched Kelly come of age. "There's so much about Robert that people don't know," she says. "He has a beautiful soul. He has innumerable ideas. He started off by learning the old Italian bel canto school of singing. He choreographed all of our shows at school. Someday I want him to do the life of my uncle. I want him to play Dorsey either in a movie or a Broadway show. All you had to do was look at Robert and you knew he was called."

McLin has become a second mother to Kelly, whose mother, Joann, died in 1992. She was a passionate fan of Chicago soul singers, notably the late Donny Hathaway, a major influence on Kelly. The longest track on "R." is the six-minute old-school ballad "If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time," which Kelly began composing with his mother in 1985.

"My mom and I came up with the hook of that song when I was 16," Kelly said. "There were no lyrics or anything. We used to sing that song on my little Casio keyboard. About four months ago, my stepfather said he had some tapes of me and my mother singing that song.

"At first I didn't want to hear it because I didn't know how I would take to hearing her voice again. Finally I told him to bring the tapes over. I decided to write it and finish that hook and keep it an old type of song."

Kelly learned his lessons well. He understands that the main ingredient of 1960s and '70s soul--the lead voice--shouldn't be diminished by stacks of keyboards and technological clutter.

That's how Chicago soul has always worked. Carl Davis developed what is commonly known as the Chicago Sound by producing hits such as Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher," Tyrone Davis' "Turn Back the Hands of Time" and Gene Chandler's "Duke of Earl."

"Motown used to put a picture frame together, put in all the background and set the artist to the frame," Carl Davis says. "We tend to start with the artist, put him there, and frame everything around him."

Kelly's elaboration on that theme accounts for his success.

"A guy like Donny Hathaway had a focused, sexual texture in his voice that I always wanted in mine," Kelly said. "He had smooth, soulful tones, but he was spiritual at the same time. I cried like a baby when I found out he passed away."

In 1979, Hathaway died at 33 in a fall from a New York hotel in what police classified as suicide.

The most daring song on "R." is "Suicide," laced with extended blues and gospel chords and a clacking Memphis guitar.

"That's the first song I did for this album," Kelly explained. "I didn't start out going in that [blues] direction. I was messing around, developing beats and a couple of chords. . . .

"Sometimes you feel like ending it. Thank God we don't. But sometimes we do, whether it's over someone you love or someone you lost or someone you loved and lost. Money or whatever. It is a reality song."

Kelly admitted that he has known that feeling.

"Sure, but not in a long time," he said as he swiveled in a chair behind a state-of-the-art console in the recording studio. "I haven't felt like that in a very long time, though. And I don't plan on feeling like that again."

*

Michael Jordan is more than a basketball buddy to Kelly.

It was Jordan who commissioned Kelly to write "I Believe I Can Fly" for the hit film "Space Jam," and Kelly wound up winning three Grammys for the inspirational ballad: best R&B song, male R&B vocal and song written for a movie.

"I Believe I Can Fly" also caught Dion's attention. In a separate interview, she said, "I didn't know R. Kelly before [she sings], 'I believe I can flyyyyyy! . . . ' That's such an incredible song. I heard it in the car, I heard it on the radio. I became a fan, and meeting him was a very big thrill. He came to Montreal, and to sing with him was great. He's easy to get along with, a very nice person."

The lyrics for "I'm Your Angel" came to Kelly in a dream. "It was a moment in time," he said. "It was in my sleep. I woke up and took it to the studio. You wake up one morning feeling one way and wake up another morning feeling another way. If you're a painter, you're going to paint the way you feel.

"I actually wrote 'Angel' for myself, but it . . . needed a female voice on it, and Celine is who I heard. . .I love her music and I love her voice. I'd work with her again."

Part of Kelly's maturation process includes the production deal he signed several months ago with Interscope Records. Kelly has started his own Rock Land Records label, which is distributed through Interscope. The self-titled album from female singer Sparkle earlier this year was the debut product from Rock Land.

Kelly brushed at his dark gold sweater--a symbolic gesture. Since 1995, when he wrote and produced Michael Jackson's hit "You Are Not Alone," just about everything he has touched has turned to gold. His 1996 collaboration with the Isley Brothers, "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)," was No. 1 on the R&B chart for six weeks in a row.

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