When It All Works

Everything has been going so smoothly in Alicia Keys' lightning entry into the pop world that it's downright rude when an elevator isn't ready and waiting as she approaches it on the 16th floor of her Westwood hotel. Every other door has certainly opened for this 20-year-old singer lately.

Keys' debut album, "Songs in A Minor," entered the national chart at No. 1 in July and it is already approaching 2 million in sales.

There's such a buzz that a parade of rivals, including Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani, checked out Keys' recent sold-out show at the House of Blues in West Hollywood.

Director Michael Mann was so impressed that he asked Keys the next day to write a song for "Ali," his upcoming film starring Will Smith, and Elton John has invited Keys to sing a duet with him at an upcoming charity show. She'll also be the musical guest when "Saturday Night Live" begins its new season Sept. 29.

Because of her age and those million-dollar cheekbones, it's easy to assume that Keys, whose music is a stylish mix of hip-hop and classic R&B;, is yet another in the recent line of manufactured pop stars whose image and music are largely shaped by others. Even her name sounds a little suspect: A pianist named Keys?

But this New Yorker is no pop puppet.

At a time when so much pop music seems disposable, Keys is a reminder that there is still room for artists with the kind of strong vision and deeply rooted talent that lead to long, influential careers.

Keys--no, that's not her real name--is a classically trained pianist who writes her own songs and has such a sense of her music and direction that she doesn't need a big-name producer in the studio with her.

In fact, she is so strong-willed that she refused to go along two years ago when Columbia Records wanted her to work with outside producers and songwriters. Rather than bend, she left the label--a gutsy move for a teenager in an industry where it's easy to get a reputation as a troublemaker.

Clive Davis, the industry titan whose discoveries have included Whitney Houston and Janis Joplin, quickly signed Keys to Arista Records and then took her with him to J Records, gave her creative control and personally introduced her to pop taste-makers in a series of showcase performances well before the album hit the stores. The plan worked so well that the media are now rushing to catch up with this prairie fire of a success story--which brings us to the hotel elevator.

To accommodate as many TV interview requests as possible, the J Records staff booked two rooms at the hotel--one on the second floor, another on the 16th--so one crew could be setting up while another was interviewing Keys. That way she could do six interviews, for such outlets as CNN, BET and E!, in three hours before heading back to the House of Blues for another show.

"Things are moving so fast that there are times I feel like a robot, and I hate that feeling, but mostly I love everything that's happening," Keys says after the elevator finally arrives and takes her to the next interview.

"I was shaken [during the Columbia years] because I was doing this music and they wanted me to do another kind. Was I doing something wrong? Wasn't it any good? Everyone asks how it feels to have your album be No. 1, and the answer is it feels great, but the important thing to me is that it's really my music out there."

It's the day after the first of her two recent House of Blues concerts, and heads turn in the Westwood hotel restaurant as Keys, her colorful braids bouncing off her shoulders, settles with her mother into a corner booth just after 9 a.m. She's still too new on the scene for the businessmen to know who she is, but her charisma is unmistakable.

Her parents separated when Keys was 2 and she was raised chiefly by her mom, a paralegal and part-time stage actress who is in town from New York for the House of Blues shows. Keys invited her to the breakfast interview because it's one of the few times during the day they can be together.

Keys will meet at 11 with director Mann to see some footage from "Ali," then it's back to the hotel at 1 for a photo session, and 2 to 5 is blocked out for the TV interviews. She'll also try to carve out time for representatives of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, the organization that sponsors the Grammys.

Academy officials routinely meet with pop newcomers to recruit members and outline the organization's goals. In Keys' case, they might as well cut to the chase and tell her about Grammy-night rules, because the singer is already the odds-on favorite to win for the year's best new artist.

And then there's the second show at the House of Blues.

Despite her aggressive demeanor onstage, Keys is thoughtful, polite and soft-spoken during interviews--especially on a day when she needs to save her voice for the concert and all the TV interviews. She brings along a pencil and pad to the breakfast table so that she can write the answers to the questions.

This doesn't lead to very long answers.

"Great!" she writes when asked how things are progressing.

"Piano at 7," she writes about when she began playing an instrument.

Eventually, however, she gets caught up in the conversation and starts talking--especially when the topic is music.

Listening to her mom's record collection, she was exposed early to jazz artists, including Miles Davis and Nina Simone. Later, she got into Prince, Mary J. Blige and a wide array of hip-hop stars, from the Notorious B.I.G. to Jay-Z.

But it was the gripping social observation of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" album that hit her the hardest when she was in her teens. She began searching out other artists, including Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield, who examined social conditions.

"She was always musically mature, socially as well," her mom, Terri Augello, says. "I tried to expose her to lots of different artistic endeavors, dance class, gymnastics. But she was always the most serious about music. No one needed to push Alicia when it came to music. She pushed herself as hard as anyone could."

D id you have any idea that the album would be such a success?

Keys is sitting in the 16th-floor suite for the first of the TV interviews.

During interviews, you're likely to find most young pop artists surrounded by protective aides ready to step in at the first sign of trouble. But Keys is so poised that the only ones with her are her makeup artist and a security guard. While she faces the cameras, her mom is off shopping, manager Jeff Robinson is working the phones and J Records Vice President Mark Young is scrambling to find tickets to the night's show for last-minute requests.

Keys certainly lived up to all expectations with her debut album. It's a sampler of contemporary and classic R&B; styles that shows that Keys can compete on a radio-friendly Top 40 level with today's young pop-R&B; crowd as well as operate on the more challenging turf of such admired recent arrivals as Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Macy Gray.

Her songs don't have the consistent depth of Hill's or the unique personality of Gray's, but they reflect the consistent craft and viewpoint to make her an immensely promising arrival--especially when you realize some of the songs were written when she was 15.

But Keys really comes alive onstage, where her presence, even after just a few dozen live shows, outshines that of most of her rivals. At the House of Blues, she walked onstage opening night with the confidence and playful command of a young Prince.

After a rowdy version of Prince's "Why Don't U Call Me," a funky complaint about a suitor's lack of thoughtfulness, she teasingly picked up a cell phone and dialed a number. As soon as a male voice answered, she hung up defiantly--much to the delight of the audience.

But the crowd responded even more to the key album songs, including "Fallin'," the gospel-edged tale of romantic obsession that has been the most played record on U.S. radio for two weeks, and "A Woman's Worth," a statement of self-affirmation that will be her next single.

But, then, who couldn't spot Keys' talent today?

The lucky ones in her story--including manager Robinson and J Records executive Peter Edge--spotted it six years ago.

Alicia J. Keys is so polished that it's easy to think she had a cushy, prep school background. But she grew up in a working-class Manhattan neighborhood on the edge of the notorious Hell's Kitchen.

"It was 1 block from heaven + 1 block from hell," she writes in her note pad early in the breakfast interview.

"Sure, there were times when I could have ended up in trouble," she says, setting the pad aside. "It's easy at that age to get caught up with people who are not necessarily doing the right thing and there were those people all around, but I had just enough sense to realize when things were getting over the top. I'm also lucky because my mother is such a strong woman, and she raised me to be strong and independent."

Keys--daughter of a white mother and African American father who is a flight attendant--showed an early interest in music and acting, playing Dorothy in a kindergarten production of "The Wizard of Oz."

Robinson, her manager, remembers being struck by Keys' maturity when he first saw her at a community center where his brother, Conrad, was a vocal coach in an after-school program.

"I could see right away that she had a lot of soul as a singer, but there are lots of singers with that street twang," Robinson says. "What really convinced me was when she sat down at a beat-up piano and started singing her own songs. I couldn't believe someone that young could be so fully developed musically. She was the complete package. That's not something you see a lot these days."

Keys did so well academically that she graduated from New York's Professional Performance Arts High School at 16 and won a partial scholarship to Columbia University. But she didn't pursue her studies because Robinson showcased her around town, eventually getting her a deal with Columbia Records. It was a time when young female acts--including Brandy--were starting to make a splash. One of Keys' perks: her own baby grand piano, which she installed in the living room. It was around this time that the singer, who was born Alicia Augello Cook, legally changed her last name to Keys.

Because she had almost no experience in the recording studio, Robinson brought in a series of outside producers. But Keys was a quick learner and she picked up enough production insights to begin working at home on her demos. That apparently led to some tension in the studio.

"When Alicia would make suggestions in the studio, the producers would say, in effect, 'Just be quiet and let us do our thing. We've had lots of hits,"' says Robinson. "But the music they were doing in the studio didn't sound as good to us as the things Alicia was doing on her own."

The situation grew worse, Robinson says, when Michael Mauldin, the Columbia executive who was Keys' top ally at the label, left the company in 1998. At the label, she did contribute tracks to soundtracks for "Men in Black" and "Shaft" soundtracks.

"New people came in and they just wanted her to stand up and sing kind of like a Mya or Brandy," Robinson says. "It was like, 'You're a pretty girl. Be happy and you'll be a star.' When they said that, Alicia looked at me with tears in her eyes."

Feeling he was at an impasse with the label, Robinson began looking for a way out in late 1998. He found that opening in Clive Davis and Arista Records.

Robinson's move to Arista Records was through Peter Edge, an A&R; executive there and a big fan of Keys. He had even wanted to sign her when he first saw her in 1995, but he was just leaving Warner Bros. Records and it wasn't fair to sign her to a label when he wouldn't be there to run interference for her.

But Edge, who signed Dido and Angie Stone after moving to Arista, kept in touch with Keys and was impressed with her progress. So he brought demos of the material she had done at Columbia to Davis, who seconded Edge's enthusiasm.

Arista secured the right to sign her after paying Columbia about $500,000, according to one source in the Keys camp, and a new alliance was struck. Keys, Davis, Edge and Robinson are all listed as executive producers of the album, but Keys produced and/or arranged the individual tracks.

Columbia representatives declined to comment on any aspect of the Keys story.

Just as she finished the album, Davis went through his own drama. Caught in a corporate power play at Arista, he was forced out by then-executives at parent company Bertelsmann who thought he was too old and that his contract was too lucrative to renew.

As a peacekeeping gesture, new leadership at Bertelsmann agreed to underwrite J Records, a $150-million joint venture with Davis. He was also given the right to bring some key Arista executives with him and, crucially, some artists. He made sure Keys was on the latter list.

Even Davis never imagined Keys would be such an immediate hit. But he took some bold steps to help guarantee it.

The key to most artist launchings is radio, because airplay is the most important element in building an audience. The problem with so many artists--including, often, the most gifted ones--is that they don't fit neatly into the dominant radio formats.

So Davis decided to sell radio on Keys, not on the record.

"I knew she was the real deal and I didn't want to trust radio to pick up on the record on its own," Davis says. "I was worried that 'Fallin"' might be too urban for pop stations and it might not have the beat that urban stations prefer these days. But I knew that Alicia could mesmerize an audience live, so I wanted radio programmers to see her and be so caught up with her that they'd make a place in their format for her records."

Over a period of months last winter, Davis held a series of gatherings at which Keys performed for radio programmers and other taste-makers, everywhere from his own living room to his pre-Grammy party in Beverly Hills. The response was so strong that he went public, hosting showcases at the Bottom Line club in New York and the Roxy in West Hollywood.

Still looking for ways to maximize the album launch, he wrote to Oprah Winfrey in June, suggesting that she put Keys on her TV show.

"I knew what Oprah has done with books and authors, and I thought this was a chance to touch audiences with music the same way," Davis says. "I sent her a copy of Alicia's video, and she called me back the next day and built a show around her." MTV, VH1 and BET also jumped on board, airing the "Fallin"' video. Davis' team also landed her a spot on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno"--all before the album release.

J Records had planned to ship 225,000 copies to stores, but increased the figure to 440,000 after retail orders surged. Still, label executives were flabbergasted when the album entered at No. 1 and sold 236,000 copies the first week. They would have been happy with 60,000.

For Davis, the success would appear to be doubly rewarding. Not only did he bring Keys with him from Arista, but he acquired her from Columbia, which fired him as president in 1973.

He downplays any rivalry.

"The only important thing is we have Alicia Keys," he says.

J ust how sweet is it at the top?

Back at the hotel, Keys is starting her fourth interview and showing no sign of fatigue. She doesn't even get ruffled when the TV crew has to start the taping over five minutes into the interview because of noise from the street.

Just how sweet is it at the top?

At the House of Blues that night, the crowd--which includes a curious Britney Spears--is again ecstatic as Keys moves through the tunes with the authority of a seasoned pro. You can imagine the casting directors rushing back to their bosses the next day raving.

Keys is open to acting but she is in no rush. "I'm not the type of artist who wants the next huge blockbuster," she says during the breakfast interview. "I am interested in something very creative, something that is right for me."

Besides acting, she's also interested in writing songs and producing records for other artists.

If you get the feeling she's a workaholic, you're right. She finds time for a relationship (her boyfriend is a musician whom she prefers not to name), but Robinson says he has a hard time persuading Keys to take time off. As soon as her brief club tour ends, she will hit the road again, opening for Maxwell on a high-profile national tour.

Davis isn't at the House of Blues show, but he is keeping close tabs on Keys.

"I heard the show was fabulous," he says by phone from New York the next morning. "Have you heard that she's going to be on the season opener of 'Saturday Night Live'? It's amazing to see an artist propelled out of the gate with such force. This is just the beginning. Alicia has the talent to be a star for years, but only if she continues to approach her career seriously.

"The danger in getting all this attention so fast is that you start thinking that attention will always be there. But I think Alicia, as much as anyone I've worked with, understands this. She may be 20, but she comes across as a very old, wise soul."

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