The Soul Behind the Face

Babyface steps out from behind the boards to the top of the charts

Babyface performs on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno on September 12th, 1994. Credit: Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Melodies are mysteries, their source a secret. Kenny Edmonds, the man called Babyface, perhaps the most successful melodist of the past decade, is not inclined to probe those secrets. Sitting in the living room of his opulent French château, in Beverly Hills, the composer is exceptionally composed, a calm spirit as the hit-hungry record business comes calling, beseeching him for songs.

"I'm a rhythm & blues man who writes old-fashioned soul songs," Babyface says softly. "I'm just lucky to be living at a time when black music — black romantic music — is riding high. But when you look back at history, black music has always led the way. I'm privileged to be part of that tradition."

In the mad scramble of music marketing, the very concept of tradition seems far-fetched. Isn't this the age of deconstruction, a time when enraged rap and rock should have displaced the antiquated notion of the ear-pleasing melody?

"Melodies have always floated inside my head," says Babyface. "As a small boy I played out my love fantasies by pressing a guitar to my heart and strumming little stories. I'm still doing that. It's just that more people are listening."

Millions more. This year alone, "I'll Make Love to You," which he wrote and produced for Boyz II Men, topped the charts for months. The single is a follow-up to their wildly successful "End of the Road," a co-creation by Face — as his friends call him — and former collaborators L.A. Reid and Daryl Simmons. As a singer, "When Can I See You" — a guitar-to-the-heart song — became Babyface's first Top 5 pop single. His hit list is remarkably long. This year's successes include Toni Braxton, Tevin Campbell and Aretha Franklin, whose "Willing to Forgive" ended her long dry spell. What's more, he has recently produced both Michael Jackson and Madonna.

The six-decade history of rhythm & blues boasts a strong legacy of those who combined the gifts of writing and singing. In the pre-R&B era, Fats Waller led the way; in the '40s, Louis Jordan; in the '50s, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Ray Charles and Little Richard. By the '60s, Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Sly Stone mastered the art of production. And in the '70s, in the wake of the self-produced triumphs of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Barry White and George Clinton, a new generation got the message: You can do it all. Babyface is a child of that generation.

The truth is that Babyface, at 36, is a mature and brilliant stylist, as a singer and as a writer. His strength is his sensitivity. He slides into falsetto with the easy grace of a center sinking a hook. His sensuality — on "It's No Crime" and "Whip Appeal" from his 1989 Tender Lover, for example — is devastatingly subtle.

To the side of his kitchen, in a small room dominated by a mint-new 48-track console, Face sits comfortably. He speaks comfortably. He punctuates his phrases with pauses rather than smiles, although when he does smile, he projects the sweetness of a 10-year-old. His hands are delicate, his build slight, his focus quietly unrelenting. He wears black jeans and a beige shirt, a gold cross around his neck. In delineating his musical and personal history, he is straight-ahead and disarmingly sincere. When I first met Face four years ago, he seemed painfully shy, a shyness now replaced by a relaxed confidence.

"When you have two older siblings who can sing circles around you," Babyface says, "it's easy to be humble. My brothers Melvin and Kevon, who are in After 7, have serious chops. I don't. I sing around my limitations. I project feelings. I create certain peaks, but, man, if I had a voice, say like Johnny Gill, I'd tear it up. The truth is that I never set out to sing. My thing was writing."

Babyface was raised in Indianapolis, the second youngest of six brothers. "My father died when I was in eighth grade, and my mother supported us," he says. "She held things together, working as a process manager at the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical plant. We didn't have a lot of money, though always enough food and clean clothes. We were a loving family.

"Mom gave me the work ethic," Babyface says, "but she was cool about my music. Early on she knew how it absorbed me. I thank her for not pressuring me to take regular jobs. She let me play in bands as long as I wanted. Mom believed in me. She saw how I had these two obsessions — music and love.

"I was in love with love," Babyface continues. "Puppy love hit me hard. Little heartaches lingered with me for a long while. Even in grade school I always had a romantic soul. I'd write poems to girls. I'd write love letters for my pals. I did more writing about love than actual love-making. I guess you could call me an innocent. I was a virgin until I was 19. I enjoyed the emotion of getting lost in love — like nothing else in life mattered."

Music mattered. In the '70s funk shaped his rhythmic sensibility. "The funk," Babyface says, "is still the funk. Will always be the funk. No question, George Clinton's tracks can still blow anything else out of the water. But as much as I soaked up the funk, I was also moved by pretty things outside R&B — 'If', by Bread, Beatles ballads. The soul people said I was soft, said I liked waterfall music. They were right. I was listening to 'Killing Me Softly' and loving the sentiment."

Babyface progressed from Top 40 cover bands to Manchild, a funk group that included Daryl Simmons. The band was signed to Chi-Sound Records in the mid-'70s. No hits. Next came the Deele, the purpose of which, says Face, was "to snag a deal." They did. Solar Records president Dick Griffey moved the Deele to Los Angeles and put the group on Solar, where "Two Occasions" and "Shoot 'Em Up Movies," a novelty tune with echoes all the way back to the Coasters, made some noise. More importantly the Deele brought Babyface together with drummer Antonio "L.A." Reid, his partner for the next decade.

In the '80s, Reid and Babyface, along with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, became the most powerful production force since Quincy Jones. Like Jones, both teams stressed flexibility, tailoring material to individual artists. Unlike Jones, however, both teams were self-sufficient; they wrote their own songs and created their own tracks. With Reid and Babyface's first solid hit, the Whispers' soaring "Rock Steady," the Reid-Babyface production pattern became a crisscross between fiery dance and sultry romance.

The hits came quickly — "Dial My Heart," for the Boys; "Girlfriend," for Pebbles (who would become Mrs. Reid); "Every Little Step" and "Roni," for Bobby Brown; "My, My, My," for Johnny Gill; "Lover in Me," for Sheena Easton; "Ready or Not," for After 7; "I'm Your Baby Tonight" and "Miracle," for Whitney Houston; "Baby Baby Baby," for TLC; and from his last album, Bobby Brown's "Humpin' Around." In the late '80s, Babyface also stepped out as a solo artist.

"I'd always sung demos," Babyface says, "but no one in Manchild or the Deele saw me singing leads. I didn't push it, but Dick Griffey did. He saw I had a vocal attitude."

Tender Lover, Babyface's second album, went double platinum. Everything — writing, producing, singing — seemed to be working. In 1989, Babyface and Reid moved to Atlanta, where — with Arista's backing — they started LaFace Records. Within no time the label scored big with Toni Braxton and TLC. In 1992, Reid and Babyface were the Grammy-winning Producers of the Year. A year later their partnership collapsed.

Babyface is sipping soup. Midafternoon shadows move across the empty Hollywood bistro, casting the singer/song-writer in muted shades of black and gray.

"The breakup," Babyface says, "was a private matter. L.A. and I are cool today; we remain co-owners of LaFace, which I still want to build up. I model myself on Herb Alpert at A&M Records; I'd like to be a creative visionary who avoids day-to-day details while reaping a big payoff at the end. But as far as co-writing or co-producing with L.A., well, that's over."

Pressed harder about the division of creative labor in the past, Face adds: "The reality is that I was always the writer. L.A. is a fine producer, but the overwhelming majority of actual composing was my area. The difference between now and then is self-assertion. I feel stronger in my talent and willing to prove it. As a businessman I like to establish goals. I'm out to make my new publishing company, ECAF, which is Face backward, more valuable than anything I've developed before."

Babyface's new confidence is clarified by the arrival of Tracey, his stunning wife of two years. A Stanford psychobiology major and former mortgage broker, at age 27 she runs a record label and publishing company of her own — Yab Yum Entertainment — underwritten by Sony. Speaking twice as fast as Face, she has a let's-go energy that complements his kicked-back cool. "Tracey is a great role model for young, independent black women," says the proud husband, "and a strong stabilizing influence on me."

I want to know about Madonna and Michael Jackson. "When I went to New York to produce Michael singing this ballad I wrote for him, he was in great spirits," Babyface says. "But I'd rather not talk about it. His project isn't complete, and I can't be certain my song will be included. But I can talk about Madonna. She came over to my house and worked with real dedication. She's a wonderful writer. She reconfirmed my interest in collaborating with artists who bring something to the table. We wrote two tunes — 'Take a Bow' and 'Forbidden Love' — and she contributed concept, melody and lyrics."

"Babyface's songs are like Rolls-Royces," says Madonna. "The design is classic, the ride is smooth, and they're built to last."

Back in his home studio, Babyface is now alone, listening to his hauntingly sad "I Don't Want to Know" sung by Gladys Knight. "I love her interpretation so much," he says. "I can't understand why this wasn't a hit. But there are no guarantees. I want to work with Gladys again — and Aretha — and also Patti LaBelle. I want to do a contrasting compilation between strong old-school black women singers and new school. Then a compilation of the black men — Al Green on one side, R. Kelly on the other. I love the continuity, the fact that R. Kelly is taking Isley Brothers-based soul and making it new."

I wonder about Babyface's working methods, whether he suffers blocks. "I'm patient with myself," he says. "I won't sit down till it's time. Then I'll devote 10 days to intense writing, maybe turn out a dozen songs, then chill for a month. I respect my writing gift. I don't overuse it. I call on it only when it calls on me."

In contrast to his colleagues, Babyface exhibits a curious lack of swagger, especially considering his batting average. "There are few geniuses of our time," he says, "and I'm not among them. Lionel Richie is a genius writer. He combined black and pop in melodies that people will never forget. As a producer, no one has earned the longevity and respect [that] Quincy Jones [has]. I also give high praise to Prince. Take away his showbiz image, and Prince is still a master."

What about Babyface's reluctance to perform? He has yet to tour as a solo artist. "The sort of show I envisioned off the first album," he says, "costs too much. I couldn't draw the crowds to justify it. I also worry about the emotional drain. I don't want to worry about my voice every night. But with For the Cool in You" — his platinum album from 1993 — "I've thought about it again. I have fans who say they'd love to see me sometime."

The conversation returns to "When Can I See You." "The song is a break-through for me because it is simply me," says Babyface. His hands rest serenely on his lap. His voice lowers as he closes his eyes and conjures up a memory. "It came about by watching Tracy Chapman at the Grammys — just her voice and guitar. I remember thinking what a lovely idea — how beautiful, how simple, how raw. Before the business of fancy keyboards and high-tech production, that was me back in my bedroom in Indianapolis, little Kenny Edmonds and his guitar. To get back there, though, required a leap of faith. Simplicity seems simple. Well, it is, and it isn't. Simplicity requires courage, and courage, I've learned, can take time."