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Singer Alicia Keys, a 20-year-old protegee of Clive Davis, wows the crowd at the Roxy.

May 05, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

The only name on the Roxy marquee Thursday was Alicia Keys, but most of the industry crowd that packed the West Hollywood club was also drawn by the evening's host: Clive Davis.

The former head of Columbia and then Arista Records and now chairman of J Records, Davis is one of the most celebrated executives ever in the record business--someone known as much for his ability to spot budding stars as for his management skills.

Among the major artists whose careers he launched or shaped: Whitney Houston, Janis Joplin and Patti Smith. He also helped resurrect Carlos Santana's recording career by co-producing the guitarist's massively successful "Supernatural" album.

So industry insiders are likely to pay attention when Davis applies such superlatives as "spellbinding" and "riveting" to a new discovery.

Those are dangerous words in an industry that is overloaded with hype, but Davis has seen Keys, a 20-year-old New Yorker, wow audiences for months.

Though her debut album's release is still a month away, Davis and his team at J have held showcases for her in recent months everywhere from his own living room to New York's Bottom Line club. He even had enough confidence in Keys to have her follow Gladys Knight on stage at his recent pre-Grammy party in Beverly Hills.

Keys' performance that star-studded night ignited a buzz in the industry, and the anticipation level was high at Thursday's invitation-only event as she took the stage with a four-piece band and three backing vocalists.

And she lived up to expectations with a varied, 40-minute set that included a marvelous version of a Prince tune as well as intense, assured treatments of her own songs. You might even be tempted to borrow one of Davis' superlatives, but "stunning" will suffice.

Things didn't get off to a good start, however.

Keys opened with "Rock Wit U," which is different from Michael Jackson's "Rock With You," but is still a generic R&B energizer that failed to establish its own identity.

But she then turned to more substantial material from the album, "Songs in A Minor," and she shined, exhibiting the vitality of contemporary hip-hop with an overriding sense of soul music tradition.

Keys offered a version of Prince's "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" that was filled with enough attitude and sparkle to surely make him marvel. She then delivered her own "Fallen," a tale of turmoil and tension in relationships that's her first single. The tune is already a hot item on R&B radio.

Keys showed that she is blessed with a commanding voice and, crucially, the style and vision to convey the character and detail of the songs. At one point in "How Come," she repeated a line several times, giving each reference a customized treatment in the best, testifying style of soul music.

She moved from the intensity of these numbers to the more playful, youthful vigor of "Girlfriend" and a gripping solo encore of Donny Hathaway's socially conscious "Someday We'll All Be Together" that demonstrated the range and taste of her musical instincts.

Davis was still at Arista two years ago when Peter Edge, an A&R executive who has also worked with Angie Stone and Dido, introduced him to Keys. She was under contract at the time to Columbia but was looking for a new deal because of differences with the label over her musical direction.

Davis was so impressed by the young singer's talent and poise that he signed her, providing the freedom to pursue her own instincts in the studio. When Davis left BMG-owned Arista last year and started J Records, a $150-million joint venture with BMG, he brought Keys with him.

"The thing you are always looking for is a combination of musical talent and star quotient, and I felt Alicia had it all," Davis said in an interview at a Beverly Hills hotel Thursday. "But this is a very tough business. You can't count on anything. The thing I told her was that you can't take anything for granted. You only get what you earn in this business. There's no free ticket for anybody."

Keys seems to have listened well to Davis' counsel. Before an afternoon sound check at the Roxy, she seemed unusually grounded for someone so young who is suddenly being thrust into the pop spotlight.

"I don't feel there is a lot of pressure on me," she said. "I love making music, so this is all just like a dream come true."

The remarkable thing about Keys is that she is young and charismatic enough to fit into pop's current teen-pop brigade, but possesses the maturity and ambition of the neo-soul contingent that includes Macy Gray, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu.

As a songwriter, she is still very much walking in the footsteps of her heroes, who range from Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder to Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. She is just beginning to explore the individuality and original viewpoint that Gray and Scott demonstrate.

But many of the songs were written when she was still in her teens. You wish you could fast-forward her career three or four years to see just where she takes her music, but the lesson Thursday was that she is a terrific new arrival with the promise of a long, valuable career.

"I just love what is happening in music today," she said. "I'm proud to be mentioned with people like Jill Scott and Erykah Badu because I feel they are part of a breakthrough. . . . For years women relied on men for songs, but now women are expressing the truth of a new generation. That's my goal, too."

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