Heartthrob At Home

Singing at 1st Mariner Arena to a screaming crowd, once just a sweet dream, brings a welcome feeling for Baltimore-born Mario.

January 09, 2003|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

All through the arena, thousands of women and girls are waving their hands in the air, clutching their hearts and bobbing up and down to the thumping music beats. But, mostly, they are screaming.

The object of their attention is a lithe young man with sleek cornrows, a sparkling heartthrob smile and beautiful bedroom eyes complete with long dark lashes. As he paces the stage, seducing the crowd with a teasing grin and crooning the hit single "Braid My Hair," the girls below start singing along, some closing their eyes as they mouth the words by heart.

"C'mon and braid my hair, back in my 'hood, feelin good ... "

Singer Mario is all of 16, but this, apparently, is the type of welcome he gets these days whenever he returns to his 'hood, Baltimore.

Mario was born Mario Barrett to a single mother in Baltimore who spotted his singing talent early, bought him a karaoke machine and signed him up for talent shows all across the city. As a child, the Bedford Elementary School student stood on high school stages, belting out ballads for local judges until one day, a talent scout walked in and arranged a fateful meeting with executives at J Records, who signed Mario almost immediately.

In the past year, he's sung Stevie Wonder at a Grammy party - before Stevie Wonder himself - released an album that's sold more than 500,000 in the United States, and had two popular singles with a third to be released this month. Once, Mario dreamed of making an album, of standing in the Baltimore Arena with a crowd before him chanting "Mario! Mario! Mario!"

Now, he gets to live it.

"I love it," he gushes backstage after his Friday appearance at the 105.7 FM Holla-Day Xplosion at 1st Mariner Arena, formerly Baltimore Arena. "Oh man, being at home at the arena, a lot of people don't get the chance to do the things that I'm doing. I just feel so blessed."

But this is just the beginning. Since his album made its debut less than a year ago, his catchy songs - including a remake of Biz Markie's "Just a Friend" - have impressed several industry observers.

A People magazine reviewer noted, "He shows potential as a composer, cowriting two songs, and he proves himself worthy of two tunes cowritten by his Grammy-winning labelmate Alicia Keys." USA Today highlighted the "mature-for-his-age voice that sets him apart from the pack." And he's been likened to such R&B stars as Usher and Joe.

"He's definitely a lot more talented than a lot of the younger artists coming out now," said Elizabeth Mendez Berry, assistant music editor of Vibe magazine. "He has an unusually mature voice, and there's a range there and a suppleness that indicates to me that he has the capacity to grow as an artist. His subject matter just has to catch up to him."

So far, while many of his counterparts and younger starlets have made strong debuts with potty-mouthed or suggestive, posturing lyrics (like Lil Romeo's "I got grown women wanna be in my life, by the time I'm 18 I'm not gon be nothin' nice") Mario mostly has stuck with sweet, almost old-fashioned lyrics about everlasting love and wooing girls. (Although, there are some suggestive nuances to "Braid My Hair" - "Do it anyway you want, baby take it slowly ... I can't wait for you to braid my hair.")

"I felt like, on the first album, people should do whatever their type of music is to let people know who they are as an artist," says Mario, who already sports the requisite bling-bling symbols of any successful R&B artist - 2-carat diamond studs in each ear and a diamond-encrusted pendant that's larger than a quarter. (Asked about his watch - its face filled with tiny diamonds - he grins and says, "You should see my other watch.")

"Bobby Brown, Don't Be Cruel," he adds. "That's the type of vibe I was looking for. I just like the energy of his music."

While Mario says he hopes his next album - tentatively scheduled for release by spring - will be more of a "party-type album to make people bump," his soulful voice seems to wrap around big ballads most easily.

In a sound check before his Friday concert, Mario takes a break from his set of fast songs, grabs the mike and croons, "I see us in the park, Strolling the summer days of imaginings in my head ... "

For the next few minutes, the room is still, with dancers and technicians pausing in the dark as his honeyed, warm voice fills the air with the Wonder classic "Knocks Me Off My Feet."

When Mario first began singing, this was the type of song he loved. As a toddler, his mother was upstairs in their Pikesville home when she heard what she thought was the radio.

"I walked down the steps and when we got there, I said `Oh my god, that's Mario singing,'" Shawntia Hardaway recalls. "My friend said, `Oh, Shawn, that's the radio,' and I said, `No, it's my baby. It's Mario!'"

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