Detroit didn't help U.N.V. get its start

August 14, 1993|By Dennis Hunt | Dennis Hunt,Los Angeles Times

Being from Detroit used to be the best thing possible for a soul group. That's where Motown started, and many of its top acts were based there.

Not anymore. For the group U.N.V., whose debut album and single -- both titled "Something's Going On" -- are zooming up the charts, Detroit proved to be a very lonely place.

"We could have quit a lot of times, because you get so incredibly frustrated waiting to get a deal from a major record company," says group member John Rowe. "We felt real isolated because we're from Detroit, which doesn't count for much in the record business anymore."

But then along came another Michigan native by the name of Madonna. U.N.V. is the latest act on Ms. Ciccone's fledgling Maverick label, and the company's first hit.

It was certainly the group's vocals and songs that impressed her and her staff. U.N.V. ranks not too far behind leader Boyz II Men in the silky soul hierarchy, offering remarkably smooth harmonies, sounding like the O'Jays did 20 years ago. Mr. Rowe, his brother Shawn, Demetrius Peete and John "J.C." Clay -- all in their 20s -- share the lead-singing duties, and there's not a weak vocalist among them.

Success, Mr. Rowe said in a recent interview here, is "no real surprise -- we knew the single and the album were real good.

"I don't mean to brag, but we can sing anything. But it's OK to brag alittle because we didn't stumble into this by accident. We've worked very hard for years, getting those harmonies just right, perfecting those songs."

U.N.V., which stands for Universal Nubian Voices, started one summer several years ago with the impromptu musical sessions of Mr. Rowe and Mr. Peete -- a Cleveland native and the only U.N.V. member not from Michigan. College buddies at Ohio's Wilberforce University, they decided to form a group, eventually recruiting Shawn Rowe and Mr. Clay, an alumnus of the Manhattan School of Music.

Songwriting, though, was nearly the group's downfall. "We had beenlooking for a major record deal for a long time but the lack of good songs was holding us back," Mr. Rowe recalls. "But we weren't singing our songs at first. When we started to record our songs -- that's when we got a record deal."

U.N.V.

When: At AFRAM '93, at 9 tonight

Where: Festival Hall, main stage

Admission: $2

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