Born Kenneth Edmonds, c. 1958, in Indianapolis, IN;
As half of the R&B production team of L.A. and Babyface, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds--according to Gordon Chambers of Vibe--"is clearly an architect of today's black pop scene." Together with longtime friend and collaborator Antonio "L.A." Reid, Edmonds helped forge the smooth R&B sound that has dominated the charts since the late 1980s, writing and producing hit records for Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Paula Abdul, Boyz II Men, TLC, Toni Braxton, and many others. 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 has also pursued a successful career as a solo artist. Calling himself a "hesitant artist" in an Essence interview with David Ritz, Edmonds has parlayed his passionate vocals, elegant, shy manner, and matinee-idol looks into platinum sales. For his part, he told legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin in a phone conversation transcribed in Interview, "I like to think I write romantic songs that affect people strictly in the heart, which is my only concern. I don't look to save the world."
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 Ritz--"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, 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. And while he was still an adolescent, Edmonds lost his father, leaving his mother to raise her sons alone. 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 hitmakers 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.
In Indianapolis, Edmonds played in Top 40 bands and then in a funk group called ManChild. While in the latter ensemble 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." It was in the Cincinnati group the Deele, however--formed with his friend Reid--that Edmonds first got noticed. 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, not to mention newcomers Karyn White, After 7 (featuring two of Edmonds's brothers and one of his cousins) and Pebbles (who married Reid). Their 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. Soon they were writing for and producing some of the biggest stars in pop, notably Paula Abdul and Whitney Houston. With the exception of R&B stalwarts Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, they had little competition among production duos.
Franklin in their Interview dialogue. "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 declared to 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 that "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." Robert L. 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."
During this time Edmonds was also tasting his first success as a solo performing artist, as his 1989 album Tender Lover went double-platinum, thanks in large part to singles like the smash hit "Whip Appeal." The recording's success, he told a Billboard interviewer, "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, though he confided to Ritz of Essence that "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."
LaFace, which would develop and produce talent and make records that its parent company, Arista, would distribute. "With the importance that black music plays in the overall scheme of music," Reid opined 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 itself in Atlanta, and 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, although this didn't shield them from criticism, some of it delicate (Oderschuk called them "craftsmen" rather than "innovators," citing their commercial savvy at the expense of risk-taking) and some harsh: Musician noted that "Critic Nelson George castigated the Reid/Edmonds sound as the epitome of homogenized L.A. pap." The pair 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 addition, LaFace scooped a number of larger labels in obtaining the opportunity to release the soundtrack album to the movie Boomerang, starring Eddie Murphy. The album's single "End of the Road," written by Edmonds and performed by Boyz II Men, won a Grammy.
In 1992, Edmonds, who had been married for a brief period during his twenties, wed again. Tracey Edmonds was a model who auditioned for the "Whip Appeal" video, and when the couple met again at a later date, Edmonds explained in Jet, "It was like a 'meant to be' kind of thing." Having begun this new partnership, however, Edmonds elected to end--or at least scale back--his longtime relationship with Reid.
Just after earning a Grammy for producer of the year for the Boomerang soundtrack, the two decided to go their separate ways, a move that first reached the press in rumor form before a formal announcement in 1994. "You don't want anyone to have preconceived notions that because you did it as a team that it can't be done separately," Edmonds insisted in Jet. "It's still about music. It's not really that different. I'm just bouncing things off myself at this point." Edmonds and Reid vowed to work together on LaFace, but the former told Entertainment Weekly that his solo output would now take up more of his time: "It's satisfying to see Boyz II Men or Whitney 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's second album, 1993's For the Cool in You--co- produced by Reid--turned his career into something bigger when it went platinum in early 1994. "Babyface continues the nearly forgotten tradition of solo black R&B lover men," wrote Rolling Stone's Toure, who generally praised the album despite taking issue with its stylistic conservatism. Chambers of Vibe noted that "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." Edmonds announced in Jet his plans to produce an album by R&B veteran El deBarge. Happy with his home life, he appeared poised to conquer more frontiers of the pop world. "I feel settled, comfortable," he remarked, adding "God blessed me. I don't know why. I'm just blessed. There's no particular magic involved."