Edmonds, Kenneth “Babyface” 1959
Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds 1959–
Producer, singer, and songwriter
Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds has emerged as one of the most prolific producers, songwriters, and performers in popular music. Much of the artist’s success has been achieved in tandem with Antonio “LA” Reid, with whom he founded the LaFace record label in 1989; at one point, the duo was responsible for six singles appearing simultaneously in the R&B Top Ten. Described by Gordon Chambers of Vibe as “clearly an architect of today’s black pop scene,” Edmonds has written songs for such pop luminaries as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Aretha Franklin, Vanessa Williams, TLC, and Madonna. A Keyboard magazine writer deemed him “that rarest of creatures, a producer with a Midas touch.” Not content to remain behind the recording console, however, Edmonds, who reluctantly adopted the nickname Babyface, given to him by guitarist Bootsy Collins, has also pursued a successful career as a solo recording artist.
Love and music have always been inextricably combined for Edmonds. He grew up in the Midwest, the second youngest of six boys, and—as he told David Ritz in Essence —“I fell in love almost every day. I fell in love at the drop of a hat. I can remember falling in love as far back as kindergarten.” These episodes of infatuation always had a soundtrack. “When I was falling in love with love, I was also falling in love with melody. [Soul superstar] Stevie Wonder’s melodies, [British pop icons] the Beatles’ melodies—any pretty melody might move me. Melodies spoke to me about the state of my own heart.”
At a young age he learned guitar. When he was in eighth grade, Edmonds’s father died of lung cancer, leaving his mother to raise her sons alone. At this stage, Edmonds became determined to have a career in music.
While in the ninth grade, Edmonds used this determination to devise a way to meet some of his musical idols. He confided to Jack Baird of Musician that he would phone concert promoters pretending to be his teacher, asking if the musicians would grant his gifted young charge—namely himself—an interview. Civic-minded chart-toppers like the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and funk hit-makers Earth, Wind and Fire agreed, and Edmonds was able to chat with them. Baird theorized that young Babyface made very good mental notes of whatever they divulged and stored them away for later use.
Born Kenneth Edmonds on April 10, 1959, in Indianapolis, IN; son of Marvin and Barbara (a pharmaceutical plant manager) Edmonds; married Denise (divorced, c. 1980s); married Tracey, 1992; children; Brandon, Dylan.
Career: Producer, songwriter, arranger, keyboardist, guitarist, and solo performing and recording artist, late 1970s-; member of groups ManChild, mid-1970s, and the Deele, mid-1980s; with LA. Reid, writer and producer of recordings by the Deele, Shalamar, the Whispers, After 7, Karyn White, Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, Whitney Houston, Paula Abdul, TLC, Boyz II Men, Toni Braxton, and others, 1987-; released debut solo album, Lovers, 1989; Tender Lover, 1989; For the Cool in You, 1993; The Day, 1996; Christmas with Babyface, 1998; Face 2 Face, 2001; co-founded LaFace Records, 1989; co-founded Edmonds Entertainment, 1997.
Awards: (With LA. Reid) songwriter of the year, Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), 1989, 1990, 1991, 1995; double platinum awards, 1990, for Tender Lover, and 1994, for For the Cool in You; Lifetime Achievement Award, NAACP, 1992; ten Grammy awards; American Music Award for favorite male R&B artist, 1995; Trumpet Award, Turner Broadcasting Systems, 1998; Image Award, NAACP, 1998; had a federal highway named in his honor.
Addresses: Home—Beverly Hills, CA,. Record company—Arista Records, 6 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.Fan club-Babyface, 14755 Ventura Blvd., 1-710, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403.
In Indianapolis, Edmonds played in Top 40 bands and then in a funk group called ManChild and another called the Crowd Pleasers. While with ManChild he realized that, as he explained in a Keyboard interview, “the only way I’d really be able to grow in terms of my writing was to pick up keyboards.” In 1981 Edmonds first hooked up with Antonio “LA” Reid, who was performing with a group called the Deele. Edmonds later joined the band, and he and Reid soon began to attract attention. After Dick Griffey, the head of Solar Records, noticed the duo’s producing skills on their own work, the two were enlisted to write and produce for the Whispers and Shalamar. Soon after, they were producing big-name acts like the Jacksons and newcomers like Karyn White, After 7 (featuring two of Edmonds’s brothers and one of his cousins), and Pebbles (who married Reid). The pair’s work with up-and-coming soul crooner Bobby Brown—particularly his hits “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Every Little Step,” both of which were written by Edmonds—helped Edmonds and Reid break through to the next level.
In 1987 Edmonds and Reid went out on their own and began writing and producing independently of Solar Records. Soon they were working with some of the biggest stars in pop, notably Paula Abdul, Whitney Houston, and Sheena Easton. With the exception of R&B stalwarts Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, they had little competition among production duos.
Two years later, in 1989, Edmonds and Reid, with the financial backing of Arista Records, formed the LaFace label to develop and produce talent and make records that Arista would distribute. “With the importance that black music plays in the overall scheme of music,” Reid said in a Grammy; interview, “to not have more successful black owned and operated record companies is really sad. We obviously have the talent and capable executives who help run so many other labels.” The company, based in Atlanta, Georgia, soon attracted an impressive array of talent.
Edmonds and Reid were honored by Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) as songwriters of the year in 1990. They had emerged as two of the biggest players on the music scene, but this didn’t shield them from criticism. In a more delicate assessment, Robert L. Oderschuk of Keyboard called them “craftsmen” rather than “innovators,” citing their commercial savvy at the expense of risk-taking. Musician, noting some more harsh criticism, pointed out that “critic Nelson George castigated the Reid/Edmonds sound as the epitome of homogenized L.A. pop.” Edmonds and Reid fended off claims that such “homogenization” represented an attempt to soften the distinctively African-American traits of the R&B form. “We’re Black artists creating out of a Black bag [of styles and influences],” Edmonds insisted in Essence.
As the decade progressed, the duo launched a number of successful new acts, most notably Johnny Gill, TLC, and Toni Braxton. “With TLC, it was their personalities,” Edmonds told Franklin in Interview. “They gave off the vibe that made you feel, O.K., these kids are stars, and you just needed to put the right music with them and let them go. Toni Braxton auditioned with her sisters, and she just shined. And I thought, ‘I can write for her.’ She can deliver something emotional and get it across. That’s really what I look for—someone who can pull off that emotion.” In Dollars & Sense, Perkins wrote about Edmonds’s nurturing of Braxton’s meteoric rise in pop and R&B: “He signed Braxton to his LaFace label in 1991 and brought her along slowly, giving her a duet (‘Give Us Heart’) before settling in for a debut album. And for that effort, he wrote ‘Breathe Again,’ ‘Seven Whole Days,’ ‘Another Sad Love Song,’ ‘Love Shoulda Brought You Home,’ and ‘You Mean the World to Me,’ all hits that have established Braxton as the industry’s most promising star.”
While writing and producing for other acts as a part of LaFace, Edmonds was also working on his solo career. In 1989 he released his second solo album, Tender Lover, which went double platinum, thanks in large part to singles like the smash hit “Whip Appeal.” The recording’s success, he told Billboard, “was so gradual, and so quiet, that I didn’t realize how well it was doing.” He was equally surprised, he said, by the response of concert audiences when he went on tour with Pebbles before recording the album. “I was blown away by the audience’s reaction,” he said.
The fame that has come with Edmonds’s success has at times been disconcerting. He told Ritz of Essence, “I wish being a public person came easier to me, but I can’t change my character. I can’t betray my privacy.” Edmonds’s self-effacement in interviews has been almost proportional to his huge success. “I don’t call myself a keyboard player,” he claimed in his Keyboard interview. “I’m a writer who uses keyboards to get the songs done. I’m not even close to being a keyboard player.” He evinced similar modesty in Musician: “I don’t claim to be a great vocalist, but I know how to work my voice with its limitations. My talent is I know how to work what I have. It might not always be a picture-perfect performance, but what we look for is the emotion. Sometimes the emotion comes from it being just a pinch sharp or flat.”
Looking back on his quick rise in a business in which many artists struggle for years, Edmonds was philosophical. “I kind of just stumbled into producing,” he told Franklin in Interview. “It was more that I was a writer, and the only way you were going to get your songs done was to do them yourself.” Yet he and Reid synched more than sounds in the studio: “Our musical souls blended,” he told Ritz of Essence. “We shared a similar drive for success.” With Reid programming the drums, Edmonds playing keyboards and guitar and handling most of the backup vocals, their friend Kayo laying down the basslines, and Darryl Simmons providing production assistance, the team developed a distinctive and very influential style. Musician’s Baird wrote, “The core L.A. & Babyface sound has always included spunky electronic textures, explosive percussion and complex, rubbery bass lines, even as it’s changed to stay ahead of an army of imitators.” Oderschuk of Keyboard described the duo’s trademark sound as “built on crystalline [electric piano] Rhodes-like timbres, light but stinging backbeats flicking through layers of gauzy echo, radical scratch-like gating on the snare in upbeat tunes, sparse synthetic strings, lush backup harmonies, an overall delicacy even on dance tracks.”
In 1992 Edmonds, who had been married for three and a half years during his twenties, wed again, this time to Tracey, a model whom he first met at an audition for a part in the “Whip Appeal” video. Edmonds recalled in People, “She didn’t get it because she caught chicken pox.” They later ran into each other and, Edmonds explained in Jet, “It was like a ‘meant to be’ kind of thing.” He and Tracey, who managed Yab Yum Entertainment—a record label and publishing company financed by Sony—lived in Beverly Hills in a French Regency-style mansion. Married life, Edmonds told People’s Preston, had a positive effect on him: “I’m more stable, more confident, and more satisfied. It’s a cool thing to know you have somebody who’s there for you and you’re there for them.”
The 1993 soundtrack to the Eddie Murphy film Boomerang featured a song Edmonds wrote for Boyz II Men called “End of the Road,” which became one of the best-selling singles of all time, eventually breaking Elvis Presley’s record for number of weeks at Number One on the Billboard singles chart, which he had held for decades with “Heartbreak Hotel.” Edmonds told Ken Parish Perkins of Dollars & Sense that “End of the Road” was “a great song. I felt something when I wrote it. But I knew someone out there would be better [as a singer], and that was Boyz II Men. And I was right. They did a terrific job with the song.” In 1995 another Edmonds-produced Boyz II Men hit, “I’ll Make Love to You,” broke the record for number of weeks in the top spot of the charts, this time surpassing Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” which had beaten “End of the Road.”
In 1993, after winning a Grammy Award for producer of the year for the Boomerang soundtrack, Edmonds and Reid dramatically altered the nature of their relationship and the structure of LaFace records. It was widely reported in the press as a split, but Edmonds described their partnership in 1995 to Preston, saying, “We have defined our relationship. He’s an executive, so he deals with the ins and outs of the company. I deal with the creative.” Edmonds was frequently asked about the timbre of his relationship with Reid, after Edmonds essentially took control of the creative end; he responded to Preston, “It was a natural evolution that things would change. At the end of the day, [Reid is] probably one of the most important songwriters of all time.”
Perhaps the most significant reason behind the restructuring of LaFace and the assumption of creative control was Edmonds’s desire to put more effort into his solo career. He predicted in Entertainment Weekly that his solo output would now take up more of his time: “It’s satisfying to see Boyz II Men or Whitney [Houston] singing one of my songs. But I’ve never given my own career as an artist 100 percent. I do wonder if I can turn it into something bigger.”
Edmonds answered that with the release of his third album, For the Cool in You, which was co-produced by Reid. The record went platinum in early 1994. “Babyface continues the nearly forgotten tradition of solo black R&B lover men,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Touré, who generally praised the album despite taking issue with its stylistic conservatism. Chambers noted in Vibe, “The subtle soul man uses his seductive falsetto, passion-over-precision phrasing, and well-timed growls to woo his listeners,” and found the album “a perfect vehicle for his vocal melisma.” And Danyel Smith commented in the New York Times, “[For the Cool in You’s] themes—love and relationships—are commonplace, but the album is not. It is deceptively low-key, a quiet little opus etched from the duo’s [Edmonds and Reid’s] romantic sensibilities.”
The hit single from For the Cool in You was an acoustic guitar-based love song called “When Can I See You,” which the New York Times called “the best cut on the album…. With its acoustic flavor, it sounds like a cross between [folk musician] Tracy Chapman and the British soul singer Tasmin Archer.” Summing up the Edmonds and Reid sound, the Times observed, “Yes, Babyface and L.A. Reid produce mushy souls. No, it isn’t Motown; it’s contemporary rhythm and blues. Rather than actual innocence, there is hope for it. Rather than bouncy tambourines and chirpy background vocal, there are soaring keyboards and profound bass lines.”
Late in 1994 and into 1995, Babyface went on a 27-city sold-out U.S. tour, opening for Boyz II Men, whose popularity, it could be argued, was won in large part by Edmonds’s songwriting. One striking feature of Edmonds’s show was when he brought a woman from the audience onto stage with him and hands her five 100 dollar bills as he sang “As Soon As I Get Home.” Reviewing the San Diego show for the Christian Science Monitor, Yoshi Kato noted: “He sang about treating women right and, after an exchange with a woman from the audience, elicited a roar of approval from the audience. ‘I feel that women demand respect. Rather, I feel that women deserve respect,’ he announced, before inviting the woman to join him on stage. Once in the spotlight and seated atop a stool, she was serenaded and then given $500 dollars to pay her rent.” People asked an Edmonds assistant about this unique promotional tool and was told that it was slated to be done at every one of the 27 shows planned for the tour.
Edmonds’s tour ended in mid-February of 1995, giving him the time to do what he really enjoys: shopping, skiing, and songwriting. Reflecting on his tour, he declared in People, “I’m not like the regular artist who needs that attention, getting on-stage. They need to feel people. That’s not important to me. I feel the people when they buy the records.”
In 1995 Edmonds was recognized for his solo work when he was nominated for five Grammy Awards, including one for best male R&B vocal performance for his 1994 hit “When Can I See You.” At the ceremony held in Los Angeles on March 1st, he was awarded two statues—one for “When Can I See You” and the other for his songwriting efforts on Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You.”
Edmonds next wrote and produced the soundtrack for the 1995 film Waiting to Exhale. Featuring numerous female artists, the album produced several hits—most notably “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” performed by Whitney Houston and Brandy’s “Sittin’ up in My Room.” Yet, despite great commercial success, Jeremy Helligar of People Weekly commented that with this project Edmonds “seems to be overextending himself, trying too hard to give these 15 sister acts something to say.”
The Day, Edmonds’s fourth solo album, was released in 1996. Several artists contributed to the album, including Stevie Wonder, Kenny G, and Eric Clapton. Edmonds’s duet with Wonder, “How Come, How Long,” lamented domestic abuse. “The Day (That You Gave Me a Son)” chronicled his feelings about the day his son, Brandon, was born. David Browne of Entertainment Weekly called the album Edmonds’s “most cohesive and confident work…. a sumptuous blend of elegance and sensuality.”
In 1997 Edmonds and his wife decided to extend their partnership into the professional realm. The couple formed Edmonds Entertainment, a film production company. Soul Food, executive produced by Edmonds and co-produced by Tracey, was the company’s first film. The film was a hit and the soundtrack went double platinum.
Edmonds Entertainment’s next project, Hav Plenty, was released in 1998, but could not duplicate the success of Soul Food. In 2000, however, with Soul Food the television series airing on Showtime, Edmonds Entertainment had produced another hit. Variety writer Laura Fries called the series “a welcome addition to the ethnically-challenged TV landscape” and praised producers Edmonds and his wife for keeping “the integrity of the story well intact, focusing on the volatile personalities and unique family dynamics.”
Along with fellow Grammy-winning songwriters Carole Bayer Sager and David Foster, Edmonds launched Tonos.com in 1999. Described by PR Newswire as “the ultimate digital ‘insider’ music network,” Tonos.com offered music enthusiasts and aspiring musicians an inside look at every aspect of the record business. The site also offered contests for undiscovered talent. First Prize winners in the Composer Lyricist and the Vocalist contests would be flown to Los Angeles where Edmonds and Foster would record and produce a demo for them.
Edmonds then branched out into professional sports in 2000, forming, along with attorney Ken Harris, Edmonds Sports Group. The company would provide agent representation for players from all sports, though it initially focused on signing NFL players. Also in 2000, Edmonds signed a multi-year and multi-record contract with Arista Records.
In 2001 Edmonds released Face 2 Face. This album was an attempt at reinvention. When the first single, “There She Goes,” was released, Arista executive Lionel Ridenour told Entertainment Weekly, “We’re [thinking] nobody is going to believe this is Babyface.” Critics did not respond as positively as Ridenour had hoped. In Entertainment Weekly Craig Seymour called the album “a poorly executed composite intended to appeal to a younger fan base” and “a monstrous waste of talent and time.”
Many have hailed Edmonds the next Quincy Jones. And no wonder. With so many multi-media irons in the fire, from his work as a recording and film executive to his artistry as a singer and songwriter, Edmonds has, according to Variety, “parlayed his success into a diversified entertainment conglomerate.” Edmonds has accomplished all this by following a simple philosophy: “The whole idea,” he told Variety, “is whatever you do, have fun with it, try to make sure that it’s quality, and something you don’t mind putting your name on.”
With the Deele
Street Beat, Solar/Epic, 1984.
Material Thangz, Solar/Epic, 1985.
Eyes of a Stranger, Solar/Epic, 1987.
Lovers, Solar/Epic, 1989.
Tender Lover, Solar/Epic, 1989.
For the Cool in You, Epic, 1993.
The Day, Epic/Legacy, 1996.
Christmas with Babyface, Epic, 1998.
Babyface: A Collection of His Greatest Hits, Epic, 2000.
Face 2 Face, Arista, 2001.
Who’s Who Among African Americans, 13th ed., Gale, 2000.
Billboard, December 1, 1990; June 15, 1991; August 28, 1993; March 26, 1994; May 27, 1995.
The Business Journal Serving Charlotte and the Metropolitan Area, October 6, 2000.
Christian Science Monitor, January 17, 1995.
Dollars & Sense, September/October 1994. Ebony, May 1995.
Entertainment Weekly, September 10, 1993; November 1, 1996; April 13, 2001; September 14, 2001.
Essence, September 1990.
Grammy, December 1992.
Interview, March 1994. Jet, July 16, 1990; March 14, 1994; May 8, 1995.
Jet, October 13, 1997; April 16, 2001.
Keyboard, November 1990.
Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1993.
Musician, October 1990; March 1994.
Newsweek, January 16, 1995.
New York Times, August 5, 1993.
People, January 23, 1995; February 27, 1995; May 8, 1995.
People Weekly, December 11, 1995.
PR Newswire, November 3, 1999; October 19, 2001.
Rolling Stone, October 28, 1993; December 1, 1994.
Upscale, June 1994.
Variety, June 26, 2000; November 13, 2000.
Vibe, September 1993; December 1993; September 1995.
All Music Guide, http://allmusicguide.com.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Epic Records publicity materials, 1993.
—Simon Glickman, Jim Henry, and Jennifer M. York