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From nowhere to the Grammys

THE ARTS | POP MUSIC

February 05, 2004|Marc Weingarten | Special to The Times

No one would've blamed Anthony Hamilton for giving up, shucking the dream and going back to cutting hair. Few artists can endure the indignity of three failed record deals and find the strength to continue, let alone achieve some measure of success.

But the R&B singer with the bedroom voice stuck with it, even when he couldn't afford to eat. And now his album "Comin' From Where I'm From" -- an old-fashioned soul seduction recorded with living, breathing musicians -- has sold 350,000 copies since its September release.

In addition, "Comin' From Where I'm From" has catapulted the 33-year-old Charlotte, N.C., native to a perch among his genre's luminaries, earning Grammy nominations for best R&B song, traditional R&B vocal and contemporary R&B album.

"I never wanted to give up," Hamilton says as he downs an eggs-and-sausage breakfast at the Newsroom Cafe in West Hollywood. He is unassuming in both manner and dress; today he's wearing a trucker's cap that reads "Fat Boys" and a leather jacket, two recent purchases from a local thrift store.

"I had sacrificed so much, and it took so long for me to make a record. It could've damaged me bad," he says. "A couple of strong blows can knock you right off center if you don't have a strong sense of self."

Hamilton thought he was well on his way to success 10 years ago when he left Charlotte for New York with $67 in his pocket and his clippers from his day job as a barber. Soon, he found himself the subject of a record-label bidding war, thanks to a healthy nudge from producer and Charlotte native Mark Sparks (Sunshine Anderson, Boyz II Men), who got wind of Hamilton from the singer's growing reputation on the North Carolina talent show circuit.

Uptown Records owner Andre Harrell, the man who nurtured multiplatinum acts such as Guy and Jodeci, won the war for Hamilton's services. It looked like all systems go, until Uptown went bankrupt and Hamilton's album, "XTC," was transferred to MCA, Uptown's distributor and financial partner. "XTC" underachieved because, according to Hamilton, it was an Uptown holdover and MCA had no financial stake in its success.

Harrell eventually signed a label deal with Sony, and Hamilton recorded some material for another album. But the Sony deal went south before any music could be released.

A third deal with Sparks' label Soulife also fell through when the company imploded. Hamilton found himself stuck in another holding pattern with Soulife's distributor Atlantic Records, which owned his material and refused to release any of it. The singer, plunging deeper into debt, finally bought back his music from Atlantic. "They had no respect for my talent," he says.

It was time to stop the madness and regroup for a minute. Enter D'Angelo, who tapped Hamilton to sing background vocals for his 2000 tour, and taught his charge valuable lessons in leadership and fortitude.

"D'Angelo knows how to get exactly what he wants," Hamilton says. "He taught me how to be in control, and how to put together what it is you want to hear."

Ironically, it was his role as a subordinate that finally garnered Hamilton some attention. A guest-singing shot on Nappy Roots' 2003 Grammy nominated "Po' Folks" -- a song that was recorded during the singer's tenure with Atlantic -- helped Hamilton land a slot at entertainment attorney L. Londell McMillan's annual Grammy showcase. Fellow lawyer and power broker Michael Mauldin was blown away.

"Michael looked at my trucker's cap and jeans and didn't know what to expect," says Hamilton, who learned how to win over a crowd by singing in church as a child. "I opened my mouth to sing and I scared him!"

"There is a rawness to Anthony that I feel is unparalleled among current R&B singers," says Mauldin, a 30-year music industry veteran. "He sings heartfelt soul music, and I felt him in my heart the first time I saw him sing. I just sat there in amazement, and when it was over, I knew immediately he was the kind of artist that can go all the way."

Mauldin insisted that his son, producer Jermaine Dupri, sign Hamilton to his So So Def label, and that is how "Comin' From Where I'm From," which features many of the songs that he had originally recorded for Atlantic, found daylight.

After waiting what seemed an eternity for his break, Hamilton was in no mood to tailor his sound for radio; the sultry grooves on "Comin' From Where I'm From" bear echoes of Donny Hathaway and old-school Luther Vandross, and there's not a faux hip-hop beat or clunky sample to be found.

"I didn't try to make it sound different, it just kinda happened," Hamilton says. "I like good melodies, whether it's John Mayer or James Taylor."

Hamilton truly believes that God doesn't give you any more than you can handle, and now that it has all worked out, he looks back on his time spent in music biz purgatory as time well spent. "I knew it wasn't my turn," Hamilton says. "The Creator allowed me to come into my own."

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