Time to Jam--or Jam?

Cheo Hodari Coker is a Times staff writer

It's raining outside the Paramount Studios sound stage where the members of Tony Toni Tone are jamming, which is curious, since it was a song called "It Never Rains (in Southern California)" that cemented the group's platinum status in the pop and R&B; worlds in 1990.

But then, almost everything about Tony Toni Tone is a bit off-kilter.

To start with, none of the three principals is named Tony or Toni or Tone. In addition, the group, which also includes five backing musicians, relies on real musical instruments in an age when most of its best-selling peers depend on samples from old records. And the band performs live rather than lip-syncing on TV shows--including this appearance, a taping for Nickelodeon's "All That."

But the overriding anomaly for the group is that Raphael Saadiq and D'wayne Wiggins, the half brothers who do most of the singing and writing, are growing increasingly apart, with Saadiq talking openly about embarking on a solo career.

If he follows through, longtime fans of the band will certainly think the timing is unfortunate.

It was Tony Toni Tone's "Sons of Soul' album in 1993 that largely sparked the soul music revival that has opened the door for a new generation of singers who build on the tradition of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

The question of the group's future has naturally caused some tension between the brothers, though Wiggins, 34, downplays the matter.

"You can have problems in the business and even problems in the family, but when we're jamming, the energy is just there," he says. "The solo stuff pops up, but first and foremost we're a band. We come from the old school, like the Rolling Stones, where Mick Jagger or Keith Richards can break out and do their own thing but then come back together and it's cool. That's where our heads are at right now."

But Saadiq--who changed his last name from Wiggins in 1994--continues to express disillusionment with the group.

"We're just growing in different directions," the 30-year-old musician says later in a separate interview. "I love my brother and the rest of the guys, but I think that we need to do what we need to do on our own thing, and if it's in the cards for us to do another record as Tony Toni Tone, then that's what will happen. . . .

"I think we'll always get together as a family and jam. But at the same time, it's like being a basketball player--if you have skills, you can play on any other team. I just don't want to stay in the group for another 50 years."

"They have a healthy dose of sibling rivalry," says Ed Eckstine, the former president of Mercury Records, who originaly signed the group while at the subsidiary Wing Records. "When I first signed them, D'wayne, the oldest, had the voice that carried. I think as things progressed, their personalities matured. D'wayne tends to be more laid back while Raphael is driven, and more skeptical.

"I used to tell them . . . , 'You guys need to sit down, haggle out your problems, discuss business issues, and make sense of things.' What would tend to happen is that those issues would get mired in family things, and instead of acting like adults, they'd argue like little kids. Instead of talking it out, a cancer began to grow."

For now, however, everyone in Tony Toni Tone--whose other principal is cousin and drummer Timothy Christian Riley, 30--remains committed to promoting the group's latest album, "House of Music." Whatever the future holds, the Tonys have a long, hard-won legacy that they don't want to tarnish.

Even with the growing tensions, the brothers say there is a special magic when they perform together. That's apparent as bassist Saadiq and guitarist Wiggins trade riffs on the Paramount stage during rehearsal, smiling with each other as if sharing a private joke.

"When we jam, everything's on point," Wiggins says during a lunch interview the day after the rehearsal. The group thrives on performance and looks forward to the live taping of the show later on in the evening. Indeed, the band stopped rehearsing only when stagehands literally unplugged the equipment and started moving it offstage.

"That's what it was like before we got the record deal," Wiggins continues, talking about his relationship with his younger brother. "We'd rehearse and feed off of each other's energy. We were raised together and would hear the same chords when we compose. . . . We have the same feel."

The half brothers, who have the same father but different mothers, grew up in an East Oakland house with eight siblings. Music, especially soul and gospel, nourished them as much as the soul food cooked in their home.

Wiggins remembers the black music of the Bay Area that gave birth to the funk of Sly & the Family Stone and Graham Central Station.

"The way every block now has 10 rappers, there were 10 bands on every block back then," he says. "We used to have battles of the bands and all types of talent shows. Real music in the late '70s, early '80s--that was second nature to us."

One place where the pair--as well as drummer Riley--learned their trade was in Baptist churches.

"The church is where you get your chops," Riley explains. "It's natural. Something that you feel. It's something that invades your music and never goes away."

By the time the three graduated from Oakland's Castlemont High School in the mid-'80s, they had traveled to Europe and Hawaii with the school's acclaimed musical group, the Castleers. The youngsters also played in various groups around the Bay Area.

Wiggins ended up touring the country as a guitarist with such popular gospel artists as Tramaine Hawkins and Vanessa Bell Armstrong. Saadiq and Riley toured with Prince as a part of Sheila E.'s band on the "Parade" tour.

When they all returned home in 1986, the trio slowly formed the nucleus of the band that became Tony Toni Tone--a name that is a play on the idea of someone wearing a tony outfit.

"When we came off the road, by that time we realized what we had--and that we could be making a lot of money and music as our own band," Wiggins says.

The group was signed by Eckstine, who valued their live sound and distinctive approach to R&B;, a genre that by 1988 was overshadowed by new jack swing and hip-hop.

Thanks to extensive touring and the radio exposure of the single "Little Walter," the group scored a gold record with "Who?," its 1988 debut. The next two collections, "The Revival" in 1990 and "Sons of Soul" in 1993, both went platinum. Each album won increasing acclaim, with "Sons of Soul" even ending up on some year-end Top 10 critics polls.

But despite some rave reviews, the new one isn't off to a blazing start. It has sold fewer than 300,000 copies since its release in November and was at No. 47 on the chart last week.

But the group's manager, Laurie Dunham, takes the long view.

"The album sold over 50,000 copies in [the first week of the year], during a period when other albums peaked in the post-Christmas rush," she says. "The group historically sells a steady number of albums, not necessarily a huge amount in the first week. I think the single is just kicking in, and it takes so long to make an impact."

When the group takes the stage for the "All That" taping, the applause is so strong and the performance so tight that it's hard to picture the group calling it quits.

Rocking to the sound of "Let's Get Down," Wiggins and Saadiq exchange grins and the normally understated Riley slaps the drums with unabashed fervor. As soon as the song wraps and the cast of the show bids the audience goodbye, the musicians stand next to one another, almost arm and arm.

But minutes before the show, Saadiq, sitting in the dressing room, had reconfirmed his eventual goals.

"D'wayne was my childhood idol" he says. "He was everything. In Oakland, he was one of the baddest guitar players in the baddest band on the scene. He was the man.

"It just ain't fun no more. I love D'wayne to death, and I'd kill somebody for him. I love him 100%. But at the same time, we had more fun when we weren't doing this, before all of the business. I'd rather not do this at all then watch it be fake. You know?"

Although Saadiq won't confirm it, a source familiar with the group and the label says plans for his solo career are so firm that a tentative fall release date has been worked out for his first solo album. Even Saadiq acknowledges that virtually all of his vocal and musical contributions to "House of Music" were made while the others weren't even in the studio.

Dunham, the group's manager, remains calm amid the uncertainty.

"They're all kind of doing their own thing, and it's always been evident that the guys were great writers and they'll write for other people," she says. "But they're still Tony Toni Tone."

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