Music producer, singer, 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 "L.A." 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 was given the nickname Babyface by guitarist Bootsy Collins, has also pursued a successful career as a solo recording artist.
Edmonds grew up in the Midwest, the second youngest of six boys, and learned guitar at a young age. 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 his 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 own music teacher, asking if the musicians would grant his gifted young charge—namely, himself—an interview. Baird theorized that young Babyface made very good mental notes of whatever the promoters divulged, and stored them away for later use.
Met L.A. Reid
In Indianapolis, Edmonds played in Top 40 bands. He then played in a funk group called ManChild and in another called the Crowd Pleasers. In 1981 Edmonds first hooked up with Antonio "L.A." 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 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. Soon they were working with some of the biggest stars in pop, notably Paula Abdul, Whitney Houston, and Sheena Easton. 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. 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. Robert L. Oderschuk of Keyboard called them "craftsmen" rather than "innovators," citing their commercial savvy at the expense of risk-taking. Edmonds and Reid fended off claims that their music 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.
Second Solo Album A Success
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 came with Edmonds's success was at times disconcerting. He told 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. He told 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."
Looking back on his quick rise in the producing end of the business, Edmonds was philosophical. "I kind of just stumbled into producing," he told 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. 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.
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. He and Tracey, who managed Yab Yum Entertainment, a record label and publishing company financed by Sony, soon moved to Beverly Hills.
For the Record …
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 (dirvorced, 2005); children: Brandon, Dylan.
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 L.A. Reid, writer and producer of recordings by the Deele, Shalamar, the Whispers, After 7, Karyn White, Bobby Brown, and many others, 1987–; released debut solo album, Lovers, 1989; Tender Lover, 1989; cofounded LaFace Records, 1989; For the Cool in You, 1993; The Day, 1996; cofounded Edmonds Entertainment, 1997; released Christmas with Babyface, 1998; Face 2 Face, 2001; Grown and Sexy, 2005.
Awards: Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), songwriter of the year (with L.A. Reid), 1989, 1990, 1991, 1995; double platinum awards for Tender Lover, 1990, and For the Cool in You, 1994; NAACP, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1992; ten Grammy Awards; American Music Award for favorite male R&B artist, 1995; Turner Broadcasting Systems, Trumpet Award, 1998; NAACP, Image Award, 1998; had a federal highway named in his honor.
Addresses: Record company—Arista Records, 6 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019. Website—Babyface Official Website: http://www.babyfacemusic.com.
Boomerang Soundtrack a Hit
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." In 1995 another Edmonds-produced Boyz II Men hit, "I'll Make Love to You," broke the record for number of weeks at 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. He told Preston, "It was a natural evolution that things would change."
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 released his third album, For the Cool in You, which was co-produced by Reid, and 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.
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." 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." Late in 1994 and into 1995, Babyface went on a 27-city sold-out American tour, opening for Boyz II Men.
Recognized Again at Grammys
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 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. David Browne of Entertainment Weekly called the album Edmonds's "most cohesive and confident work … a sumptuous blend of elegance and sensuality."
Formed Film Production Company
In 1997 Edmonds and his wife Tracey 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, Edmonds Entertainment produced another hit with Soul Food, the television series airing on Showtime. 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."
Edmonds then branched out into professional sports in 2000, forming, along with attorney Ken Harris, the Edmonds Sports Group. The company planned to provide agent representation for players from all sports, though it initially focused on signing NFL players. Also in 2000, Edmonds signed a multiyear 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."
The following year marked a new project, a collaboration with playwright David E. Talbert, who wrote Love Makes Things Happen; Edmonds provided the music and lyrics for the play. Talbert told Lori Talley in Back Stage West that Edmonds was "so in tune with emotions. He immediately zoned in on the moments of the songs that would fit." Edmonds told Talley that the project "could be opening a door for future plays [and could] potentially be a new place of work for other musicians and artists."
In 2005 Edmonds released Grown and Sexy, described as "adult, ultra-romantic R&B" by Chuck Arnold in People. Steve Jones wrote in the Detroit News that the album "delivers slow jams and easy grooves that appeal to the cool in you." Also in 2005, Edmonds teamed up with producers Scott Stone and Sharon Levy to create a reality show that would follow aspiring musical acts as they progressed through a career-boosting bootcamp led by Edmonds. Called ReMIX, the show would feature live performances by the acts. His marriage to second wife Tracey ended that year as well.
Many have hailed Edmonds the next Quincy Jones. With so many multimedia 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."
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.
Grown and Sexy, Arista, 2005.
With the Deele
Street Beat, Solar/Epic, 1984.
Material Thangz, Solar/Epic, 1985.
Eyes of a Stranger, Solar/Epic, 1987.
Who's Who Among African Americans, 13th ed., Gale, 2000.
Back Stage West, May 2, 2002, p. 2.
Billboard, December 1, 1990; June 15, 1991; August 28, 1993; March 26, 1994; May 27, 1995.
Christian Science Monitor, January 17, 1995.
Daily Variety, February 24, 2005, p. 1.
Ebony, May 1995; December 2001, p. 74.
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; October 13, 1997; April 16, 2001; September 17, 2001, p. 58.
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; August 15, 2005, p. 43.
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.
"Babyface," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (October 11, 2005).
"Review: Babyface, Grown and Sexy," Detroit News, http://www.detnews.com/2005/cdreviews/0509/06/F09-262613.htm (September 8, 2005).
Genre: R&B, Pop
Best-selling album since 1990: For the Cool in You (1993)
Hit songs since 1990: "For the Cool in You," "When Can I See You," "Every Time I Close My Eyes"
As a guiding force behind the hit recordings of artists such as Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men, Toni Braxton, and Madonna, Kenneth Edmonds—known professionally as "Babyface"—became one of the most recognizable and distinctive producers of the 1990s, his smooth but engaging sound bridging the gap between pop and R&B. Babyface's success as a producer has often threatened to obscure his considerable performing talents. While his solo recordings have not scaled the commercial heights of his outside productions, they are consistent, solid examples of contemporary R&B, plush enough for relaxed listening but musically challenging and complex.
From Funk to Stardom
Raised in the Midwestern city of Indianapolis, Indiana, Edmonds began playing guitar and keyboards in local rhythm and blues bands as a teenager. In the mid-1970s he worked with famed soul and funk artist Bootsy Collins, who jokingly nicknamed the young performer "Babyface" because of his handsome, boyish appearance. After spending the late 1970s performing with Manchild, an R&B and funk band, Babyface formed the group the Deele with fellow artist Antonio "L.A." Reid. The pair continued to work together during the 1980s, producing records for R&B group the Whispers and pop singer Sheena Easton before forming the LaFace label in 1989.
Babyface's solo album Tender Lover (1989) features the hit singles "It's No Crime" and "Whip Appeal," but its success was soon eclipsed by his excellent work for others. On hits such as Madonna's "Take a Bow" (1994) and Boyz II Men's "End of the Road" (1993), Babyface displays an unerring ability to bring out the best in his artists, highlighting their vocal strengths in productions that, for all their slickness, retain an aura of warmth. Occasionally his work crossed the line into bland, overly arranged pop, but even his most ornate creations were saved by a solid underlying groove. As the 1990s progressed Babyface became known for his intuitive, sensitive work with female performers, through capturing the personality and vocal contours that made them unique. These strengths are evident in one of his finest works, the soundtrack to the film Waiting to Exhale (1995).
In the 1990s Babyface found time to record his own albums, although due to his busy production schedule they came at intervals of several years. While his voice is rather modest in terms of range and quality, he showcases it to great advantage within the context of his recordings. For the Cool in You (1993) is a high point in his solo career, its title track a successful blend of breezy jazz and pop. Unlike more aggressive performers such as R. Kelly and D'Angelo, Babyface shuns sexual explicitness in favor of old-fashioned romance, wooing his lover with gentle pleas and a soft voice. "When Can I See You," a tender ballad built upon Babyface's acoustic guitar playing and sweet vocal, augurs the smooth style of late 1990s performers such as Maxwell.
After a three-year hiatus Babyface returned with The Day (1996), an album featuring well-crafted ballads such as "Every Time I Close My Eyes." Despite its quality, The Day was a commercial disappointment, perhaps because Babyface by this point was better known in the eyes of the public as a producer. After another long break, Babyface released Face2Face (2001), one of his most satisfying efforts. With assistance from the hot production team the Neptunes, Babyface achieves a new sonic toughness without sacrificing the gentle, approachable quality for which he is known. Recalling his early years as a funk performer, "Outside In/Inside Out" pulsates with a hard, steady groove, one of the deepest he has put on record. The hit single "There She Goes" is pushed along by an insidious, affecting synthesizer riff, while the reflective ballad "What If " builds gradually to a climax in which vocals and orchestration merge in a rich canvas of sound. Elsewhere on the album Babyface delves into varying musical styles with successful results. The supple horn lines and deep-sounding organ of "I Keep Calling" suggest the churchy influence of southern gospel music, while "How Can U Be Down" features a swaying jazz rhythm upon which Babyface applies an off-hand, relaxed vocal. Overall, critics found Face2Face to be a compelling summation of Babyface's talents, wide-ranging yet personal and heartfelt.
In his work with Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Madonna, and others, Babyface has crafted some of the most consistently appealing music in contemporary pop and R&B. While his low-key voice could not be described as powerful, Babyface imbues his own recordings with warmth and intelligence, creating albums layered with technical assurance and imagination.
Spot Light: Waiting to Exhale
In 1995 Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds was hired to score and write songs for a film version of author Terry McMillan's best-selling 1992 novel, Waiting to Exhale (1995), about four young African-American women dealing with the challenges of love and friendship. Respected for his talents in capturing the warmth and vitality of the female voice, Babyface conceived the project as a showcase for a range of great R&B women, from legends such as Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle to younger performers such as Mary J. Blige. After watching a rough version of the film, Babyface began writing songs and matching them to each artist according to her vocal qualities. The results are exhilarating: Aretha Franklin's performance on "It Hurts Like Hell" smolders with a lifetime of tough knowledge and pain. On "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" 1990s superstar Whitney Houston exhibits a new soulfulness, while 1970s and 1980s star Chaka Khan proves her skills as a jazz singer on a fiery rendition of the popular standard, "My Funny Valentine." For relative newcomer Mary J. Blige, Babyface wrote "Not Gon' Cry," a bluesy song that Blige performs with a vocal bite and acuity absent in her previous work. Taken as a whole, Waiting to Exhale is a testament to the ongoing vitality of the female tradition in R&B and an artistic peak in Babyface's career.
Tender Lover (Solar/Epic, 1989); For the Cool in You (Epic, 1993); The Day (Epic, 1996); Face2Face (Arista, 2001). Soundtrack: Waiting to Exhale (Arista, 1995).