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.
Jeff: This song isn’t great, but it’s hard to hate — unlike the godawful movie from whence it came.
Mike: I feel like it was only created to win a shit-ton of Grammy awards.
Robert: Mission accomplished! “Change the World” won Record of the Year for Clapton and Babyface, Song of the Year for its trio of writers, and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for Clapton, while ‘Face also won Best R&B Song for Whitney Houston‘s “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” and his second consecutive Grammy for Producer of the Year (he threepeated in ’98).
I guess I’m the only one here who loves “Change the World.” I never minded hearing it on the radio in the summer of ’96 … or the fall of ’96 … or the winter of ’97 … or the spring of ’97, because apparently it hung around the Billboard adult-contemporary chart for 80 straight weeks.
I thought Phenomenon was blandly inoffensive — the John Travolta movie of ’96 that I hated was the Nora Ephron “comedy” Michael — and in hindsight it seemed like Travolta’s way of trying to make up for the fact that he’d turned down the lead in Forrest Gump a couple years earlier. I didn’t see enough of Seinfeld when it was originally on the air, but I do remember seeing the episode from November of ’96 in which George (Jason Alexander) can’t have sex for six weeks while his girlfriend is sick with mono, and in the process becomes supersmart like Travolta’s character in Phenomenon (also named George) now that his mind is no longer operating on one track, so to speak.
Mike: I remember liking “Change the World” when it was out — I bought the CD single — but hadn’t actually heard it in a number of years. It’s just kinda … there.
Jeff: I liked it too — I had the cassingle! — but as Robert pointed out, it was grossly overplayed. I also hate it a little for opening the slickest, dullest chapter in Clapton’s career, although it’s “Welcome to the Jungle” compared to “My Father’s Eyes.”
All that aside, I think Babyface worked well with Clapton. Its rather limp arrangement notwithstanding, “Change the World” has one of the more interesting melodies of EC’s latter-day songs, and sounds like something ‘Face would write for himself. It’s a marriage that sounded kind of weird on paper — in 1996, anyway — but it makes a lot of sense.
Mike: Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis + Rod Stewart > Babyface + Eric Clapton. I will also (somewhat embarrassingly) say that the only non-compilation Clapton album I currently own is Pilgrim (1998).
Jeff: I’m going to assume you own it only because you didn’t sell it fast enough to beat the rush of used discs that glutted record stores throughout 1999 and 2000. Did Jam and Lewis work with Stewart on … what was that record called? Human?
Mike: I actually like (some songs on) Pilgrim. Mock me all you want.
I don’t think Jam and Lewis are on Human (2001), but there’s this …
And this …
Jeff: Oh, I remember “If We Fall in Love Tonight” (1996). Dig that antiquated rhythm program!
I’d mock you for liking songs on Pilgrim if I’d ever been able to make it through the entire record without falling asleep. As it is, the only one I can remember is “My Father’s Eyes,” which I’m pretty sure is 14 minutes long. Gotta love Clapton for giving Paul Carrack a gig on the tour, though.
Mike: There are good songs on it, dammit!
Robert: But not “My Father’s Eyes.”
Elton John’s longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin, would’ve changed the words of “Change the World,” baby, if he could. He reportedly told Musician magazine, “What sold that song, I believe, is production. And it had a good melody. But don’t listen to the lyric. Because the lyric is appalling. It’s a bad lyric. There are some rhymes in there that are really awful. But that’s not what sold the song.”
Mike: Well, we can’t blame Babyface for that, can we? He didn’t write “Change the World.” Damn you guys I’ve never heard of except for Tommy Sims.
Jeff: Tommy Sims! I’d forgotten he was part of this. I bought his Peace and Love record when it came out in 2000, and liked it a lot.
Mike: He also cowrote my favorite song on the Chris Gaines record.
Jeff: I’m uncomfortable with the direction this conversation is going.
Mike: If only all of the Chris Gaines stuff hadn’t been pulled off of YouTube.
Robert: In a parallel universe “Change the World” probably is a Chris Gaines song. In an interview with American Songwriter magazine (according to SongFacts.com, that is, so caveat emptor, y’all), Gordon Kennedy said, “‘Change the World’ was a song written over the course of a year by Tommy Sims, Wayne Kirkpatrick, and myself. On a recording session in Quad Studios in Nashville in the early ’90s, Wayne and I were recording some demos in an attempt to do the ‘artist’ thing. We recorded four songs that day, three of which wound up on Garth [Brooks]’s Chris Gaines CD,” which was released in ’99.
“During that session Tommy was there playing bass, and played us the nugget of an idea he had, wondering if it might be something that would work for the sound we were doing. He had the title and a chord progression and melody direction going,” Kennedy added. “Wayne would ask him some months later for a tape of the idea so he could work on it; he wrote the lyrics to the chorus and all but one line of the second verse. Then it went dormant again for a time before I asked Wayne about its progress.
“He gave me what he’d done on it. I finished writing the music, went to Columbus, Ohio, and laid down a demo track with Tommy. He was there working on a church-choir album. On the way home I listened to a tape of the track and dictated lyrics into another little handheld recorder … I wrote the lyrics to the first verse and the missing line in the second verse. When I got home I went into the studio and did a guitar and all of the vocals for a finished demo, the one Clapton heard later … None of the three of us were together when we wrote what we each wrote on the song.”
The three songs that Kennedy-Kirkpatrick-Sims are credited with as a trio on Chris Gaines’s Greatest Hits, a.k.a. Garth Brooks … In the Life of Chris Gaines, are “Lost in You,” “It Don’t Matter to the Sun,” and “My Love Tells Me So,” but Sims is listed as a writer on two additional songs, while Kennedy and Kirkpatrick are credited with three songs as a duo and wrote several others either on their own or with writers like Trisha Yearwood, who married Brooks (or was it Chris Gaines?) in 2005. Kennedy, Kirkpatrick, and Sims also make up the bulk of Brooks’s band on Greatest Hits.
What’s that, you say? You want me to copy more text from SongFacts.com that can’t be fact-checked elsewhere on the Internet? Your wish is my command …
In the May issue of Mojo Eric Clapton said, “When I heard Tommy Sims’ demo, I could hear McCartney doing that, so I needed to, with greatest respect to Paul, take that and put it somewhere black. So I asked Babyface, who, even though he may not be aware of it, gave it the blues thing. The first two lines I play on that song on the acoustic guitar are lines I quote wherever I can, and they come from the beginning of ‘Mannish Boy’ by Muddy Waters. On every record I make where I think, This has got a chance of doing well, I make sure I pay my dues on this. So I think I’ve found a way to do it, but it has to have one foot in the blues, even if it’s subtly disguised.”
However, “Change the World” first had a foot in mainstream country: Wynonna Judd’s version of the song — produced by Tony Brown, for what it’s worth — came out five months before Clapton’s.
The ex-Cream guitarist hosted the fourth Crossroads Guitar Festival, held every three years since 2004, at Madison Square Garden in April. According to the New York Times, the festival helps fund the Crossroads Center drug rehabilitation clinic in Antigua, “where about 15 percent of the beds go to poor people from Antigua and Barbuda,” whose treatment is subsidized thanks to charities Clapton maintains in the United States and the United Kingdom. “Our mission goes back to Mr. Clapton’s desire to provide affordable, accessible treatment to people of Antigua and the Caribbean, primarily, and then also internationally, so we are able to offer treatment at a sliding scale,” said Kim Martin, executive officer for the Crossroads Center. All in all, not a bad way to change the world for the better.
EXTRA ‘FACE TIME! Because I couldn’t change my schedule, let alone the world, last Friday, this edition of ‘Face Time is arriving a few days late. To make up for it, here’s a bootleg of Babyface performing at the Newport Beach Jazz Festival on June 1, courtesy of our good friend Matt Wardlaw. It’s a good set, full of funny stage banter and a 25-minute closing medley of hits, though we’re all puzzled as to why ‘Face would cover the Tony Rich Project’s sound-alike hit, “Nobody Knows,” without acknowledging its origins. Is his performance of the song some sort of inside joke? A meta-commentary on the fact that nobody in the audience seems to know it’s not a Babyface original? If only they read ‘Face Time …
For the Cool in You
Every Time I Close My Eyes
Never Keeping Secrets
Fire and Rain [first attempt]
Fire and Rain
Soon as I Get Home
Medley: Two Occasions/Don’t Be Cruel/Every Little Step/Rock Wit’cha/Roni/Can We Talk/Ready or Not/My, My, My/I’ll Make Love to You/End of the Road/Whip Appeal