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.
Robert: Jeff’s in California this week, having gotten lost on the way home to his new residence in New Hampshire after Matt Wardlaw and Annie Zaleski‘s wedding in Ohio last weekend. I’ve heard of people driving to their old house by accident while under the spell of highway hypnosis, but this makes no sense at all. In the meantime Mike and I will discuss the eternal struggle between art and commerce as it relates to the compositional merits of Babyface and L.A. Reid’s first notable success as songwriters-producers with a non-SOLAR artist.
Mike: Man, Pebbles was a grade-A hottie back in the day, huh?
Robert: Hubba hubba! Ah-woooooooo! (I obviously love talking about art and commerce.) So, can we finally publish our lists of the Hottest Female ’80s R&B Singers, as suggested/threatened back in January? Here’s mine:
1. Karyn White
3. Michael Jackson; the lady in Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” video who looks exactly like Michael Jackson (tie)
5. Shirley Hemphill (She supposedly sang the theme song to her own short-lived 1980 sitcom, One in a Million, after What’s Happening!! was canceled, but she’s mainly on this list because I like saying her hame. Just let me have my fun, okay?)
Mike: Let’s not forget Janet Jackson, although if you believe a popular rumor from the late ’80s, Michael and Janet were actually the same person. But I think we’ve officially proven that one false.
Robert: They barely looked related past 1987, at least to me. Michael and La Toya, on the other hand, is a different ball of wax lips.
Mike: They looked alike until at least the early ’90s. Then Michael seemed to get lighter and Janet seemed to get darker!
Robert: A point I assumed they tried to make moot by filming that billion-dollar “Scream” video in black and white.
Mike: There’s a story about how MJ’s prosthetic nose fell off during the filming of that video that makes me laugh and feel a little bit sad at the same time.
What’s your thing with Shirley Hemphill? Are you hinting that you might be into thick-set, somewhat butch black women?
Robert: The way she sassed Fred “Rerun” Berry really stirred something in my heart as well as my loins. Now, back to that whole art-versus-commerce thing!
Mike: It’s worth noting that “Girlfriend” pretty much marked the beginning of the LaFace hit-making era.
Robert: It’s also worth noting that “Girlfriend” was covered by England’s the Beautiful South on its debut album just two years after it appeared on Pebbles’s own debut:
Mike: Why does that remake even exist?
Robert: Because filling out a first album with originals isn’t always possible? Beats me. I guess the Beautiful South dug the song. Or they wanted to show off their dry British humor.
Babyface and L.A. Reid wrote “Girlfriend” for Vanessa Williams, according to AllMusic’s Ed Hogan, but once Pebbles showed interest, the song was hers. “Like Karyn White’s Babyface-penned hits of the time,” wrote Hogan’s colleague, Jose F. Promis, the number-one R&B and top-five pop hit “possessed an earthy grit which became lost under the adult contemporary gloss found in latter-day Babyface compositions.” Could ‘Face help it if Celine Dion didn’t do “earthy grit” in the mid- to late ’90s? He was merely servicing the needs of his clientele. Back off, Jose!
I like how Reid, ‘Face, and Kevin “Kayo” Roberson show up in the final minute of “Girlfriend’s” video when Pebbles commands, “Hey, Deele, sing!”
Mike: I can see “Girlfriend” as a Vanessa Williams track. It sounds like her first couple of singles — “The Right Stuff,” in particular.
It’s interesting to me how the funk kinda left when L.A. stopped working with ‘Face. It was almost exclusively ballads after that. I wonder if Mr. Reid was some kind of funky songwriting secret weapon or if ‘Face just got fucking lazy and was like, “Every song I write from now on is gonna sound like ‘End of the Road.’“
Robert: Maybe both? In the Wikipedia entry for Daryl Simmons, who cowrote quite a few of the songs we’ve discussed for ‘Face Time so far, a July 1994 article from Ebony is referenced, but I can’t find the actual article online, so I’ll just quote liberally from Wikipedia: Babyface told the magazine’s Laura B. Randolph that Reid and he “would not be writing and producing together anymore due to ‘a difference of opinion on a couple of things,’ and that he did most of the writing. He conceded that he and Reid had never really been close friends and that ‘time after time’ he had been exploited, because he trusts so easily and because he refuses to step on others in order to climb to the top.”
Seems like they got over their differences since there are plenty of pictures of them posing together at industry events in the past decade, but it had to have hurt when L.A. Reid rose to the top at Arista in 2000, effectively ending the LaFace hit-making era, while Nu America, the Interscope imprint started by Babyface and Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell, launched a year later but folded almost as quickly, generating just one single by Latrelle (“Dirty Girl”) and the debut album by Robin Thicke, A Beautiful World. That’s a great album in many respects, so Nu America wasn’t a complete loss, but it obviously wasn’t the second coming of LaFace or even Uptown.
Mike: Definitely seems as though ‘Face had the ear for music and L.A. had the eye for money or marketing or whatever it is he does.
It’s hard to imagine “a difference of opinion on a couple of things” separating such a successful duo. I’d have to imagine there’s more behind the story. Ah well, I’m sure one or the other will write a tell-all within the next five to ten years.
Robert: Did Pebbles cheat on L.A., her husband from ’89 to ’95, with Babyface? Wow, that’s quite a bombshell I just made up!
George L. Smith is listed as the executive producer of Pebbles’s self-titled debut as well as her “management” (Bobby Brown, who was on MCA’s roster with Pebbles in the late ’80s, was also a client of his), and he just so happened to be her husband at the time, having “put up $80,000 to bankroll her second assault on the music world” in 1985 thanks to a successful career as a contractor, according to People magazine. (The first assault was apparently in 1981, when Pebbles was just 16 and still known as Perri McKissack, and included a songwriting credit on Con Funk Shun’s “Body Lovers.”)
In its 1988 profile of the singer, Pebbles claimed that she “plans to call all the shots on her next LP. ‘I’m not going to let someone else make or break my career,’ she says. ‘If I’m in control and things don’t happen, at least I was in control.'” Well, that next LP, 1990’s Always, featured a hit duet with Babyface called “Love Makes Things Happen,” an appropriate title considering that Pebbles’s new husband produced the majority of the album with ‘Face, but her “control,” reminiscent of Janet Jackson’s under the guidance of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, was limited to coproduction of the title track. (Daryl Simmons and Kayo handled the final pair of songs on side two.)
Pebbles’s third and final R&B album, Straight from My Heart, was released in 1995 (now known as Sister Perri, she put out her first gospel album, Prophetic Flows, Vol. I & II, in 2008), but at that point she was still five years away from marrying ex-Atlanta Braves center fielder Otis Nixon, who stole a lot of bases in his career but, alas, couldn’t write catchy songs like “Girlfriend” or “Giving You the Benefit.” Then again, Pebbles wrote “Mercedes Boy” all by her damn self — not to mention she cowrote one of Babyface’s best songs, “Whip Appeal” — and if you ask me, it leaves “Girlfriend” in the dust.