This article originally appeared as written in the May 15, 1994 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times.
The symbolic godson of Chicago soul singers, R. Kelly, has innocently continued their tradition of omission. Although his “12 Play” record was No. 1 on the rhythm and blues charts for nine weeks, he’s overlooked.
The “R.” in R. Kelly stands for Robert, but he also could use “N.” - as in neglected, as were the homies who came before: Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway (whom Mayfield took under his wing), the Staple Singers and Jerry Butler. Few people realize that the loopy R. Kelly single “Bump n’ Grind” has been No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart for 13 weeks, longer than any record since 1965, surpassing Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”
It has always been a challenge to be a soul singer in Chicago, a city forever associated with the blues. “When I first came out it was hard for the hometown to accept it,” Kelly said in an interview from Salt Lake City. “They’re catching on now, even though blues and jazz are still big in Chicago. But I was a big fan of Donny Hathaway.
“He had a sexual texture in his voice that I always wanted in mine. 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 fell off the 15th floor of the Essex House Hotel in New York in what police classified as suicide. He was 33.) My mom had his records, and I wanted her to take me to see him.”
Kelly, who still lives in Chicago, is in the midst of his first major tour, co-headlining with Salt-N-Pepa. They’ll appear Sunday night at the UIC Pavilion. Arrive early, as Kelly goes on first. Tickets are still available for a show that has hardly been subject to overkill.
“The media in Chicago finds it easier to report on mainstream AOR rock,” said Wayne Williams, the 34-year-old Chicagoan who discovered Kelly. Williams is Midwest director of artists and repertoire for Jive Records, Kelly’s label. “Because of that it gets quicker notoriety than rhythm and blues or even blues. It shocks me.
“This guy sells a million on his first album (1990’s `Born Into the ‘90s,’ which delivered two No. 1 R&B hits, `Slow Dance’ and `Honey Love’) and nearly 3 million on his second album, and I can’t even get him to sing the national anthem at the Bulls game. We sent the Bulls (the national anthem) tapes (which is standard procedure), but they kept putting us off. It’s sad to say, but I believe if he was a white artist, things would be different.”
Kelly’s roots are still tied to Chicago, especially through basketball. When he’s home, the 6-foot-1 crooner plays hoops at the 63rd Street YMCA, on the 57th Street courts near Lake Michigan and on 67th Street.
“I love coming home,” he said. “I hang around the same places; I hang around the same ‘hood.” He loves equating the beauty of hitting a jump shot with the beauty of making love. “There ain’t nothin’ like it,” the 25-year-old Kelly said with a laugh. “Swishin’ is a great feelin’.” Sounds like it could be a track for Kelly’s next record.
By coincidence, Kelly lived in the same South Side neighborhood, attended the same high school (Kenwood) and had the same music teacher as Williams. Music teacher Lena McLin was a pivotal force in their lives. McLin’s uncle was the late gospel legend Thomas A. Dorsey. She fronts her own gospel group, Lena McLin and the McLin Singers, and is pastor at the Holy Vessel Baptist Church, 1448 E. 53rd St.
McLin, now 65, talked Kelly into wearing dark glasses and singing Stevie Wonder’s 1982 hit “Ribbon in the Sky” at a high school talent show. “That night it was like Spiderman being bit,” Kelly recalled. “I discovered this power. I knew I had something then.”
Now, just several years later, “12 Play” is peppered with sultry tunes like the ballad “I Like the Crotch on You,” the gentle rap of “Homie Lover Friend” and the funky “Freak Dat Body.” What would Thomas A. Dorsey say?
“I know how to separate my music,” said Kelly, who sang on the Winans’ 1993 gospel album “All Out.” “I’m not controlled by my music. I control my music. I’m not lost in a song like `Sex Me.’ “
Williams didn’t meet Kelly until they attended the same barbecue in the Pill Hill, also where the popular Chicago doo-wop group the Dells live.
“I was inside the house and Robert was performing outside,” Williams said. “I saw this guy who had all the steps down, real choreoraphed. You could tell he put a lot into it, which is something you usually don’t see, especially at a backyard barbecue.
“It was the eye of the tiger.”
Neither Kelly nor Williams came of age during the mid-’60s, when commercial soul finally broke through here in what was known as the Chicago Sound. Detroit (Berry Gordy at Motown) and later Philadelphia (Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Philadelphia International) stole the thunder.
The underappreciated Carl Davis defined the Chicago Sound by producing hits like Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher,” Tyrone Davis’ “Turn Back the Hands of Time” and Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl.” In a 1982 interview, Davis said, “Motown used to put a picture frame together, put in all the background and set the artist to the frame. We tend to start with the artist, put him there and frame everything around him.”
R. Kelly’s soul is a ‘90s extension of that method.
The come-on of the hit “Bump n’ Grind” is shaped around Kelly’s sense of Stevie Wonder’s gritty melodics. The tune appropriately begins with a gospel introduction before floating into a seductive groove. And where 1960s Chicago soul used horns to layer emotion, 1990s Chicago soul uses raps and gliding New Jack swing arrangements.
Williams is one of the architects behind Kelly’s success. He emerged out of the late 1980s house music scene here, first working with Trax Records, one of house’s first European breakthroughs. London-based Jive Records heard of Williams through Trax, notably his discovery of house artist Mr. Lee. Jive’s debut release out of Chicago was Mr. Lee’s 1989 dance chart-topper “Get Busy.” Mr. Lee has gone on to collaborate with Kelly.
Although the digital intensity of house drove the song through its repetition, Williams also understood the credibility of pure vocals, which he heard in Kelly. Technically, Kelly performs mostly on keyboards, instead of using samples.
“Robert not only uses real instruments, but his voice is what you get,” Williams said. “He’s a soul singer, no two ways about it.
“Obviously the soul singers of the ‘60s made a big impact on us. Curtis Mayfield, the Emotions, the Chi-Lites, the Staple Singers influenced us. It’s strange how music goes in circles. What we’re doing now, especially in rhythm and blues and rap, you use your knowledge from previous records, the soul music that was coming up.”