Here and now, Steele is ready to branch out

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

October 09, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Staff

He hopes nobody remembers. And since it wasn't a hit anyway, the man doesn't have a thing to worry about. Thirteen years ago, Terry Steele put out an album, King of Hearts, that attempted to establish him as a black Michael Bolton or something. It was embarrassing, a bad idea. The music was maudlin, his image laughable. The dude had a long perm, wore thick makeup and ugly suits with pins, chains and things. He looked like a young Little Richard.

"Oh my God, why did you bring that up?" Steele says, laughing. He's calling from his production office in Los Angeles. "I had no control over the situation. I was told by the record company what to sing, how to dress. It was a very low period in my life. I felt so uncomfortable."

After King of Hearts disappeared and the record company (SBK) died, Steele had to "get his hustle on." He did his thing behind the scenes, laying down background vocals and writing hits for Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross, for whom he wrote "Here and Now," the crooner's biggest pop hit. He befriended the electric soul diva Patti LaBelle and worked for her production company for four years. And since '97, he has been the lead singer for Hiroshima, the Japanese fusion band.

But the artist still wants a shot at solo stardom. His new album, Day By Day, is really his first -- a truer reflection of who he is. These days, the perm (thank God!) is gone. Steele sports neat, shoulder-length dreads now. His look is funky bohemian chic, his sound accessible, butter-smooth and organically romantic.

"My career for the past 13 years has gone through a real change," the singer-songwriter says. "The new album, the songs on it, is basically my journey -- how I learned about love, about myself."

Let's get real here: the music business is all about politics, especially in these flash-and-flesh times. Talent? Drive? Yeah, uh-huh, that's nice and all. But who do you know? Who can get you signed? Who will get behind your product and on and on? It's about connections, baby. Steele is a prime example of an artist who's connected behind the scenes -- can get a demo to a producer but can't seem to score a break as a solo act.

"Hey, I went the independent route," says the L.A. native who doesn't divulge his age. "I'm pretty much running my own show: writing the music, producing it, getting distributors and all that."

But, of course, being so brazenly independent in the pop business can be a pain at times.

"You still have to compete with major labels," Steele says. "Getting your songs charted, getting ads in the trades, the money -- all are challenges when you're doing it alone. But all of it has taught me to be a fighter."

Day By Day could easily compete with what the majors put out. Although the record can get a little pedestrian in spots, the overall result is decent. It's the kind of unobtrusive, groove-heavy music you can slip on at a dinner party or after work as you recline in the old La-Z-Boy -- easy melodies, light-soul arrangements, Steele's fluid tenor. He remakes "Here and Now," turning the lush ballad into an intimate acoustic affair. And he duets with his homegirl LaBelle on an intense version of the Stylistics' '70s chestnut, "You Are Everything." On the remainder of Day By Day, Steele keeps things slick and in the relaxed adult-contemporary bag -- the same place where you find Freddie Jackson, Anita Baker, Vandross, Brenda Russell.

To promote the CD, the artist is playing several clubs and festivals in the United States, but the bulk of his dates will be overseas and in South Africa, where he's quite popular. In between his gigs, Steele continues to tour and record with Hiroshima.

As we talk, his office phone rings constantly. "I'm looking to grow more as an artist," he says. "I want to preserve my gift, too. But what's really important -- and Barry White told me this once -- you have to have the show but you have to take care of the business. That's what I'm doing now."

And he excuses himself to answer the phone.

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