A voice rises from Severn

December 08, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

When Toni Braxton was a little girl growing up in Severn, her brother would always tell her that she sounded like a famous R&B singer. Unfortunately, it wasn't a singer she particularly wanted to sound like.

"My brother used to call me Barry White," she says, laughing.

Braxton, it seems, has always had a deep voice. "I'm a true contralto," she explains, over the phone from a Nashville hotel. "When I was younger, my voice was lower. As I've gotten older, for whatever reason, it's gotten higher."

Not a great deal higher, mind, but enough to deep-six the Barry White comparisons.

If she's being compared to anyone these days, it's Anita Baker, whose slow-and-sultry love songs seem to have paved the way for Braxton's out-of-the-box success.

Her debut album, "Toni Braxton," shot into the charts within weeks of its release and has been in the Top 20 of Billboard's album charts for months.

So far, she's put two singles into the Top 10 ("Breathe Again" is the current resident), and already has a third prospective hit -- "Seven Whole Days" -- waiting in the wings.

All in all, it's been an almost storybook saga, right down to the lucky break that set her on the road to success.

Singing started early

Braxton grew up in Severn, a preacher's kid with one brother and four sisters. "My mom, she's an amateur opera singer," says Braxton.

"She taught my sisters and myself the theory of music, and we applied it, I guess, in church, because my dad's a minister. We would sing in church all the time, sing in the choirs, and I would play the piano. So that's kind of how we'd learn."

As such, she doesn't credit the local scene around Severn with having influenced her much. "If I was in Seattle, I think I would have gotten the same training," she says. But she does admit that being in Severn was what led to her getting signed.

"I was on my way to school one day, and I ran into this guy named Bill Pettaway." Although he often spent his mornings pumping gas at the Forest Drive Amoco station in Annapolis, Pettaway was already a fixture on the local music scene. His credits include co-writing the Milli Vanilli hit "Girl You Know It's True."

Pettaway introduced Braxton to Ernesto Phillips, a Crownsville native who was building a reputation as a producer and talent scout. Phillips had gotten his start in the business through Starpoint, a band he and his brothers put together in the early '80s (they made the Top 40 in 1985 with "Object of My Desire"), so when he found out that Braxton sang with her sisters, he decided to shop the whole group.

A low-profile debut

The Braxtons, as they called themselves, did get a deal, but not much happened with their debut. Then Toni was offered a solo deal by LaFace, a custom label then being assembled in Atlanta by producersL.A. Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds.

"They had just signed TLC, a female group," Braxton recalls. "My sisters and I, we did a showcase for them, and they said, 'Geez, we just signed a female group. We think you girls are bad. However, we need to concentrate on developing the company first, and we can't sign too many of a particular type of act.'

"They were looking for female artists, so they offered it to me. I talked to my sisters. They said, 'You go do your thing, you break the ice. You break your name through, and then you can bring us through.' So I'm trying to do that. Whenever I do television shows like Jay Leno or Arsenio, my sisters are always there. As a matter of fact, they're going to sign a deal right now."

'Real side of love'

As for L.A. and Babyface, Braxton barely has superlatives enough to describe the value of their input. "I told them that I wanted the songs to talk about love -- the real side of love, not the corny side that you read about or see on television," she explains.

"That's kind of how they came up with the songs. Basically, they wrote for that purpose. One song, 'Another Sad Love Song,' they got from their catalog. It was just one of those songs that they had. I happened to hear it, and said, 'Guys, that's a great song.' They were like, 'Really? You like it?' " She laughs.

"But the other songs that they wrote, they wrote especially for me."

Nor is she worried by reports that her production team is splitting up. "As a producing team outside from LaFace Records, I don't think they're doing anything together," she says. "However, for LaFace Records, they're still doing things together."

In fact, she hopes to start work with them on her next album in March.

"I guess it's a blessing for me as an artist, because I still get the great team," she says.

In the meantime, Braxton is on her first tour, learning the ropes while opening for Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. It hasn't been an easy start, especially since she picked up a nasty cold only a few days into the tour, but Braxton refuses to complain.

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