There’s a group of male vocalists who emerged in the ‘80s and ‘90s who never fit comfortably into the whole ‘neo-soul’ movement characterized by guys like D’Angelo and Maxwell, more smooth, less edgy, satin rather than denim! I’m thinking Tony Terry, later Rahsaan Patterson and Eric Benet, maybe even John Legend. For want of a general point of reference, Kenny Lattimore belongs in that realm, historically the home built by such soul crooners as Sam Cooke, Brook Benton, Marvin Gaye and later, Peabo Bryson, James Ingram, Jeffrey Osborne, Freddie Jackson and Luther Vandross. Of course, back in the day, there was room for a whole spectrum of styles in the world of soul music – from the Southern flavor of Al Green to the sophisticated sound of Lou Rawls, the raw bluesiness of Johnnie Taylor to the uptown feel of Gene Chandler. With the focus more than ever on image – thanks to the advent of video as more than just a promotional tool but as visual point of reference – record companies have felt even a greater compulsion to define artists. Since Kenny and his ilk don’t comfortably fit into the ‘neo-soul’ world in the way their female counterparts might (think Erykah Badu, Angie Stone, Jill Scott), marketing their music hasn’t been as easy.
Certainly, Kenny’s first two albums for Columbia – and in particular his “Soul Of The Man” second set – showed the promise of what he could deliver vocally and musically. I remember being particularly impressed with a couple of covers on that second album, Kenny’s take on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and his strong interpretation of the Blood, Sweat & Tears/Donny Hathaway classic, “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.” Alas, a lack of a major hit single and a seeming uncertainty as to how to position the Washington DC native in an everchanging marketplace resulted in his move to Arista. Least said about that particular venture the better: suffice it to say, Kenny switched focus by making two good duet albums with his talented wife Chante Moore in face of the ‘all-over-the-place’ musical mix of his sole Arista set.
After a few years of touring with Chante – including participation in a couple of musical plays – it was time for Kenny to start thinking of what his next solo move would be. In no rush, he considered different options and a conversation between his management and Verve Records - increasingly a home for some great soul music (think Ledisi, Labelle) - resulted in his latest set, appropriately entitled “Timeless,” a tasty collection of songs associated with others from Otis Redding to Elton John…
DN: How did the new album evolve?
KL: Originally, it was going to be a tribute to soul music but not typical. We started out with names like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Teddy Pendergrass and even went to groups like The Spinners, The Chi-Lites, The Dells. We thought that might be interesting. As we started compiling a list of songs, we began broadening out into pop and R&B and timeless songs that I could do in my own style.
DN: Specifically, how did you pick some of the songs by R&B artists?
KL: Donny Hathaway’s “Giving Up” was mine, my father picked the Otis Redding song (“I Love You More Than Words Can Say”) and that also showed up on the A&R guy’s list. I grew up with the Michael Henderson song, “You Are My Starship.” We had a Stevie Wonder song in mind and then the Verve publicist Regina suggested Stevie’s “It Ain’t No Use.”
DN: You worked with Barry Eastmond as the producer on the album…
KL: When we started talking about the album at the beginning of the year, Barry’s name came up. He had worked on our duet project. We wanted someone who knew me, who understood artistry. Originally, Barry and I went in to do three songs and fooled around with seven ideas. The arrangements were so important, as important as the vocals. After doing the seven songs, we said, ‘we’ve almost done the whole album.’ I did try and work with another group of producers and it didn’t work out. We felt that we wanted to do the album the way artists did back in the day: there was a certain sensibility from having one producer. You ended up with a cohesive or comprehensive project.
DN: You definitely picked some tough songs to cover!
KL: Yes! Like Aretha’s “Ain’t No Way.” I thought, ‘What can I do with this?’ I could either go very close to what was done originally did – or do something completely different. I knew if I did something close to the original performance, people would be expecting to hear certain notes or phrases. We didn’t do that classic Cissy Houston soprano note on Aretha’s version although it’s a signature to that song. I did put my own thing on the end with the adlibs I did.
DN: And the Otis Redding song?
KL: Well, I don’t sound like Otis. I liked his phrasing but it’s so stylized. What I did, phrasing-wise is much like his.
DN: What was the hardest song to cut?
KL: The Beatles’ “And I Love Her.” I couldn’t figure out how to sing over that track!
DN: I was fortunate to see you doing ‘Giving Up’ at a benefit in Los Angeles last year…
KL: When you saw me doing that song, it was only the second time I’d ever done it. The first time was at an open mike session, a long time ago, around ’95, ’96. When I did it in the show last year, that was the first time I’d sat and rehearsed it with a band. I’m a theatrical kind of singer onstage. When it comes to my delivery, I wanted it to feel like I’m really telling a story.
DN: Of course, you did “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” on your second album. You obviously love Donny Hathaway…
KL: Yes, and when we’re talking about Donny, we’re talking about someone who was introduced as a great interpreter. I believe he had the pain and emotion when he sang. When I did ‘Giving Up,’ I wanted to feel what I think he felt when he sang it. It’s a great song to do onstage: with my face and my body, I can emote all of that feeling…
DN: What kind of reaction have you had to the songs on the new album when you’ve performed them?
KL: I tested out some of the material at Yoshi’s [in the Bay Area]. I realize classic songs are sacred to people so I said, ‘let me see what you think of this…’ As soon as I started ‘You Are My Starship,’ the audience went crazy! What that means for me is building the songs in a classic way. We’re reintroducing some of them and because some are obscure, it’s almost like a brand new CD for some people.
DN: There have been a lot of changes in the music business since your last solo album…
KL: When I did my last CD, I felt like room for adult music was closing in but the marketplace has grown for it. Before it didn’t exist at all. At radio, things have changed a lot. Before I did the album, I was thinking. ‘let’s find the people who love timeless music and love Kenny Lattimore.’ Having a label like Verve who wanted me to do this made a big difference. I’d been part of the Sony BMG family for so long…and had started to feel a little lost over there. You want to know that a label really supports you. What I love about this project and Verve is that I was allowed to experiment. There was no aggressive direction from the outside: they really allowed me to have fun with making the album.
DN: And how has it been promoting it?
KL: The label has been smart: it was recorded with live instrumentation so they know a lot of it is about taking the music on the road and people hearing it live.
DN: How do you feel now about the album?
KL: I feel like it’s a great start to my career at Verve, a great introduction. I’m looking forward to growing with them and doing an original CD as the next project.
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.