Babyface turns 30 this year. Sure, the Man Who Would Be Babyface — Kenneth Edmonds — was born in 1959, but the singer, songwriter, producer, and all-around hit maker extraordinaire began taking baby steps up the Billboard charts the year Michael Jackson’s Thriller dominated every chart. Join Robert Cass, Jeff Giles, and Mike Heyliger as they take a look back at the first three decades of Babyface’s career, with various detours along the stream of consciousness.
“This Is for the Lover in You” by Babyface featuring LL Cool J, Howard Hewett, Jody Watley, and Jeffrey Daniels [Amazon / iTunes]
(written by Howard Hewett and Dana Meyers; produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds; from The Day, 1996)
Mike: I’ve got to give him props for getting the three most popular members of Shalamar on a record together. Beyond that? I mean, it’s an okay song …
Robert: This was on your list of requests for songs we should cover! Surely, there’s a burning ember for this song somewhere in your heart. Or at least an unspoken love for Shirley Hemphill.
Mike: Maybe it’s because I’m so fond of the original, from 1980’s Three for Love. Not that I dislike this version at all, but I guess after all these years it’s just another Babyface song — I don’t go out of my way to listen to it.
It just occurred to me that even though ‘Face was able to bring together the best-known lineup of Shalamar for the first time in over a decade, he never worked with any of its members individually. I’m sure Jody Watley or Howard Hewett would’ve been able to score a hit with some peak-level Babyface production.
There’s apparently a remix of “This Is for the Lover in You” that features Ghostface Killah. Now, that I’d like to hear.
Robert: I included it in our discussion of Jay-Z’s “(Always Be My) Sunshine.” No gold star for you! Oh wait, I included it in the final post, not our original e-mail thread. So, no gold star for me either.
I wouldn’t have understood the connection between Babyface and Shalamar in ’96 if I’d heard “This Is for the Lover in You” back then, but I like how it’s ‘Face’s unofficial tribute to Dick Griffey and the SOLAR sound of the ’70s and ’80s. (Hewett penned it with Dana Meyers, who also wrote for other SOLAR acts like Dynasty, the Whispers, and Klymaxx.) L.A. Reid and he produced six of the eight tracks on Shalamar’s ninth album, Circumstantial Evidence (1987), by which point the “classic” lineup of the group — Hewett, Watley, and Daniels (who now goes by “Daniel,” sans the S) — was long gone. The latter two departed after The Look (1983), while Hewett recorded the follow-up, 1984’s Heartbreak, with new members Micki Free and Delisa Davis before embarking on a solo career. He was replaced with former NFL player Sidney Justin on lead vocals, but this particular lineup of Shalamar didn’t generate much interest from longtime fans.
‘Face and L.A. brought in their usual ringers for Circumstantial Evidence, including singers Debra Hurd and Melvin Edmonds, Babyface’s big brother, before they found R&B fame, respectively, in Damian Dame and After 7. On “Playthang,” which became “I Want You (To Be My Playthang)” when it was spun off as a single in ’88, the backing vocals are provided by ‘Face, Pebbles, and the Deele’s Kevin “Kayo” Roberson.
We don’t just have to talk about “This Is for the Lover in You,” you know. In 1996 Babyface produced another cover of a popular ’80s song for the LaFace-signed vocal group Az Yet, further proof of “white” soft rock’s influence on “black” R&B …
Two years later he produced a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” for Phil Collins. It’s ‘Face to Face Value!
One year after that he shepherded George Michael and Mary J. Blige’s cover of “As,” the 1976 Stevie Wonder classic …
And in 2000 he teamed up with Gwyneth Paltrow to sing the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” for the soundtrack to Duets, a romantic comedy in which she plays the daughter of Huey Lewis, who’s like Paul Newman in The Hustler if Newman had sung karaoke. Paltrow and Babyface’s cover is pleasant enough, and I can understand why certain lyrics had to be changed to reflect that it’s Paltrow singing about a man, not Eddie Kendricks singing about a woman, in this version of the song, but how come ‘Face changes “a cozy little home in the country” in the second verse to “a cozy little crib” and Paltrow keeps using “fly” as an adjective? That’s how you make a timeless song a little less timeless.
Mike: (1) That cover of “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” is awful, but “True Colors” and “As” are pretty good. (2) Can you imagine the amount of drugs that would’ve been present at a late-’90s Mary J./George Michael session? (3) I am not listening to Gwyneth Paltrow sing.
Jeff: You’ve never heard that cover of “Just My Imagination”? It’s surprisingly pleasant. Plus, I give Paltrow credit for pulling a Swayze and turning down offers to record a full-length record after people realized she can carry a tune.
Mike: “I’m so lucky he’s so fly”?? Babyface certainly didn’t need to TLC-ify this song. That said, “pleasant” is probably the appropriate adjective to use here.
Robert: Jeff’s right — she’s not bad. Her duet with Lewis on Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’,” also from the Duets soundtrack, got a lot of lite-FM airplay in the early aughts. And it’s Paltrow who uses “fly” — she needs something that rhymes with “guy” in the first verse, and you have to admit, we’ve all been there — not Babyface, so you leave him out of this! But she also uses “girlies” to take the place of Kendricks’s “fellas,” which may be more regrettable. (‘Face, if you’re the one who updated those lyrics, shame on you for not speaking up and defending Mrs. Coldplay right now.) When The Fabulous Baker Boys came out in ’89, everybody talked about what a great voice Michelle Pfeiffer had, but I think Paltrow’s got her beat by a mile.
Three of Paltrow’s costars in the first Iron Man movie — Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, and Terrence Howard — have all recorded albums, so look at it this way, Mike: would you rather hear those from beginning to end or one four-minute single by Paltrow?
Jeff: I think Mike would rather listen to some Philip Michael Thomas.
Robert: And away we go!
Mike: Oh God.
Robert: Now that Netflix has Miami Vice available for streaming, I rewatched the first-season episode in which Bruce Willis plays a wife-beating arms dealer. This was about six months before Moonlighting debuted, and as I was watching it, it was hard to remember that Miami Vice was considered a ground-breaking show almost 30 years ago.
Mike: It certainly was, compared to everything else that was on television at the time.
Robert: But if you eliminated the clothes and the soundtrack that Michael Mann smuggled in from MTV — pure, uncut Phil Collins, y’all — it was pretty much a standard cop show, at least as far as the Bruce Willis episode went.
Mike: Well, all that peripheral stuff did mean something.
Robert: True. And since we are talking about timelessness in the context of cover songs, it’s worth considering why certain qualities are “timeless” and others aren’t. Technically, every piece of art and every piece of popular entertainment becomes dated.
A lip-synched rendition of the 1996 version of “This Is for the Lover in You” on the UK’s Top of the Pops is apparently the only time Hewett, Watley, and Daniels have performed together (if you can call it that — Daniels, for one, looks like he forgot to review the song’s chorus before the taping) since ’83. Unlike at home, Shalamar were a true crossover success in the UK, which is probably why the most fondly remembered lineup of the group reunited on the country’s long-running equivalent of American Bandstand.
In the summer of ’82 Daniels did a solo dance performance to the group’s hit “A Night to Remember” on Top of the Pops, and debuted a moved called the backslide, otherwise known as the moonwalk, which he later taught to Michael Jackson.
Watley says that Babyface tried to reunite her, Hewett, and Daniels for a new Shalamar album after they recorded “This Is For the Lover in You,” but contract negotiations got in the way.
Watley and Hewett reportedly haven’t gotten along since Ronald Reagan’s first term in the White House, but Hewett and Daniels reformed Shalamar in the past decade and toured the UK in 2010 with Carolyn Griffey, the daughter of late SOLAR founder Dick Griffey, in place of Watley.
(Geez, we didn’t talk about LL Cool J‘s contribution to “This Is for the Lover in You” at all. That’s gotta hurt. In fact he’ll probably never live it down on the set of NCIS: Los Angeles — I hear Linda Hunt’s a total ballbuster.)
Mike: If you watch Shalamar’s Unsung episode, you’ll quickly realize that a reunion of Hewett, Watley, and Daniels isn’t in the cards. Which is kind of a shame — they’re one of my favorite groups.
For an in-depth look at Kenneth Edmonds’s discography as a solo artist, see Mike and Jeff’s Popdose Guide to Babyface.