The Indy R&B legend comes full circle
A simple glance at Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds’ categorized accomplishments easily turns into an eye-opening examination.
There are 10 Grammys; millions of album sales, including three platinum records; four No. 1 R&B singles; and a slew of production and songwriting credits with the likes of Eric Clapton, Whitney Houston, Madonna and Michael Jackson.
In other words, too many names for the Indianapolis native to pick a favorite.
“There’s so many artists I’ve been able to work with, and it was such a privilege and honor, that it’s just too big of a list,” Edmonds says. “I’ve met a whole lot of cool people, definitely a lot of people I’ve been inspired by, as well. It wouldn’t be fair for me to try.”
The same goes for all the songs he’s written. When that archive includes such R&B classics as “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” by Whitney Houston, “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men and damn near every hit by Bobby Brown — even “Take a Bow” by Madonna, Eric Clapton’s “Change the World” and recent chart-makers by Fall Out Boy — well, it’s understandable.
“I could just tell you the highlights of my career have been working with Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton [and] having a chance to meet Paul McCartney — getting to work with him a little bit,” Edmonds says. “There’s a lot of people, when I was growing up [who inspired me that I later worked with], like Aretha Franklin. Once I start down that list, it’s hard not to mention a name.”
Such a track record had to start with a spark of inspiration. Babyface reveals it with his ninth solo disc, Playlist. The album contains two new compositions and covers of ’70s radio classics like James Taylor’s “Shower the People” and “Fire and Rain,” Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer” and “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce — all imbued with Edmonds’ lush arrangements and intrinsic soul.
“I wanted to do a record that’s part of my DNA, I like to think,” he says. “It’s music I listened to growing up, and it made me want to play acoustic guitar to begin with. That was a lot of these artists and a lot of these songs that I listened to in my beginning years. I wanted to pay tribute to that.”
It’s not just the obvious impression of these songs that captured Edmonds’ imagination.
“They gave me a structure in terms of basic guitar — simple chords you play on an acoustic guitar that you wouldn’t normally play in soul music and R&B,” he says. “Then in terms of [being] a writer, [it was the] song structure and learning about the lyrics and melodies. They were definitely a big part in shaping me, and me not even knowing it. But just by learning the songs and listening to them, they became a part of my songwriting as well.”
Edmonds discovered such gems at the perfect time. As a shy, junior high-age kid growing up in Indianapolis, his older brother Melvin introduced him to music.
“He’s the one that first brought a guitar into the house,” Edmonds says. “I saw him playing it and definitely wanted to learn how.”
Sneaking out of church on Sunday mornings to listen to AM radio in the family car introduced him to a larger world. It also taught a shy youth a new way to communicate.
“When I would play the guitar and sing, that’s what kind of came natural,” Edmonds says. “Instead of being talkative as a kid, that kind of was my voice when I would sing starting from sixth grade on.”
Part of the journey
Well-tread history reveals how Edmonds got his famous moniker (funk magnet Bootsy Collins yelling it out when Edmonds entered the same studio for some session work). Somewhat lost in the chronology are Edmonds’ stints in groups Tarnished Silver, Manchild, Crowd Pleaser, April and The Deele — the latter with Antonio “L.A.” Reid. For many, Edmonds’ saga starts when he and Reid formed the R&B label LaFace Records in 1989, giving rise to megastars Toni Braxton and TLC. That streak put him on the path to hit songwriting status.
“It was all just part of the journey, I guess,” Edmonds says of that late-’80s and all-’90s boom. “I look at it all the same in terms of growing up, writing and always being into music. That’s what it’s always been. You just do what you love, and whatever happens, happens.”
But even the most casual observer can’t be that aloof in the face of such triumph. Truthfully, Babyface isn’t either.
“I think, ‘Wow,’ all the time whenever I say the names [of people I’ve worked with],” Edmonds says. “I didn’t grow up thinking that’s what I’m going to do. I just grew up loving music and loving to play it and wanting to do that. But I didn’t know what was in store.”
That makes his Dec. 1 performance at the Madame Walker Theatre all the more sweet.
“When I was growing up, I remember Melvin; he had a group, and he was dying to play in that theater,” Edmonds says. “I don’t think the group made it to that point. But over the years, a number of great performers have been in that theater.”
Babyface’s ultimate calling meant he had to leave home to find success. But he’s never forgotten his roots. Subsequent returns have included performances at the Indiana Black Expo (receiving the first Founder’s Award in 1990) and honors such as a Living Legend award and a 25-mile stretch of Interstate 65 renamed Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds Highway. His first platinum record is on display at his alma mater, North Central High School.
Back here, he may now be Babyface to some, but to most he’s still Kenny Edmonds, which is fine by him. In many ways, returning to Indianapolis is completing a full circle.
“[It] always feels a little surreal to me,” Edmonds says. “I don’t necessarily feel like Babyface. I really just feel like Kenny Edmonds. Playing the music I play and all the things I’ve done, it seems like it doesn’t count as much there — like the rules aren’t the same. I don’t feel the celebrity thing so much. For all that I’ve accomplished, it’s like I become a little boy again. When you see your friends — all those people you went to high school with — you suddenly revert back to your childhood.”
WHAT: Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds
WHERE: Madame Walker Theatre
WHEN: Saturday, Dec. 1, 8 p.m., $55-$80, all-ages