POP MUSIC : New Teen Wonder : At 15, Tevin Campbell has generated an industry buzz that recalls earlier pop <i> Wunderkinder </i> by the names of Stevie and Michael

<i> Dennis Hunt is a Times staff writer</i>

Another Michael Jackson?

Or maybe Stevie Wonder?

That’s the record industry buzz about Tevin Campbell, the 15-year-old pop-soul singer who seems to be a shoo-in for stardom.

After all, Tevin has already made records with two of the most respected names in pop: Quincy Jones and Prince.

The teen-ager attracted considerable attention last year with his two lead vocals on Jones’ Grammy-winning “Back on the Block” album and then virtually stole the show from Prince with his stirring singing on “Round and Round,” the most appealing number from the Minneapolis Marvel’s “Graffiti Bridge” soundtrack.


But the star-making machinery really began with the recent release of the singer’s own album, “T.E.V.I.N.,” on Jones’ Qwest Records. (See review, Page 68.)

And, sure enough, Tevin does sound like a young Stevie Wonder at times, particularly with his commanding singing on the lush ballad “Tell Me What You Want Me to Do,” which is already in the pop and R&B; Top 40 nationally.

Though there’s always the danger of backlash when young artists are so highly praised, Jones and Benny Medina, the executive producers of the album, don’t seem nervous about setting high expectations. Jones even good-naturedly called the singer “Tevin the Great.”

“I’ve seen Michael Jackson at 12 and Stevie Wonder at 12,” Jones said in a recent interview. “Tevin is right where they were. He could be just as big a star.”

Medina, senior vice president and general manager of black music for Warner Bros. Records, which distributes Qwest, was just as effusive.

“Great voice, incredible professionalism for someone his age, great vocal range, incredible feel for a song,” said Medina, who signed Tevin to Warner Bros. and then assigned him to Qwest.


With Tevin surrounded by all this praise--and his hit “Round and Round”--you might expect him to be a bit cocky.

But the youngster is refreshingly down to earth and even a bit anxious about all the talk.

“I try not to listen to any of that hype,” he said, sitting in the living room of the Encino home he shares with his mother, younger brother and older sister. “I don’t want my head to get too big.”

Suddenly he burst out laughing. “Just kidding, just kidding. . . . I’m a little silly right now.”

Tevin was suffering from flight fatigue. He had just arrived home in a limo from Los Angeles International Airport, having flown to Washington the day before for a TV appearance.

It was almost 10 p.m. now. After the interview, he still had to do homework. (He attends private school in the San Fernando Valley.)

“Just a normal kid . . . that’s me,” Tevin said facetiously.

When Tevin was singing in a gospel choir in Waxahachie, Tex.--a small town just south of Dallas--stardom was the furthest thing from his mind. He was content singing in obscurity. However, his mother, Rhonda, known as one of the best gospel singers in their church, had other ideas.

“(My mother) pushed me and made me see trying to be a big solo singer was something I should do,” said Tevin, who remembers feeling a passion for singing by the time he was 4.


“Without her pushing, I’d still be in the background. To some extent, that’s what happened to her. She has a good singing voice that she never developed. I guess nobody pushed her to get ahead. She didn’t want to see me waste my talent too.”

Tevin appears to have nothing but admiration for his mother, who, generally shunning the limelight, declined to be interviewed. “When I was younger I wasn’t sure what I wanted,” he added. “But she knew what was best for me, and I went along with it. Sometimes I think what it might be like if I stayed in the background and was just singing in a choir somewhere. That crosses my mind on some of the bad days when I’m overworked. But it’s just a fleeting thought.”

Tevin’s mother, a single parent, now manages his career, though there may be pressure on her to bring in a more experienced, high-powered manager if the youngster’s career continues escalating.

But it was her resourcefulness that got him his first break. Through mutual friends, Campbell arranged to have her son “audition” for jazz flutist Bobbi Humphrey over the phone. Humphrey was so impressed that, acting as Tevin’s unofficial manager in the early stages of his career, she set up a New York showcase, a tape of which helped him get a TV role and a record deal.

Tevin’s first major job was a singing-acting role in a short-lived summer-replacement TV series on NBC, “Wally and the Valentines.” Singer-writer Siedah Garrett, who was also involved with the show, was dazzled by Tevin and raved about his potential to Quincy Jones. But nothing happened until Medina, who had met the youngster when he was looking for a record deal, suggested that Jones use him on the “Back on the Block” album.

As Tevin tells it, Jones took a little persuading.

But Jones’ version is slightly different. “You could see his potential right away,” he said. “Any idiot could see it.”


On his debut album, you get a feel for Tevin the balladeer and Tevin the dance-pop singer. But--surprisingly--you don’t get a sense of the cool, funky, hip kid who performed “Round and Round” on the “Graffiti Bridge” album.

That’s because there’s a missing element on the album--Prince.

One reason “T.E.V.I.N.” was so eagerly awaited is that many fans of “Round and Round” figured that it would contain more of that type of R&B;/funk.

There were reports that Prince wanted to produce the album but that Jones had other ideas. As executive producer of the album, Jones arranged for Tevin to work with a variety of pop and R&B; producers, including Al B. Sure!, Michael Omartian and Jones’ son QDIII.

What happened to Prince?

“I wouldn’t mind Tevin working with Prince,” Jones said. “It’s a good match. But this time, Tevin needed to work with some different producers, to explore several directions and maximize his potential.”

But Tevin apparently wanted to continue his musical relationship with Prince and have him produce the album.

“It’s something I wanted to do so badly,” he said. “We had so much fun in Minneapolis working on the movie and that song. We hit it off musically. He brings out the best in me. I love his music and the direction he took me in. He’s more fun to work with than anybody.”


Warner Bros.’ Medina, who originally arranged for Tevin to meet Prince, was sympathetic to the youngster’s wishes. “I wanted Prince to be the sole producer of this album, but it didn’t work out, “ Medina said. “But Tevin’s next album will be with Prince. I’ll see that it happens.”

Draped over a corner of the couch, the lanky, outgoing youngster stretches--again showing signs of fatigue after his long day.

After all the talk about records and career moves, he wistfully returns briefly to the idea of what life would be like without the singing career.

“I could go to the mall with my friends or go to movies or hang out without a care in the world,” he said, speaking about activities that now seem distant to him. “I could chase girls and not have to worry about whether they want me because they’ve heard my records on the radio.”

One of the things that seems to trouble him most is the idea that he has to be careful of his actions because he is now a public person.

“I’d like to not have to worry about image, about doing the right thing all the time,” he said softly. “Not that I want to be a criminal or anything. I’d like to be able to do something wrong and not feel the whole world will know.


“I have done some bad things--things I can’t and won’t talk about. Nothing that bad, but if that stuff was printed in the papers, they’d paint me as a bad guy. I couldn’t be Tevin Campbell, Mr. Perfect. But I really don’t want to be Tevin Campbell, Mr. Perfect. The pressure to be Mr. Perfect is a pain in the you-know-what.”

But he was quick to point out that this aggravation is outweighed by many positives. The truth is, he said, he loves show business and longs to be famous.

“I wish I was a big star right now, bigger than Michael Jackson or anybody else,” he said. “I’d like to be the biggest 15-year-old star in the whole world. . . . I like the power, the money, the opportunities for girls and girls and more girls. . . . I’d also like to walk into a crowded restaurant, with people waiting to sit down, and have them seat me before anybody--or kick somebody out so I could sit down. What a feeling!”

Tevin, who had been speaking in a dreamy tone, rearranged his body on the couch and concluded:

“Singing is still the important thing to me. I love singing. I wouldn’t be putting myself through all this if I didn’t.”