There is a tradition in classic black music that goes back to the smooth crooning of Sam Cooke, the earthy gritty sound of Otis Redding, the lyrical beauty of Curtis Mayfield and the unfiltered intensity of Donny Hathaway. It's a combination of church-rooted hallelujah praisin' and tell-it-like-it-is storytellin'. Few contemporary artists seem equipped to carry the torch with any sense of authenticity. Anthony Hamilton may be the sole - indeed, soulful - exception. Filling an obvious void in today's marketplace, Anthony's pure unadulterated emotion-filled vocals mixed with a no-holds-barred approach to truth-telling appealed to music buyers worldwide as evidenced by the response to his platinum-plus 2003 set COMIN' FROM WHERE I'M FROM. Simply put, Anthony proved to be the real deal, as audiences discovered during an almost three-year-long road trek performing night-after-night before crowds of - as he puts it - "young thugs, white and black, mothers with babies on their knees, old school G's and kids looking for something they could feel and relate to".
With the release of his much-anticipated set AIN'T NOBODY WORRYIN', the Hamilton tradition - born of his Southern roots and the pathway created by soul greats such as Bill Withers, Bobby Womack, Al Green and Marvin Gaye - continued. "I didn't approach doing this new record with the intention of outdoing the last album," says Anthony. "I wanted it to have the same amount of quality, putting raw emotions and experiences to music, you know, re-living as much as possible what I've been through in the past few years of being out there, being on the road, singing songs that keep the listeners interested."
A barber by profession, Hamilton left Charlotte in 1993 for New York City, signing with Andre Harrell's Uptown Records imprint, at the time the epicenter for ‘new jack swing' and the bourgeoning hip-hop-soul movement with an all-star roster that included Jodeci, Heavy D, Mary J. Blige and Guy. The label folded soon after he completed his unreleased first album in 1995 and Hamilton switched to MCA which released his widely overlooked debut CD, 1996's XTC. A move to the Los Angeles-based Soulife label (launched in 1999 by his hometown cronies Mark Sparks and Chris Dawley) looked promising and Anthony recorded another album's worth of new material while penning songs for other artists, including Sunshine Anderson ("Last Night") and Donell Jones ("U Know What's Up," "Pushin'").
In 2000, D'Angelo recruited Hamilton to sing background vocals on his worldwide Voodoo Tour. "I went all over the world-Europe, Brazil-and had the best time of my life," Hamilton recalls. But by the time he returned from globetrotting with D'Angelo, the label who had signed him had gone under. "I became depressed," Hamilton confesses. "I was like, ‘Why? Lord, why? All this love I have for the music-what's going on?' Still, I kept praying and working and looking for a better deal."
For the next two years, Hamilton kept busy by singing background vocals and appearing on songs by likes of Eve ("Ride Away"), Xzibit ("The Gambler") and 2Pac ("Thugz Mansion"). Finally, in 2002, he received the break he'd been waiting for when he was tapped to sing the catchy chorus on "Po' Folks," the lead single from Nappy Roots' debut album, Watermelon, Chicken and Gritz. Thanks to Hamilton's contribution, the song became an instant smash that was nominated for Best Rap/Song Collaboration at the 2003 Grammys. The day before the ceremony, renowned entertainment attorney L. Londell McMillan, invited Hamilton to close the show at his star-studded Grammy brunch. Blown away by the singer's galvanizing performance, Michael Mauldin, a music industry veteran with a famously keen eye for talent, urged his son, Atlanta hitmaker Jermaine Dupri, to take a meeting with Hamilton. Dupri indulged his father's request and, after absorbing an earful of the singer's work, eagerly signed him to his So So Def imprint within 48 hours.
Anthony's all-important debut for the label signaled his ‘arrival' on the music scene after almost a decade of false starts. Rather than leave him embittered, the sometime-rocky road that finally led to the 2003 release of COMIN' FROM WHERE I'M FROM only served to make Anthony stronger - and ready. "Everything that had happened up until that point in my career had been preparing people for my arrival," he reflected just before the album hit the streets. "Back when I was signed to Uptown, my music was labeled ‘alternative soul.' Now, people have reference points for my sound..."
Whether termed ‘alternative soul,' ‘retro-soul' or ‘neo-soul,' Anthony's music clearly hit a chord with an audience eager to hear real soul music. COMIN' FROM WHERE I'M FROM, spurred on by the success of its title track, the massive follow-up "Charlene" (which reached No. 4 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart in the spring of 2004) and other prime cuts such as "Cornbread Pimp" and "Float," not only sold over a million copies but garnered Anthony three history-making Grammy nominations: the album was nominated for Best Contemporary R&B Album while the Hamilton-penned title cut was nominated for both Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song (a songwriter's award).
Hitting the road, Hamilton earned much respect and acclaim from veteran critics like Jon Pareles whose New York Times review waxed lyrical on the kind of stomp-down, emotive performances which have now become Anthony's stock-in-trade. "He was preaching love and loyalty," Pareles wrote after seeing his debut at New York's Bottom Line in December 2003, "to his lover, his mama, to his Southern roots." Pareles noted, "He was offering amorous pleasures but his conviction, and his timing. came straight from the church."
For Anthony himself, the last few years on the road ("you know, I am slightly ‘t-i-e'd!'" he chuckles with a Southern drawl") and the overwhelmingly positive response to COMIN' FROM WHERE I'M FROM are both an affirmation and a validation. "It allowed me to see that what I was talking was necessary, that people really wanted to hear what I had to say. The reaction made me even more of a believer in my own stories. When I would perform some of those songs, I found myself asking, ‘did I really go through this?' Yeah, man, the people's response to my music gave me that much more fire!"
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.