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Crown Prince of Pop

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

The long hallway of Brandon’s Way Recording in Hollywood is like some sort of pop music hall of fame: Virtually every square foot of one wall is covered with gold or platinum albums that have been earned by pop musicians from Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson to Bobby Brown and Toni Braxton to Madonna and Mariah Carey.

The surprise is that one man--Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who also happens to own the recording studio--has either produced or written all of the more than four dozen Top 10 pop hits.

From Boyz II Men’s silky “End of the Road” single to the exquisite “Waiting to Exhale” soundtrack, Babyface’s graceful blend of urban grit and classic pop melodies has led to comparisons with such industry greats as Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder.

At 38, Babyface has already won six Grammys and enters Wednesday’s Grammy ceremonies with another 12 nominations--the most by an artist since Michael Jackson’s landmark “Thriller” album more than a decade ago.

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When he’s not producing records for other artists, Babyface sings on his own records, expressing the words in a smooth, seductively personal style that has influenced a new generation of singers--from Tony Rich to D’Angelo.

For all his success, however, Babyface remains somewhat invisible to the general public. A common response to the news last month of his record-tying number of Grammy nominations: “Babyface who?”

With many best-selling artists, this relatively low public profile would be deeply frustrating. But Babyface, naturally shy, seems uncomfortable in the spotlight that has been cast on him since the nominations were announced, worrying that overexposure could lead to a backlash.

“The hard part, increasingly, is convincing people who hear about all the hits is that the place I write from is still honest. . . . That the songs are based on genuine emotion, not simply from some sort of factory assembly line,” says Babyface, whose own albums and production work have contributed to an estimated $900 million in sales.

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One thing Babyface doesn’t mind talking about, however, is the hits themselves. Unlike many young rock artists who feel the word “commercial” is a badge of dishonor, Babyface prides himself in his ability to touch millions with his music. The key is that Babyface, like a Stevie Wonder, is able to make hit records without sacrificing artistic integrity.

“A lot of people are afraid of the word ‘commercial,’ ” Babyface says. “They think it means something conventional or contrived . . . a formula. But a commercial record can be heartfelt and soulful.

“To me, the bottom line is melody, but words and performance--the way an artist sings the song--are also important. Take Kurt Cobain. He wrote songs with strong melodies, but what was so great about him was that he was such a soulful singer. Even if you didn’t know the words to the songs, you felt his pain and his desires. That’s the magic in music--creating something that someone else feels.”

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Babyface’s shyness is as much a part of his story as the hits. It’s fitting that his recording studio on Highland Avenue is nondescript. There’s no marking on the building other than the street number; no clues to passersby that this is the workplace of the man whose music has been part of their radio diet for years--such hits as Bobby Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel” to his own “Whip Appeal.”

By show-biz terms, Babyface too is nondescript.

Whether on a video shoot in full makeup or relaxing in the studio lounge, he’s unassuming. When he’s talking, his eyes tend to look at the floor as much as another person.

The shyness has always been there, he says. In fact, his uneasiness around others is what led to his songwriting. Unable to express himself to others--particularly girls that he had crushes on--he took to writing his feelings in diaries at an early age.

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When he found some of those same feelings expressed in songs on the radio, Babyface began trying to write his own songs.

Even though he mastered songwriting, he hasn’t fully erased the shyness. He speaks during interviews, for instance, in a voice so soft that some of the words aren’t picked up by the tape recorder.

“I don’t understand shyness,” he says, when the topic is raised during an interview at the studio. “If I get into certain situations, I’ll just hush up--even though I’ll want to talk and be myself.

“My wife, Tracey, and I were invited to dinner the other day and she told me she didn’t want to go because she knew I was going to be shy with those people and she would have to do all the talking. It’s really puzzling.”

The studio furnishings are as unassuming as their owner. The gold records may line the hallway, but there’s no sign of Babyface’s show-biz honors in the lounge, where he greets visitors, or in the trio of rooms where he writes songs or overdubs tapes.

In these rooms, you’ll more often find fun things: a battery of electronic video games in one lounge, a vending machine filled with candy bars (Almond Joys to fat-free granola) that requires no coins, and a bright red Coke machine.

“Babyface is the rarest of the rare,” says Benny Medina, Babyface’s manager, who was an executive at Warner Bros. Records a decade ago when he first met the songwriter. “He’s a pure artist. He’s not someone who craves stardom and is willing to compromise all aspects of his life to get it.

“He’ll do what is required to promote a record because he feels it is part of his job, but once that is done, he’s back at the music. His life is his family and his music, which is why I think his music sounds so real.”

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One of the criticisms of Babyface’s songs is that they tend to speak too generally about topics of love and romance, lacking the personal and distinctive insight of the best Wonder or Beatles music.

But one of Babyface’s most recent compositions--the title cut on his latest album, “The Day"--moves in that direction. Not surprisingly, it’s about love, written to his wife on the day he learned she was pregnant with their son, Brandon.

‘Twas late December the news came

And I got so excited, I cried all day

And you were such a lovely, precious sight

When I saw our baby in your eyes.

“The feelings in that song may be the most obviously autobiographical,” says manager Medina. “But all his songs have a piece of him in them. When you listen to Kenny Edmonds’ songs, you get Kenny Edmonds. There’s nothing pretend about him.”

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Kenneth Brian Edmonds was born April 10, 1958, in Indianapolis, one of six brothers in what he calls a “struggling class” family. His father, who worked a variety of low-paying jobs, died of lung cancer when Kenny was in the eighth grade. That forced his mother, who worked in a chemical plant, to support the family.

From an early age, Babyface says, music was his closest companion. He would sit in his room and listen to records by the Beatles or Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson, marveling at the way the words or often just the melodies could comfort or inspire him.

He still recalls losing himself for hours in Wonder’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” to soften his own pain when a girl he had a crush on was going away for the summer . . . or listening to Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are” for a whole evening to celebrate the day a girl he had admired from afar for two years gave him her phone number.

Babyface taught himself to play guitar and was in several bands in junior and senior high school.

“I wasn’t an athlete or a gorgeous kid with a big Afro,” he says, recalling his youth. “But music made me feel special. It gave me a voice, a way to speak to others . . . and a reason for people to talk to me.”

He spent years in various bands after high school before getting a recording contract with a group called Manchild in 1977.

Despite regional success in the Midwest, Manchild had various business problems and Babyface left the group. He then spent several months playing hits of the day on the Holiday Inn circuit before another one of his groups, the Deele, got signed by Solar Records in the early ‘80s.

The Deele included Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who would become Babyface’s songwriting and production partner for years, and it also gave Edmonds his nickname--a moniker he hated at first.

Edmonds was blessed with such smooth facial features that it’s odd no one called him Babyface until 1983, when funk bassist Bootsy Collins came up with it during a recording session with the Deele.

Edmonds knew it was meant good-naturedly, but he thought it was a little insulting; too sissy for a man in his mid-20s.

But the other members of the Deele all had nicknames and they had been frustrated that they weren’t able to come up with something for Edmonds. They tried Romeo for a while, but it didn’t fit.

It wasn’t until a few weeks after the Bootsy Collins recording session that Edmonds himself was convinced the name was right.

The Deele was on tour and Edmonds sang lead on one song in each show. After Edmonds’ number on the first two nights, the group’s lead singer, Darnell Bristol, told the audience, “That was Kenny Edmonds.” The line was followed by polite applause.

On the third night, however, Bristol said, “That was Babyface"--and the women in the crowd shrieked.

“At the end of the show, these girls came backstage asking for Babyface, though no one ever had come back asking for Kenny Edmonds,” Babyface says now with a smile. “That showed me the power of image, so I stuck with the name.”

While still part of the Deele, Babyface and Reid free-lanced as producers, making a name for themselves at Solar Records in 1987 by producing the Whispers’ Top 10 hit “Rock Steady.” As their reputation spread, they got work from MCA and Warner Bros.

“One of the things I admired most about working with Kenny was that he actually wanted criticism,” says Medina, who worked with Babyface on various projects at Warners.

“Babyface was always interested in making his music better, taking the next step. He wasn’t just thinking of the project at hand, but the project down the line.”

The Babyface partnership with Reid was so successful that they left the Deele and got Arista Records’ Clive Davis, one of the record industry’s shrewdest judges of talent, to fund their own Atlanta-based label, LaFace, in 1989.

The pair has rewarded Arista’s investment by finding such hit-makers as Toni Braxton, TLC, OutKast and the Tony Rich Project.

But the relationship between Babyface and Reid became strained and they stopped working together in 1993. They remain business partners in LaFace, but have minimal contact. Babyface refuses to discuss the reasons for the change in their relationship.

Babyface, in fact, moved from Atlanta to California in 1993 and maintains his primary residence in Beverly Hills, with a weekend retreat in Lake Tahoe.

When he’s not in the studio, he’s usually home with his wife and their year-old son. Besides watching CNN or Nick-at-Nite on TV, he and his wife enjoy going to movies. Babyface likes feel-good movies along the lines of “Jerry Maguire” and “Shine.”

He and his wife have started their own film production company, Edmonds Entertainment, and they expect to release a film this fall through 20th Century Fox. Not surprisingly, it’s a warm, feel-good story about family values. Titled “Soul Food” and starring Vanessa Williams, the film is the story of a family that struggles to hold itself together after the death of a grandmother.

“I’m involved in the company, but it’s Tracey that really carries the load, though it’s hard to get some people to understand that,” Babyface says. “People come up to me all the time and say, ‘How do you find time for the music and making a movie?,’ and the truth is Tracey does most of the work. It’s not just a hobby for us. We already have five other films in some stage of development.”

Babyface has been busy promoting the new album in recent weeks because he feels he owes it to Epic Records, which releases his records. The collection has sold an estimated 900,000 copies since its release in October.

The final stop in his current TV blitz, which has included visits with Jay Leno and Rosie O’Donnell, is an appearance on the Grammys telecast Wednesday, where his music work led to the 12 nominations, including best album (“Waiting for Exhale”) and best record (Eric Clapton’s “Change the World”).

After that, he’ll return to the studio on Highland and go into the tiny, 10-by-10-foot room where, working with keyboards, he’ll try to reach inside for more hits.

Before heading to New York for the Grammys, however, Babyface spent two days on a sound stage in Culver City, shooting the video for “How Come, How Long,” a song from his new album that he co-wrote with Stevie Wonder.

Normally, Babyface finds the long wait between shots on a video set as boring as most musicians do, but today he’s excited because Wonder is on the set with him.

Watching the two musicians working together, you sense an artistic connection.

“Definitely,” Wonder says, when asked about the link. “I feel a kinship with him. I feel a tradition being carried on. I love the way he has with a melody and the way he writes about love and positive things in life, . . . the important things in life.”

Such talk embarrasses Babyface because, for all his hits and awards, he thinks he’s still beginning as a writer.

“I don’t mean to downplay what I’ve accomplished, but I know I can always do better,” he says, when asked about his writing. “People ask where do you go from here, and the answer is you try to keep growing.

“Writing is the most important thing I do and I still haven’t written a song I can be totally proud of the way Paul McCartney can be proud of ‘Yesterday.’ That’s what keeps you going. The dream that you can some day write something so good that you can say to yourself, ‘This is my ‘Yesterday.’ ”


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