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POP EYE

Tropical is topical due to his tune

July 04, 2004|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

Will pop music remember the next few months as the Summer of Soca?

It will, if Kevin Lyttle has anything to say about it.

The St. Vincent island singer's single "Turn Me On" is one of the hottest songs on the U.S. charts, bringing the Caribbean carnival sounds of soca (a term coined in 1973 by singer Lord Shorty for a mix of soul and calypso) to a larger American audience than ever before -- albeit in a form tempered with contemporary pop styles. It's serving much the same role that Sean Paul's "Get Busy" did last year for the Jamaican dancehall sound and its infusion of Indian-rooted Diwali rhythms.

"That's my main intention," says Lyttle, 27. "The carnival thing has been happening all the time in America, just underground. The foundation has already been laid on the streets. With me doing this now, it's a good chance of making headway and becoming established music in the world."

Lyttle wrote and recorded the song three years ago, filtering the local Caribbean styles through a love for the music of such U.S. R&B stars as Boyz II Men and R. Kelly. It found success in various places around the world, including Canada, where he became a headliner act on tour. The song then began getting attention in the U.S., becoming a radio hit in, of all places, Providence, R.I.

Lyttle was invited to perform at a station-sponsored concert there last fall alongside such hip-hop and R&B stars as 50 Cent and Busta Rhymes. That, in turn, drew the attention of several major-label executives, including Craig Kallman, co-chairman of Atlantic Records, the same person who brought Sean Paul to the U.S. charts.

The single has been one of the breaking hits of the year, with "Buzzworthy" status on MTV and the most increased plays at Top 40 radio nationwide for the week ending July 2, according the trade publication Radio & Records. All this follows Top 10 success throughout Europe, including seven weeks in the Top 10 in England. But with Lyttle's album "Kevin Lyttle" due for release here July 27, is this a one-hit-wonder situation, a one-artist phenomenon or the start of something bigger?

"The reason I think it's more of a story than just one song is there's already another song blowing up, called 'Tempted to Touch,' by Rupee," says Kallman, who has also signed Rupee to Atlantic. "It's also kind of infiltrated the mainstream American streets and Jamaica and the Caribbean alongside the dancehall hits."

Julie Pilat, music director of L.A. pop station KIIS-FM (102.7), sees "Turn Me On" fitting the pattern of past years where vibrant tropical styles grabbed the public.

"It's exciting," she says. "Every summer there's a Caribbean sound that seems to explode. Last summer it was Diwali rhythm that was the foundation for Lumidee's 'Never Leave You,' Sean Paul's 'Get Busy' and Wayne Wonder's 'No Letting Go.' This year we've already had success with Nina Sky's 'Move Your Body' and the soca sound of 'Turn Me On,' all of which makes you want to hit the beach."

Lyttle makes no pretense about the purity of his soca but believes his formula can open the door for others. "I decided, OK, I'm going to do a soca song, but the tones I use and also my singing, I'm going to do with R&B 'cause the girls want a nice voice and a story line," he says. "I kept the tempo and speed of soca music. It's still soca, but done in a crossover way."

Shatner's spirited new enterprise

Have you heard the one about William Shatner's new album?

That's not a joke. William Shatner has made a new album, due Oct. 5, and he's completely serious.

"Alarmingly serious," says the actor, whose past recordings -- acted recitations of such songs as Elton John's "Rocket Man" and the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" -- have become camp classics.

This time, though, he teamed with Ben Folds for an album of musical settings of mostly spoken pieces, mostly written by Shatner, drawn from his experiences and observations.

It's not the first time the two have collaborated. Shatner did a guest appearance on Folds' 1998 album "Fear of Pop, Vol. 1," and they hit it off. So when the ex-Capt. Kirk and current Priceline pitchman was approached by the folks at the Shout! Factory label about doing an album, Folds was the first one he called.

"I said, 'What are we going to do?' " Shatner says. "He said, 'Tell the truth,' and that struck a creative spark in me, to try to express some aspects of me with as much truth as I could -- thoughts, events, moments, observations -- and try to fashion songs about any or all of these."

Shatner and Folds set up camp in Nashville to record, and convened some surprising guests to help out, with Aimee Mann, Joe Jackson, Henry Rollins and Brad Paisley (who also wrote the song "Real") all contributing vocals. Author Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity," "About a Boy") co-wrote the song "That's Me Trying," based on lyrics by Shatner. The result at times veers toward the spirited, creative works of longtime spoken-word artist Ken Nordine.

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